The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Once critics have compared your work to Dostoevsky’s, you can safely assume that you have made it in the world of literary fiction. Princeton graduate Mohsin Hamid’s second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist has, within months of publication, garnered an impressive array of accolades. Not only was it one of the hottest titles at this year’s London Book Fair, it has also made it to Barnes & Noble Recommends, and the list goes on. Like his first novel, the critically acclaimed Moth Smoke, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2000, Hamid transforms current issues into the stuff of great fiction through the elegant simplicity of his prose.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a 9/11 novel that explores an issue that has obsessed the West since the Twin Towers fell: the psychology of the people who were responsible for the attack. While books that deal with 9/11 touch upon the ‘fundamentalist’ tangentially, there are few, if any, which get right to the heart of the matter like Hamid’s does. The novel is, in fact, a monologue in the voice of a man who eventually becomes a ‘reluctant fundamentalist’. This man, Changez, is a promising young Princeton graduate from Pakistan whose dreams of making it big in America turn sour when the climate of the nation changes after 9/11. In a swiftly-darkening café in Lahore’s Anarkali, a now-bearded and cynical Changez recounts his story to an American whose constant text-messaging and evident agitation suggest that he is more than just a casual tourist.
The use of monologue in The Reluctant Fundamentalist allows Hamid intimate access to his protagonist’s mind. Not without its limitations, monologue is used here with great effectiveness, particularly in helping to build suspense. Changez’s tone, which is sometimes exaggeratedly polite, sometimes darkly menacing, is laced with the bitter irony of hindsight as he takes his silent interlocutor through the various stages of his disillusionment with the American dream.
Like Hamid’s Daru Shezad in Moth Smoke, Changez is, in some respects, an outsider. While studying at Princeton automatically confers membership to an exclusive club, he is different from his American counterparts. In addition to being Pakistani and, therefore, foreign, he is deeply ashamed of the current state of his family’s finances, which have necessitated his application for foreign aid. When, therefore, the highly competitive valuation firm Underwood Samson hires him, his boss, Jim, recognizes that he is ‘hungry’ and keeps reminding him that they are ‘different’. (Jim also comes from a working-class background.)
For a while, Changez seems to fit right into Underwood Samson’s corporate culture. He quickly rises to the top, becoming Jim’s ‘fair-haired boy’ in a matter of months. The company’s stress on ‘fundamentals’—‘Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time and again’—allows Changez to work on projects with an aggressive single-mindedness that impresses his bosses. In his private life, too, Changez gains entry to New York’s elite through his relationship with Erica, a woman whom he meets on a trip to Greece. However, while away on assignment in the Philippines in September of 2001, the unthinkable happens: there is an attack on the World Trade Center. Changez’s life in America swiftly unravels proving, perhaps, how weak and foundationless it was to begin with.
Changez’s disillusionment with America and Underwood Samson (which some say is a veiled allusion to the United States) is conveyed gradually, the seeds of it planted well before the climax. Even when Changez visits Greece with a group of Princetonians, he wonders ‘by what quirk of human history my companions—many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they—were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as if they were its ruling class.’ After 9/11, however, America itself changes, its people ‘gripped by a growing and self-righteous rage.’ In some respects, much as post-9/11 America yearns for a lost past— an existence free of ‘terror’—Changez’s girlfriend Erica retreats within herself, choosing to live out her fantasies with her dead boyfriend, Chris, instead of facing life as it is.
Hamid’s dissection of the ‘reluctant fundamentalist’ carries with it a not-so-subtle commentary on American neo-imperialism. When Changez is posted on assignment to Chile, he meets Juan-Bautista, who points out the similarities between his position as an employee of an American company and that of the janissaries, Christian boys inducted by the Ottomans into the Muslim army. As Juan-Bautista says, the janissaries ‘were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to.’ In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, therefore, Hamid touches upon a number of urgent issues—global imperialism and its effects on culture, religion, and individual identity, imbalances of power and wealth—making this novel hugely important in the ongoing dialogue between east and west.
Editor’s note: This review is adapted from a review originally published in ‘Herald’, Dawn Group of Newspapers, Karachi, Pakistan.