The Reluctant Fundamentalist
By Mohsin Hamid
Completed January 13, 2008
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an unsettling story of a young Pakistani man, Changez, whose life was impacted by 09/11 and the unstable relationship with his love interest, Erica. Changez was educated at Princeton and recruited by an elite firm upon graduation. He moved to New York City where he could blend in and focus on his work, his friendships and Erica. Changez seemed to tolerate American society well enough until the attacks on 09/11 when he underwent constant scrutiny because he was Muslim. He no longer felt like he could “fit in,” and when the U.S. didn’t support Pakistan against rising escalations with India, his toleration for his host country completely dissipated.
Many reviewers contend that this is a novel about anti-American views after 09/11 and how an educated young man, scorned by the behavior of Americans, become bitter and possibly evolved into a terrorist. While I agree with this contention, I would also argue that Changez was more deeply affected by the mental decline of Erica and his inability to break through her mental illness. Erica was profoundly depressed by the death of her first boyfriend several years ago. She recovered enough to get through Princeton and write her first novel, but the presence of a new lover rocked her gentle stability and reverted Erica to her depressive state. Changez could not compete against the dead lover who still held Erica’s heart, despite all of his best efforts. He eventually conceded to this fact, and in the end, lost Erica forever. Heart-broken and disillusioned about the “American way of life,” Changez became depressed. His broken heart is what pushed Changez “over the edge” – to the point that he could no longer live in America anymore.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a hard story to read because it holds a mirror up to American society – and the mirror does not reflect back a good image. As an American, I agree with Changez’s assessment of my country’s flaws, but in my mind, I continue to counter these points with positive ones. Like anything, we’re good and bad – and far from perfect. Despite my discomfort, I enjoyed this short, suspenseful novel immensely, and I would recommend to any reader who wants more enlightenment on American and Middle Eastern affairs as well as a beautiful account of Pakistan.
(cross-posted from my blog)