Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

I'm frankly a little mystified by my own reaction to this book. I am a citizen of the USA who is not blinded to the faults of this country's leaders nor to the ignorance of so many of its citizens. I am awake and aware. So it would seem natural that I would understand how a highly-educated, ambitious Pakistani, living in the U.S., might gradually renounce his country of residence and go to the dark side. I do understand, I believe, why many in the middle east feel anger toward the U.S. Yet my reaction to the tone of this particular narrator was unexpected.

The story is a first-person narrative, in the form of half of a conversation. The narrator is Changez, Pakistani by birth, educated at Princeton and a former Wall Street analyst - who worked for a firm that "values" companies. In other words, a company that decides how much a company is worth and how much it could be worth with some changes.

Changez approaches an apparent American in a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan, and joins him at his table. Changez proceeds to tell his own story, whether his companion is interested or not. We learn very little of this American through the book, as it appears Changez is not all that interested in him.

Changez tells how he acquired a scholarship to Princeton and landed a highly-sought job in an esteemed firm in New York City. He is an excellent analyst, and hee is guided through various jobs by his mentor Jim, who recognizes a hunger and an outsideness in Changez that is familiar to him.

While in Princeton, Changez meets a young woman, Erica, and he is deeply attracted to her. She is beautiful and seems to need company yet stays some distance from others. She accepts Changez into her life on a limited basis and the friendship deepens. She clings to her past, however, to a degree that threatens both of their futures.

While Changez is working his way through an analysis and seeing Erica occasionally, the attacks on Sept 11, 2001 happen. Changez himself experiences some suspicion by others because of his middle-eastern appearance but no overt physical attacks. Erica says maybe we should meet less often - but it is not clear if this is because of her own inner torments or because she does not want to be seen with someone of Changez's complexion. It appears rather to be the former.

We follow Changez through his conversation with this stranger, during which he orders tea, then dinner, then dessert, then picks up the bill. The hours pass slowly and occasionally there are hints that the American is trying to figure Changez out. More, though, the American is suspicious of a large waiter who seems too attentive.

As he tells it, Changez gradually awoke to his complicity with the ugliness of the American way of life - more particularly with the actions of the American government - and finally, in his way, rejected it. What I sensed from his actual words and from between the lines is a condescension toward his companion, and a willingness to generalize about all Americans (in spite of his continuing infatuation with Erica and his positive relationship with his mentor Jim), to equate the deeds of the state with the living flesh of one American.

As I read Changez's account of his work I was reminded of Confessions of an Economic Hit man (my review of this book here). Both men were seduced by careers that involved the destruction of others' careers, but that are not directly connected to those they hurt. It is a certain type of person who is going to be attracted to such careers - a person who loves the perks and the compensations for his work, who likes to exhibit his own wealth to others, and who is capable of justifying his own actions because "if I don't do it someone else will".

There is no doubt this type person is just asking to be hated, and there is no doubt that it would be tempting for a middle-easterner to paint a large segment of the American population with the same brush, to connect (for it is inescapable; there is a connection) the Wall Street analyst with the self-satisfied powerful U.S. government.

There is certainly no doubt that as individuals, in our ignorance and pursuit of our own material wealth, we help solidify this image. So yes, I can see how Changez could develop a deep hatred of our country. And yet I am torn by the image he presents in this book. And I am suspicious that in a way the view is not at all sympathetic to Changez but instead an attempt to explain how it happens, how a promising young Pakistani might pledge to give his own life to make some mark against America. And in that sense, Changez too is a victim of generalization, of a kind of bigotry, by the author - himself a Pakistani graduate of Princeton.


Wendy said...

Judith, This is a wonderful, thoughtful review of the book. I also read this book and found myself feeling conflicted. I believe the author has given us an unreliable narrator here as well...we see generalizations on both sides (Americans toward Pakastanis and vice versa). I thought this book would make a great book group read.

Judith said...

That's a good idea, Wendy, reading this in a group. It really cries out for discussion.