Wednesday 14 October 2009

Book Review: Mohsin Hamid - The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had heard so much about this book, interviews and reviews in the newspapers and Muslim media and even arguments over it in the blogosphere, so when Long Suffering Sister ordered a copy I was keen to have a read.

The novel opens in Lahore where a young Pakistani man comes across a foreigner at a street café and proceeds, seemingly randomly, to offload his story about his stay in America, studies at Princeton, job at a prestigious company and subsequent fall from grace and return to Pakistan.

The voice of the Pakistani is almost faux naïve, he tells his story openly, picks up on what the foreigner is discreetly doing and watching as if it is being done completely openly. At the same time he takes digs at the foreigner, assumed to be American, indicating that he is completely aware of who he is and why he is there. The tone reminds you very much of a cat playing with a mouse.

From the title I assume that this would be a story of a Pakistani snatched by the authorities, and then forced to suffer all manner of painful indignities leading him to become a radicalised “Angry Young Man”, I spent most of the book wondering what happened to him to change him from a high-flying, champagne-sozzled, suited-and-booted corporate New Yorker to a bearded, shalwar-kameez’ed, seemingly nostalgic and reflective young Pakistani frequenting a café in Old Lahore’s Anarkali bazaar.

The story is interspersed with a gentle love story which moved me…not at all. The protagonist Changez is quite taken by the monied and established Erica although the whole affair, or non-affair more like, seems to chase its tail for a while and then just lie down and die. Although Hamid attempts to portray mental illness in a sensitive and realistic way, honestly, the parts of the novel with Erica just bored me and felt like it was getting in the way of the main storyline.

I also was entirely unconvinced by Changez’s change from a shallow, ambitious young man to a “radicalised” one. I could not see what happened to him to change his mind. We are told that Pakistan is about to go to war with India and that Changez faces racism in New York after 9/11, aside from this he visits Indonesia and South America, where really, nothing much happens that would convince me that he would change so much. So although the contrast and some of the incidents described are interesting ones, I didn’t find them particularly convincing, nor did I find his internal struggles regarding his position as an immigrant very realistic.

That aside, the book cranks up the tension nicely, but then leaves you a little frustrated and annoyed with how it develops.

1 comment:

  1. I read it too.
    Someone gifted it to me, but the story did not develop as I thought and I agree the end is somewhat of a let down.