The reluctant fundamentalist is a strange and powerful little book. It’s clearly got some autobiographical elements in it, and because of that has manage to net some darting fishes of life that jump and flash and look up from their prison wondering what will happen to them. But the fisherman, Mohsin Hamid, has a heart, and won’t kill them; on the opposite, he’s willing to let them go back to their immense liquid world after he’s used their magic. So the reader watches this magic operate, and marvels at the freshness of the scenes, the clarity of the feelings, the truth of the colours. So gentle is this fisherman – or perhaps one should say, this fish breeder, because the little wild fishes he has caught grow and develop as we read – that his creatures perform what he wants them to do: they recognize his respect, they let themselves be tamed by him.
They even love their net! What is the net? Mohsin Hamid’s first person monologue, sustained continuously from first to last page, whereas he’s supposed to be in a conversation with his interlocutor. That’s it, he’s engaged in a 200 page-long conversation with an unknown American visitor, to whom he’s telling the story of his life, and never makes this other person intervene. It’s sometimes artificial, because he’s not always very good at reformulating the other person’s remarks or reactions, so as to make them originate from his own logorrhoea; instead they sometimes turn out to be clumsy repetitions, and one wonders why he hasn’t wanted us to hear the other person’s voice! Well, that’s the book’s main trick. Who is Changez’s interlocutor? The question gathers momentum during the conversation; we feel the urge to hear him, to know his identity, his name, his purpose: we will be denied this relief.
On the other hand we know lots about Changez, the young Pakistani Princeton graduate who, now back in Lahore, tells his guest about his time in America, how he has brilliantly succeeded in his studies, was singled out among smart rivals and gets hired by one of the most prestigious New York finance companies. Changez, says his all-powerful mentor Jim, is a shark, he never ceases to swim, he’s constantly on the alert, and possesses tremendous powers of concentration and dedication. At 22, after a stupendous University record, he’s landed in the fiercely competitive waters of corporate New York, and he’s beaten all the natives, all the WASPs. They look at him with a mixture of disdain and envy, but he’s such a winner that his difference is disregarded in cosmopolitan New York. He feels at home there, in fact.
The café conversation with the unnamed American also rolls on about Changez’s girlfriend, a lovely young Princeton graduate (I’d almost like to write “Princess”), with whom he goes to Greece that summer after they’ve all got their diplomas. She’s called Erica, and she’s a stunner, always surrounded by a crowd of admirers. But our young hero manages somehow to attract her attention, because he’s quieter, and she’s got a secret tragedy in her life that needs an attention which ordinary boyish physical adulation doesn’t or can’t give her. But she feels drawn to our young exile; his shyness, his gentleness win her slowly over. Back in New York, he learns she’s grieving the loss of her childhood boyfriend, who died from cancer. This death has shaken her so much that she’s under medication, and cannot commit; she needs friendship, not love.
When we open “The reluctant fundamentalist” we are told of the importance of the narrator’s beard. He tries to ward off his listener’s alarm – says he – at seeing his beard. It must be some beard! We are in Lahore, Pakistan: so he’s a Muslim. In short, he’s our fundamentalist. But why reluctant? Does this reassure us? He says he “loves America”: not very reassuring. Yet, little by little, we do feel reassured. We are reassured by his story, by his character. One as much as the other, because confessing such a lengthy story shows a trust and a natural generosity which cannot but make us trust him in return. Changez may be a chatterbox, but he’s a believer in the power of words as a promoter of peace and confidence among peoples. Is his interlocutor’s silence a sign that this belief isn’t shared? What is sure, at any rate, is that because of his confession, we understand better what it is to be a “fundamentalist”. Changez is anything but what we would normally call a fundamentalist: a bigoted, short-sighted, intolerant ranter who cannot understand that humanity is plural and should remain thus. Fundamentalists never change: but he’s called “Changez”.
But in fact this “fundamentalist” has learnt fundamentalism in America, where his company’s creed was to “concentrate on the pursuit of fundamentals”. These fundamentals are the firm’s overriding demand for efficiency and professionalism. So Mohsin Hamid makes it quite clear that we aren’t necessarily looking in the right direction when we turn our minds East, thinking of fundamentalism. A certain form of blind belief is involved in devoting all your energy in making sure American firms are the best and the most profitable of the planet. These white bright things are utterly convinced they are the best, they’re convinced they’re on a mission, that of intelligence and superiority, and that nothing less than total dedication is necessary if they want to justify their top-level recruitment. And all that is done in the name of a hidden God, the God of profitability and sound Finance.
September 11, 2001 is the turning point in Changez’s narrative. Everything changes for him as from that date. First it makes his envied position as a shark in the high-flying NYC firm look more like a dartboard: being a Pakistani in post 9-11 New York wasn’t exactly a way to promote open multiculturalism. He starts getting bad looks, then threats and even if he’s protected by his bosses, it’s hard to fight against those “fundamentals”. Then things deteriorate with Erica. For her, the national disaster reactivates her own drama: death is again very close, and her depression worsens. They try to protect their budding love, but the forces within her are too strong, she drifts away from him, and is placed in an institution. Changez’s family at home in Pakistan tell him about the risks of war against the old arch-enemy, India, and he’s shocked to realize that the US are pulling the strings in the back. This is too much for him: here he is, working his ass off for a country that’s planning to bomb his country’s neighbours, and perhaps his very family! He slowly understands some fundamentals are wrongly positioned.
But it isn’t that simple. Because everything he’d fought for so far had become his pride, his happiness, and his sense of achievement. He’d been living that goddamn American dream, that’s what. And when America gives, it isn’t with half a heart. He’s become an American, almost. America has been made thanks to guys like him. That’s where its strength comes from. That’s why it’s the world most powerful nation. He has believed in the Dream that all men… etc. America’s life-secret is that the river of kindness and hope has continued to mix its waters to the gigantic materialistic and individualistic estuary. One sign of this: while they’re talking at the café table, a beggar comes up, and our narrator approves the stranger’s principles not to give money to paupers in the street:
“Very wise: one ought not to encourage beggars, and yes, you are right, it is far better to donate to charities that address the causes of poverty than to him, a creature who is merely a symptom. What am I doing? I am handing him a few rupees – misguidedly, of course, and out of habit. There, he offers us his prayers for our well-being; now he is on his way.” (p. 45)
Changez is “reluctantly” doing two opposite things at the same time: rationally encouraging the detachment from visible misery in order to keep his eyes on the wider picture which is that of the long-term solution, and emotionally pitying the real person who needs food, now, so he and his family can eat. This contradictory attitude symbolises his “fundamental” humanity. Because the contradiction is only apparent. The real contradiction is when one gives to be rid of the problem, or when one doesn’t give in order to escape the burn of poverty in a fellow human being, and when one justifies this by building rational excuses. Guys like Changez are the real Americans, those who believe in doing what’s right, those who have pledged their lives for freedom and who have died on the Normandy beaches. But not the rifle-toting, whiter than white, frightened isolationists who vote with their Chevrolet 4WD.
In the fight against America inc., Changez wins the battle: he quits his golden job and returns to the nation where he really belongs, and thus regains a purpose which he had lost somewhere on the line when leaving for the States. He loses (Am)Erica, true, but then she was lost anyway. For me, Erica represents the weak spot in Changez’s strength of character. Not that he’s responsible for that weakness. But she’s the one thing he hasn’t been able to succeed in: she has eluded him, whereas he has succeeded everywhere else, including his indictment of neoliberal USA. Perhaps this failure helps picturing Changez as a less formidable figure; and his suffering and sacrifice brings him closer to us?
June 3rd 2013 addition: here, there's an interesting article by Jabberwock on the Mira Nair version of Hamid's novel.