Then Pakistan nudged me again; I was reminded of the book I'm reviewing here when one of my favorite writers, Jai Arjun Singh (author of the always-interesting blog, Jabberwock), posted an interview with writer Rahul Mehta. In the select list of Mehta's favorite books, along with another of my own favorites, God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, he included The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This gave me a little push (since this blog began - and to an extent, continues - as a collection of my reviews) to include something about that excellent book here.
So from the panoramic view of Pakistani valleys and social classes presented by Bert, we go to the other end of the telescope. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the fictional interior journey of just one upper-class Pakistani into the corresponding American mindset, and then back out again to find his own center. There is a lot of good fiction - and nonfiction - on this theme of mulitiple cultural identities today; it shouldn't be surprising, since for a generation or two, at least, national cultural boundaries have been giving way, all over the world, to the newer economic powers we see as "globalization." Perhaps the familiar fictional theme of immigrants going from one country or culture to another has been morphing for some time now into another kind of fiction that's more reflective of a less national and more global consciousness...
And so this novel's protagonist is from Pakistan, but he comes into the world with some conflict about that country, since his family had fallen on hard times and his own place in Pakistani society is not secure. After he comes to the US he's almost more of an American, in his mindset, than many who were born here, because he takes to our sociopathic economic system (and Establishment college milieu) rather naturally and rises rather comfortably into the realm of the Haves in this society. But then global events force another choice between his old country and his new one. The well-chosen title is typical of the quality of writing here; I really like the layered use the author makes of the word "fundamental," playing the concept of Islamic fundamentalism against the American form of fundamentalism - the business fundamentals of our soulless economic system.
Searching the Internet for the text of my SLJ review (recommending the book to adults and older teens) I noted that the novel has received a lot of critical praise and attention - and apparently it's being made into a movie by the director Mira Nair! That should be interesting. And here's a BBC podcast of an interview with the author. I'm glad to see all this continuing interest in the book, even though it meant that my little SLJ review was harder to find among all the big guys. Here's what I wrote at the time, adding a little elbow room here to the necessarily truncated word-count of the SLJ column format:
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2007)
In a Lahore market, Changez, a Pakistani, is confronting an American spy bent on assassinating him. He manipulates the encounter, seizing the chance to tell his story—and to be heard.
Changez's narrative style (monologue, or perhaps an imagined dialogue) can be distracting, but it clearly reveals his interior world and motivations. He tells of coming from an upper-crust but financially reduced Pakistani family, attending Princeton on scholarship, having a complicated romance with a WASP (a fellow Ivy League student), and triumphantly winning a job with the most elite of New York financial companies.
To succeed there, he must focus on the economic fundamentals of companies targeted for takeover while setting aside any concern about the human suffering his analysis will cause. He's willing to do this, and is very much at home in culturally diverse Manhattan - that is, until 9/11, when everything changes for him.
Then, Changez rebels. As if waving a red flag in front of his Wall Street employers, he grows a beard - but it's in solidarity with his culture of origin, not as an indication of religious fundamentalism. Although he appreciates the opportunities he's been given in the US, he finds he must now reject the role America has been playing in the world - a role his own work, in the financial sector, had been very much a part of until then. Ultimately he returns to Pakistan, where he becomes a popular professor known for activism. And as an activist academic (even though not an advocate of terrorism) Changez is now, in America's official view, an enemy.
Multiple culture shocks over a short space of time have shaken this intense young man's life, and his journey is fast-moving and suspenseful. Some readers might not warm to Changez's cold brilliance, ambition, and class-consciousness, but the growth he experiences through college, his crisis of disillusionment, and his eventual meaningful engagement with the larger world could capture the imaginations of thoughtful readers.
This 2011 update was also prompted when I saw this story: "Accused murderer is CIA agent" since the man the protagonist of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is confronting is there in the market to assassinate him.
BBC podcast. For more, at the Powell's Books site, here's a short essay by the author about the evolution of the book, which should be of interest to fellow writers. I'm tempted to quote his final paragraph here but will leave it to you, in context. But do check it out.
And an interview with Divanee; here's an excerpt, about Hamid's choice of the name "Changez" for his protagonist:
DM: Why did you choose the name Changez for your protagonist?Pretty interesting stuff. I'd thought "Changez" was a dual-language pun, a Pakistani name that sounded like the English "Change" or "Change-o" because the character is something of a chameleon. Wishing everyone good reading!
A: Well, there are many different reasons. Changez is an interesting name. There are connotations in it of conqueror and somebody who is blood thirsty and completely resolute and unstoppable and in that sense Changez [the character] works in this kind of corporate army, and it felt like an appropriate name....Another reason why is because I wanted to play with the notion that he isn’t a religious fundamentalist. And, Changez or Genghis, Changez of course is the Urdu name for Genghis Khan. And, Genghis was known for coming in and ransacking the Arab Muslim world. And it would be highly unlikely for a fundamentalist to have the name Genghis because it is a name which is considerably reviled in traditional Arab Muslim culture. So, for both of those reasons I thought it was a very good name for this character to have.
Some other Pakistan-related material here: http://mypersonalblogccm.blogspot.com/2010/01/forbidden-beats-of-freedom.html and check out the Afghanistan posts in the tag cloud at the bottom, since so much of both countries is shared.
and here's another story that caught my eye, from Lakshmi Gandhi: http://lakshmigandhi.wordpress.com/2010/05/07/are-pakistanis-posing-as-indians-after-times-sq-incident/?blogsub=confirming#subscribe-blog
This is a journalist I'm definitely following.