Saturday, 5 February 2011

Book of the Month: The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Mohsin Hamid)

Reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohseen Hamid’s second novel, is linguistically a strange experience.  It is an English language novel, yet you feel as though you are reading a translated work, say, originally from French; the narrative simply does not strike as instinctual English.  As Changez, the Princeton educated protagonist of the novel, regales a chance acquaintance, an American tourist in the Old Anarkali district of Lahore, Pakistan, with his story—rather several stories that loop into one another—juxtaposed with an advice regarding spicy mutton dishes and syrupy sweetmeats, you get a de ja vu feeling.  Surely, you have read a novel with similar structure. Then you remember: The Fall.

Albert Camus’s brilliant novel of the life and times of Jean-Baptist Clamence, the raconteur par excellence, is a story of guilt, hypocrisy, and the self-loathing and alienation associated with them. Changez, the bearded hero, is, like Jean-Baptist Clamence, a soul in turmoil. He, too, feels alienated and disillusioned; but whereas Jean-Baptist is disillusioned with and profoundly cynical of the world, Changez’s disenchantment is focused. He has identified the enemy, the enemy that is imposing its will on others, especially those in the Islamic world: America. Changez is not an illiterate villager whose knowledge of the world is dictated and edited by the Imam of the local mosque; he comes from an affluent, upper-middle class Pakistani family, and has travelled to the land of plenty to be a part of the American dream. In the spring of 2001, Changez graduates from the prestigious Princeton university and is immediately head-hunted by a valuation firm at a whopping salary of $ 80, 000. He becomes friends with Erica, a fellow Princeton graduate, who happens to have a very wealthy New York investment banker for a father. World, it seems, is Changez’s oyster. He has landed a high-flying job, into the bargain he has also latched on to a girl, who, if he plays his cards well, would not only allow her body to be the receptacle of his gifts, but would also be his passport to the New York high society. (The descriptions of the parties Changez goes to, thanks to his association with Erica, are heavily inspired, to say the least, by The Great Gatsby.) What can possibly go wrong for this bright young Pakistani? Then—you have guessed it!—9/11 happens. America’s war on terror begins, and Afghanistan, a country neighbouring to Changez’s Pakistan and with which Changez shares a sense of kinship, is invaded. Changez, because of his skin colour and Asiatic looks, is inevitably subjected to physical scrutiny at airports and the odd abuse from the rednecks on the streets. His nascent relationship with Erica does not blossom. It turns out that Erica is a depressive who has not come to terms to the death of a childhood sweetheart who died of cancer a few years ago. In due course, Erica suffers a breakdown and is conveniently shipped off to the local loony bin, from where she (even more conveniently) disappears after a few months, presumed dead. Around the same time, terrorists from Pakistan attack the Indian parliament, and the two nuclear rivals come perilously close to an armed confrontation. The crisis in his personal life, the crisis in his country of birth, and the crisis in his adopted homeland—all cause Changez to re-examine his values, his political allegiance, and the direction in which life is going. He makes the discovery that all these years he has been nothing but a serf of the American empire, an iniquitous, immoral empire that attempts to maintain its cultural hegemony. The more he thinks about it the more Chagnez is filled with bitterness and anger, and, above all, a sense of betrayal—Julius Caesar could not have been more shocked when Brutus sank the dagger in his back.  Everything going on—from invasion of Afghanistan to India’s threats of retaliation—is a giant plot against the Muslim world, actively abetted or connived at by the Americans. He cannot really carry on working for and strengthening the enemy, $ 80,000 per anum job notwithstanding. The job at the valuation firm— which specialises in giving frank, even brutal, recommendations on how its customers can improve efficiency, make savings, and increase their market values— usually through lay-offs and ruthless closure of non-profit-making units –for which, just a few months ago he was prepared to give his right arm, strikes him as being a microcosm of American imperialism, and therefore to be rejected. Changez makes up his mind to return to Pakistan much against the wishes of his family members who seem to hold  more balanced views on these matters than the young protagonist, who has undergone an ideological revolution in his mind compared to which the one is Russia was a tea party. As the novel plods towards its somewhat ambiguous, if anticlimactic, end, the reader can be excused for wondering what exactly is the point, if any, of this monologue.

As the only remaining superpower in the world goes about exporting democracy to countries that would rather carry on with their feudalistic customs, thank you very much, and unleashing its war on terror, Muslim writers all over the world have taken upon themselves to hold a mirror up to her face. The mirror that Hamid holds is cleverly and deliberately distorted to exaggerate the American foibles. Via the narrative of his young protagonist, rich in quiet irony, Hamid gives vent to the disenchantment of educated Muslims with America.  The narrator, Changez, in the here-and-now, the patronizing monologist, is another kettle of fish from the insecure, oversensitive employee of Underwood and Samson, in New York. He is on a mission. He wants to unshackle the fetters of Western prejudices about Islamic societies. He emphasizes, albeit indirectly, the secular nature of the Pakistan (officially an Islamic Republic) by pointing at women wearing jeans or referring to working women in his family. He repeatedly and, at times, glibly, reassures his silent American listener about his safety and the safety of food. He makes pointed observations about the double standards of the West, in the process laying bare—perhaps unwittingly—his own prejudices.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of a Pakistani’s love affair towards America turning sour. Perhaps it was not a love affair at all; it was infatuation. At one stage, Changez compares himself to the janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, who were captured Christian boys trained to fight against their own people, and declares that he was a modern day janissary, except of the West. The hyperbolic analogy draws a line under the sense of silent hysteria that pervades the deceptively simple narrative. The trouble is: the narrative offers no insight into why an educated Muslim comes to nurture such a bitter grievance against a country, which, while it did not invite him, nevertheless accepted him and showed him glimpses of a lifestyle very unlike his compatriots have led under a cavalcade of dictators, a sprinkling of jeans-wearing women in Lahore notwithstanding. The novel merely touches on the big themes, but remains entangled in superficialities. Changez is upset that America invades Afghanistan, for no other reason, one has to assume in the absence of any other explanation proffered, that it is a Muslim country. As the narrative degenerates into a litany of petulant complaints and pettifogging, remarkable only for their unsubstantiated paranoia, the patience of all but a superhumanly tolerant reader will creak and snap under the load of specious, circuitous arguments. The unfulfilled relationship between Erica and Changez has, like much of the narrative, a contrived feel to it. If the purpose was to draw parallels between the upheavals in Changez’s personal life with that in the society in which he finds himself living, it does not really work, because the writer makes no effort to develop, psychologically so to speak, the relationship between Erica and Changez. Such tawdry bits of information as are provided about Erica—her rich background, her childhood sweetheart who dies oh-so-tragically and whose death is still haunting her emotionally, her mental breakdown—remain sketchy and unconvincing. If it is an allegory—is Erica America?—it is crude and superfluous.  In an interview, Hamid said, ‘ [Changez’s] political situation as a Pakistani immigrant fuels his love for Erica, and his abandonment by Erica fuels his political break with America.’ The link between the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ is hinted at so obliquely, it is almost obtuse.

Seven years in gestation, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about big themes, themes crying out for a great novel; this, sadly, is not it. Hamid has been at pains to clarify that although he lived in America for fifteen years and even trained at the Princeton University, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not his story. However, like all his novels (two in fourteen years), it is about the issues he is most passionate about at the time; the issues he is seeking to understand and make sense of for himself. Judging the offering, he still has some way to go.