Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid

I finished the book in one sitting. The narrative is fast and often subtle, but overall, the book is slightly disappointing. The characters are not as consistent and well fleshed out as they could have been and the author does not tell us anything new about ourselves. The plot and the setting too are fairly ordinary, and only interesting because of the prevailing political and cultural climate in the world. The book is raised above the common by its form (which is flicked directly from Albert Camus' brilliant and disturbing novel The Fall) and the portrayal of how Pakistanis view themselves. The viewpoint is quite unabashedly Pakistani (which is one of its assets) and the author's longing for his homeland can be clearly discerned in the various slightly boastful references and idealizations that are bound to creep into the writing of a proud man living in a society that does not give his roots their due.

The entire book is a monologue, one side of a conversation between an American and a Pakistani at a roadside restaurant in old Lahore. The Pakistani man is telling the American his story and most of the novel is a flashback, with occasional charming descriptions of the market around and the passage of time and one particularly gruesome description of the food that they order. The American's responses are to be inferred from what the Pakistani man is saying - exactly the form Camus used in The Fall.

The story too borrows form The Fall insofar as it describes how an outwardly successful and happy man is drawn by his mental daemons to give up the life he has built and choose a completely different existence. The main character, Changez, is a young, Princeton educated star employee of a elite valuation firm and the novel is the story of how, post 9/11 and all that quickly followed it, it became impossible to separate the personal from the political and public. Hamid's protagonist and his reasons are nowhere as subtle as Camus', and thus are easier to appreciate. The author strikes a chord when he describes family life in Lahore, and Indians will easily understand how the protagonist feels when his country is slighted by a successful New Yorker. In his concern for his people when war with India looms after the attack on the Indian parliament, for the first time, I saw how 'they' see us - bigger and always threatening to swamp them and their identity. The response - a mixture of bravado and anxiousness - rang true. The picture the author builds through small descriptions tinged with regret of his once wealthy family slipping slowly but surely into relative poverty in the new economy will resonate, and somehow reminded me of Agatha Christie's post war novels with their descriptions of old families in rambling houses which have seen happier days and are now difficult to keep up.

However, the author never really displays the depth that would have given the reader an insight into the events shaping his country and the mind of his protagonist. He does not build a compelling enough case at the intellectual level though perhaps at a purely emotional level one can understand why his protagonist does what he does. The book is a tightly constructed saga of the symptoms of a complicated global malaise and their effect on one man's life. It owes a lot to the suspense the author builds surrounding the two men in the restaurant and how the tension in the atmosphere increases as the story nears its conclusion, night falls, the market empties and the the two are quite alone - almost.

I think the author wanted the two threads - the one in the present in lahore - and the one in the past to meet at a point with interesting results. Both narratives are quite interesting in themselves, but they dont come together compellingly enough. All in all, the book promises a lot but does not quite reach the heights it could have, it does not cut deep enough.

Certainly worth a read.

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