The Reluctant Fundamentalist
It had been a long time since I had finished a book in one sitting, until I read Mohsin Hamid's recently published The Reluctant Fundamentalist. It would be easy to attribute it to the rather short length of the novel, but it is much more than that. The narrative makes you feel like part of a conversation, part of a setting that is highly captivating even while being complex, which you just don't want to peel yourself away from. The protagonist, Changez, is involved in a monologue with someone who seems to be an American visiting Lahore. And as Changez captivates his audience and keeps him in his seat through the long evening, you find yourself listening in, enthralled.
I must admit that when I first read the synopsis on the back jacket of the book, I wasn't that excited about reading it. After all, it seemed to be one of the several post 9/11 novels that seem to be sprouting up around the themes of immigrant identity and allegiance in the context of America's changing international relations. But what makes this book different? It has to be the powerful and engaging voice and the complexity of the carefully created characters. Changez would have been unbelievable if a less talented writer had written the story. But in Hamid's hands, we empathize with the 22 year old, who leaves his home in Lahore, builds a successful life first in Princeton and then in Corporate America, until he is dramatically affected by the turn of events following 9/11. It is interesting to note that Hamid had completed the first draft of the novel in the summer of 2001, and later changed it to include the events that followed.
Another haunting character in the book is Erica, Changez's frail American girl friend. A typical privileged American girl, Erica is different in that she has suffered a tragedy and is unable to pull herself out of it enough to let Changez in her life. Again, Erica remains somewhat of an unbelievable character until you suddenly realize that the author probably meant Erica as an allegorical representation for America '(I) Am Erica' and then it all falls into place. America, caught up in its own past and struggling with its own nostalgia, is unable to accept Change(z). Clever, if you ask me. This may sound a bit too carefully constructed and artificial to some, but let me hasten to add, such carefully planned allegories and symbolism, which are rife throughout this book, do not in any way hamper the reading. If anything, the subtlety makes the message softer, yet more striking and gives the reader a curious intellectual satisfaction of being a crucial part in comprehending the message. Unlike many books in this genre, The Reluctant Fundamentalist does magic in illuminating the prejudices and misunderstandings between the east and the west, without distastefully throwing them at our face.
A worthy review of this book should perhaps be a few pages long; there are so many interesting facets, from the literary accomplishment of writing a monologue the length of a novel to tackling complex political and social sensitivities in a delicate but powerful manner to employing subtle symbolism to involve and enthrall the reader to the unusual ending which is oddly satisfying despite its ambiguity. But for now, let me just say, do not be reluctant to pick up this book - engaging, unsettling and provocative, this is indeed a novel of our times.