Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a short story told over a ‘perfect cup of tea’ by a Pakistani to an American who is in Lahore on business.

It is a personal, introspective account of the Pakistani’s experience of living and working in the USA and why he (Changez) returned to his homeland. With intrigue and tension the storyteller shares his journey, including his experience of love, loss and his changing cultural identity.

One wonders how much of this story is autobiographical. The novelist, Mohsin Hamid, tells readers of his web site that he “was born in Pakistan, attended college and law school in America, worked in New York, and now lives in London.”

The style of the book is akin to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in which a Pakistani businessman accosts an American in the quaint district of Old Anarkali. There is no conversation and one wonders how the Pakistani can keep this very quiet American silent for the duration of the story. The storyteller returns his readers to the present and to Pakistan at the beginning and end of each chapter. Often the transition is done in an abrupt manner. The host’s questions of his guest about the tea and the food are rhetorical and forced. Perhaps a monologue is always bound to seem unnatural but the speech is contrived and often condescending. To reveal the intimacies of love and loss to a stranger may seem odd. Perhaps part of the frustration evoked by this book is due to the reader’s desire to question the storyteller—to challenge and to seek clarification. Or maybe this cloudiness about the storyteller and what is happening, adds to the mystery and the unsettling nature of the story.

One benefit of the technique is that the Pakistani storyteller is addressing an American and thereby giving him the opportunity to share with his guest some home truths. Here the story develops beyond a personal yarn to acquire an international dimension about the delights and drawbacks of America and the way he sees its place in the world.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about the changing life in America, especially in the days following the tragedies in New York on 9/11. The book may express how some Pakistanis feel about America, thus, it is a good book, especially for Americans to read over a ‘perfect cup of tea’.

Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Penguin Books, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 39.00.

Dr Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.