Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid book cover
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) is a quiet postcolonial novel, which questions the West’s response to the East following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Changez, the Pakistani narrator, joins an American tourist at his restaurant table in Lahore. As the night fades around them, Changez tells his silent companion of his time in America, where he studied at Princeton before going on to work for prestigious New York company, Underwood Samson. He tells of his affection for America and for one of the girls he met there, Erica. Sadly, Erica was trapped by the memory of a past boyfriend who died a tragically early death. When the twin towers fell, Changez admits to feeling a slight surge of pleasure. In the subsequent months he was forced further to the outside of American society, and as both Erica and his adopted country rejected him – making him a kind of tragic mulatto - he found solace in his native land of Pakistan, where he returned. As he recounts his story, Changez does anything but put his American listener at ease, and, as night falls around them, uneasiness turns to sharp tension, and the novel’s conclusion draws ominously in.

Much of the Western literature dealing with 9/11 has ‘Othered’ Muslims, and what we have here is an interesting response, where the Muslim character dominates the narrative, ‘Othering’, to an extent, his American companion. The subtle dialectic between Orientalism and Occidentalism within the text is fascinating, and one reads through the Eastern Gaze, which reflects back an uncomfortable, if unreliably narrated Western Gaze; the tension between the characters representing the geopolitical stance of the two nations from which they originate.

In truth, Changez is a hybrid – neither American nor Pakistani. For those people caught between the two cultures seemingly now at odds, 9/11 had an incredibly divisive effect, not only within society but within individuals who identified themselves as Muslim-American. Changez is one of those people. As the two sides of his identity conflict – representing the dialectic between East and West - he feels ever more strongly drawn towards his native culture, and more an outsider than ever in his adopted home. Hamid draws out the sense of nostalgia that America reverted to after 9/11 - no longer untouchable, the nation found comfort in reflecting on its past dominance and a collective kidology took place - which allowed many Americans to transport their identity back to a less troubled and precarious time for themselves as a nation. This ties into the resurgent imperial spirit, the ‘them against us’ mentality, which left people like Changez to pick sides. In a world that increasingly encouraged the diversity and hybridity of cultures, this was a shock and a regression. No longer able to claim dual interests, Changez reverts to his role as the Other in American society.

However, while Changez is made to feel the outsider in his America, much of his social exile is self-imposed. That he chooses to develop his appearance to match the Western stereotype of an Islamist only furthers his alienation, and one is forced to question whether he is an outsider spurned or a malcontent extricating himself from a society he no longer idolises. This is important, as it is not simply America who rejects Changez, but Changez who rejects the American ideal – whether one is borne from the other is difficult to say.

However, Changez’s relationship with America – a country that has provided him with an education and economic stability – is a complex one. This mirrors the crucial financial support that America gives Pakistan, which, however, holds implicit in the gesture, an assumption that Pakistan will side with America when required. Although he is sceptical on his arrival in America, Changez soon begins to adopt the soulless capitalism (as the stereotype goes) of the Western man, becoming himself an adopted American, and thus setting himself apart from others minorities he encounters in America. The novel touches on something inherent, here, in human nature – whether from the Orientalist or Occidentalist point-of-view – which is suspicious, scared, and uncomfortable with the remote, and the different.

Hamid develops an interesting dynamic between the reader and the two characters, allowing the reader space to interpret and develop the story in their own way, thus becoming a kind of co-author to the work. Both Changez and the American conform to some stereotypes and sidestep others – Hamid clearly gives the reader the chance to bridge the gap between what is contained in the text and their own assumptions. On reflection, readers might well be surprised to realise how many details about the characters they have embellished to ensure they fit with preconceived stereotypes (It’s never stated, for example, that Changez is a Muslim). This is Hamid’s great illusion – to suggest but never to expose (there are hints that Changez is a terrorist and the American is a government agent), leaving the reader the one exposed by their own assumptions. Ultimately, the novel should cause the reader to reflect and to question the process by which they make their own assumptions. While some have suggested the novel pushes the reader in one direction or another, the truth is that it exposes lazy thinking. Rather than trying to persuade the reader to a new position, it asks simply that they employ their critical faculties rather than allow media or social influences to pervade their own thinking without question.

The conversation between the two characters is brutally polite and oddly formal throughout, perhaps a nod to international political discourse where polished manners barely hide violent realities. Indeed, Changez’s polished English points back to the influence from Britain, the strongest imperial influence prior to America, in Pakistan. Having the Pakistani narrator dominate the narrative is an inversion of the geopolitical norm, particularly in relation to the War on Terror.

Hamid’s stance is unapologetic – he makes no excuses for Changez, and indeed reveals uncomfortable truths about his narrator that, in many ways, fall into Western stereotypes: his disaffection with Western culture and his instinctual response to seeing the twin towers falling, his manipulation of a damaged Western woman (this is a point for debate, I think) and his clinging and return to Eastern culture. Perhaps the passage that will cause more readers discomfort than any other is Changez’s admission that on seeing the twin towers falling, he felt a kind of instinctual pleasure. Undoubtedly there is an underlying fear present in Western society that amongst the native population are perfectly respectable Others who secretly sympathise with and support the terrorist agenda, without ever wanting to actively take part. Changez’s admission is painfully honest, and acknowledging an impulse can never be something negative. Changez respects the lives that have been lost, but talks of the symbolism: the great power brought to its knees. This feeling is tied into Occidentalism and the East’s view of the West as a soulless, capitalist arena. The twin towers come to represent this, and thus their fall brings a pleasurable twinge to those unhappy with the West’s makeup. However, that he fails to strongly qualify his admission or suggest true abhorrence at the mass slaughter, leaves him in a precarious position. Indeed, the attacks of 9/11 are perhaps the only act of the novel that truly lacks ambiguity: separated from anything else, the murder of innocent people has always been, and must always be unambiguously wrong. There is very little leeway on that, and it is here that Changez’s position becomes hazardous. Whether Hamid pulls off the difficult balance he attempts to strike here, may depend on the reader, but if ambiguity is lost so is much of what is good in the novel.

There is a difficulty in the subtlety of a text like this. Where Hamid lays subtle hints – that the American may be a government agent, that Changez is a terrorist – the reader is presented with few strong alternatives, and has simply the choice of whether to accept or reject the hints; something that becomes difficult in the face of few positive alternatives. It is, perhaps, easier to follow a positive assertion, no matter how subtle or weak, than to reject it and accept an absence of information – it goes against the nature of reading, where the reader is trying to pick a text apart. Hamid balances this well, but it’s worth acknowledging that the question of stereotyping is influenced by the fact of fiction in a way that it isn’t in real life.

Names are interesting in The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Am/Erica; Changes/Changez; Underwood Samson (of the myth, but also Uncle Sam / US); Jean-Bautista, John the Baptist. Jean-Bautista is also a nod to a character in Albert Camus’s The Fall, a novel which Hamid described as being “formally helpful" when writing The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The title itself has a double meaning too. The fundamentalism it references, rather than referring necessarily to terrorism, refers equally to the fundamentals by which Changez values companies for his American employer, Underwood Samson, and by extension the American system of capitalism that allows them to wield incomparable power on the world stage. Like the Janissaries often mentioned in the text, Changez feels he has betrayed his roots and become a servant to a foreign master: here, American capitalism. The title is a brilliant duplicity of meaning, which encapsulates much of the novel’s ambiguous and challenging stance.

Erica represents America in many ways, notably in the aborted love affair between herself and Changez. They never manage to fully connect, and before long she rejects him, too consumed by her own inward looking grief – as America was post-9/11 – to have any emotion left for an outsider to her pain. Changez is unalterably connected to America and Erica, both a part of himself permanently, no matter how disconnected he is later forced to be. Like Erica’s mythologizing of her dead partner, America – as with many ‘Great’ nations – too is swept up in the mythology it creates around its history.

An event of the magnitude of 9/11 takes some time to be understood, accepted, and assimilated into the consciousness of the world. Writers have always played a big role in giving voice to the dilemmas that the world and the individual have following such times, and in the spate of 9/11 countless articles were churned out, followed by novels, and longer pieces on the state of the world now, not to mention films, plays, poems and the rest. Doubtless many were uncomfortable, some misjudged, but on the release of Hamid’s novel, Western readers were presented with something fresh: a novel to challenge the reader’s assumptions; a novel without vitriol or solutions, but only gaping questions. Literature has barely begun to grapple with the consequences of 9/11, but perhaps, on reflection, The Reluctant Fundamentalist might be seen as the pause before the response, the moment the literary world stopped to reflect, and prepared to look afresh at the day that shook America.

This is a deceptively complex book, whose style will infuriate some readers. I feel like I had a lot more to say on this, but there's only so much you can put into a review!


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Film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist on Amazon (UK)
Film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist on Amazon (US)

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