Following on from the success of his
2001 novel, Moth Smoke, Hamid spins The
Reluctant Fundamentalist - a stunning cautionary
tale told in just 180 pages. Although technically a
monologue (in that we hear only Changez's voice and
opinion throughout, the book takes the form of a
conversation between Changez and an unknown
American, with the reader left to extrapolate the
American's background, body language and verbal
replies from Changez's responses. This adds greatly
to the tension of the novel and also allows the
reader, for much of the book, to imagine him/herself
on the other side of the table from Changez in an
intimate little cafe somewhere in Lahore.
It's likely that some who would appreciate this book have avoided reading it believing, from the title, that it offers an apologia for fundamentalism. This is not the case. In fact, it is difficult to imagine that any well-read, balanced reader could find anything offensive in its pages. Hamid, who attended both Princeton and Harvard and now lives in London, professes to feel great affection for America and his many American friends, and writes from a position that he believes is both critical and loving. His character, Changez, maybe disillusioned and out of love with America but by no stretch of the imagination is he a fundamentalist - as defined as someone who rigidly adheres to a set of principles and is intolerant of the views of others.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist raises many questions but, happily, leaves the reader to answer most of them for his or herself. Should every Muslim critical of America be labeled a fundamentalist? Who is in more danger in the story - the American or Changez? Is globalization a good thing? Can a person from one culture ever fully understand someone from another?
The latter is an interesting theme explored partially through the relationship of Changez and his boss, Jim. Jim grew up dirt poor in America longing for what his family had never had and, because both he and Changez graduated from prestigious colleges as a result of full scholarships, he sees Changez as a kindred spirit. However, although Changez did experience a poor boy's sense of longing while growing up, the source of his longing was quite different to Jim's - whereas Jim grew up aspiring to what he had never had, Changez grew up in a family clinging on to its good social standing, nostalgic for the wealth and influence they had lost. Jim grew up "outside the candy store, Changez grew up on its threshold as its door was being shut".
Perhaps it is extrapolating too much from the text but this reader could not help but compare the relationship between Jim and Changez - one brought up looking forward, the other looking back - to the gulf between America, a country that has been built on the myth of the American dream and is still at the top of the precarious pyramid of world power, and many parts of the Arab world that today enjoy a fraction of their former power, and look back with nostalgia on their wealthier, more influential days.
This superbly written, gripping tale is a shoo-in for book clubs and all who enjoy being intellectually challenged by their reading matter.
This review was originally published in September 2007, and has been updated for the April 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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