The Reluctant Fundamentalist

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2007, 12:00am

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamid

Hamish Hamilton, HK$176

In a small cafe in Lahore, Changez, a bearded Pakistani, initiates a dialogue with an American stranger. Noon morphs to night, the stranger stays silent, and Changez's monologue takes us from his days as a triumphant Princeton graduate to his work as a cutting-edge analyst with Underwood Samson, a firm that specialised in valuing companies for acquisition, to September 11 and a subsequent falling out with his adopted country.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a keenly observed examination of the chasm that opened up after the fall of the twin towers and the irrevocable change it wrought on many lives.

In Lahore, Changez hails from a middle-class family that's high on status but low on wealth. Intellect, hard work and frugality - essential ingredients for an immigrant's success - steer him to his American dream as he tops his class at Princeton, lands one of the most coveted jobs on campus, falls in love with beautiful Erica and starts work in New York, which feels, unexpectedly, like home. 'I was ... never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker.'

As he's initiated into high finance, he learns the mantra for success: focus on the fundamentals. His relationship with Erica progresses when he's invited to her Upper East Side home for dinner. In a subway car, his brown skin falls comfortably in the middle of the colour spectrum. Changez is on a high, despite the occasional blip: Erica is still mourning the death of her fiance; he bridles when people casually mention that 'Pakistanis have got some serious problems with fundamentalism'; his mind conjures troubling comparisons between the US and an increasingly decrepit Pakistan.

In an otherwise assured narration, Mohsin Hamid strikes a jarring note when he makes his protagonist divulge to the stranger intimate details of his first sexual encounter with Erica, one in which he impersonates the dead fiance.

Months later, Changez is on assignment in Manila. Expecting to find a city like Lahore, he discovers instead a place of skyscrapers and superhighways. 'I felt like a distance runner who thinks he is not doing too badly until he glances over his shoulder and sees that the fellow who is lapping him is not the leader of the pack, but one of the laggards.' His disorientation reaches its denouement when he witnesses, on a TV screen, the collapse of the twin towers and finds himself feeling 'remarkably pleased'.

In a beautifully written narrative, Hamid explores the dilemma of a young man who discovers within him a primeval force - patriotism - that works as a centrifuge to detach him from contemporary hallmarks of success: demanding career, dollar salary, jet-set lifestyle.

Changez is no madrassa-muddled fundamentalist but an immigrant driven to succeed. However, he finds a lodestone in the tale of the janissaries - Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army. 'They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to turn to.' As the US attacks Afghanistan and bullies his home country, Changez figures it has made a janissary of him.

Hamid's Underwood Samson is an allegorical take on the US (note the initials). Changez rejects one along with the other. And as a post-September 11 US sinks into nostalgia for the past, Erica (from Am-Erica) sinks into depression, pining for the long-gone Chris. A newly bearded Changez faces discrimination from erstwhile cosmopolitan New York, forgets his work mantra and becomes 'the reluctant fundamentalist' - the play being on both the common iconography of a bearded Muslim and an analyst who loses focus.

Up until this point, Hamid plays like a virtuoso as he meticulously limns the angst of his protagonist. But by predicating Changez's worldview on the zeal of a born-again, he falters. Although Changez reviles the hegemonistic tendency of the US and lectures to disgruntled students in Lahore, he seems to wear his patriotism on his sleeve. His motivation, at this point, appears no different from the prejudice of murderous second-generation Pakistani-British who blow up buses.

The mistrust that envelopes current encounters between Islam and the US is fittingly illustrated in the last scene of the book. As Hamid brings down the curtain, action is left balanced precariously on the tightrope of the reader's perspective.