The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


The Reluctant Fundamentalist
It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.

Ever since the Oyster iPad app was released, it has been on my mind as something I would love to try. Who doesn't like a Netflix for books? The idea of being able to browse through a vast library and choosing any number of books to read at a time was enticing. So I signed up for their free trial and chose The Reluctant Fundamentalist as my first read. (I'll be sharing my views on the Oyster app itself this weekend, so I'll try not to bring it up much here.)

At a tea/coffee shop in Lahore, a Pakistani man has managed to invite a lost-looking American tourist to have tea and later dinner with him. Amidst all the atmospheric sights and sounds and flavors of Pakistan, the host talks about his past as an aspiring and promising student at Princeton and later at a job that is earned only by the best and how he came to be drinking tea that day at a Lahore cafe. At the time, he had everything - job, money, respect, even a girl that he was very interested in. And then came 9/11, which changed his life completely in ways he never imagined.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a very interesting read. It is written entirely as a dialogue, or rather as one side of a dialogue. Changez, the former successful Pakistani Princeton graduate, has found a sometimes interested, sometimes cautious audience in the American tourist. We never hear the tourist's voice directly - Changez occasionally reiterates the questions asked or statements made by the tourist, but barring that, it is Changez's voice from start to end. It's not a writing style that I could enjoy reading all the time, but for occasional books, it makes for a wonderful literary device. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is my first book in that writing style and I enjoyed it all the way to the last page.

There are several themes that recur through this book. At the core of it is about identity. Changez had everything going for him. He was even fairly confident about his chances with the woman of his dreams, who was still mourning the death of her boyfriend. But when 9/11 comes and the neighbor of his native country is implicated in it, he begins to get severely distressed by how close to home America's war on terror is happening. He becomes unable to separate his professional life from his tremulous inner life. The frequent disappearances of his love interest exacerbates his emotional tensions. He begins to feel almost rebellious, growing a beard and wearing his religion with excess pride.

In the course of his story, Changez also reveals some unpleasant aspects of his beliefs - some of which upset the American, and others which make him a tad bit nervous. There is a reason he is the reluctant fundamentalist. You begin to like this very human character and feel for him when he suffers, and right at that moment, he makes a comment that makes you bristle. I like how the author balanced that. The ending was very ambiguous, and to me the strength of this novel. Depending on how this book spoke to you, you would sketch your own ending. It also made the inner message of the book clear. Fundamentalist or not, every person had certain beliefs based on where his home is and how he grew up. It isn't easy for anyone to not side with his country, no matter why a war is happening. The absence of an ending did make me slightly annoyed - I got very invested in Changez's story and wanted to believe that he is happy but that's what the book was about - to know more about me as a person and how I approached other people like him. Would I outright brand him a potential terrorist or just a person very worried for his countrymen? I admit I fell in the middle - Changez made me uncomfortable occasionally but he also seemed like a reasonable person.

There are some aspects of the book that didn't quite make sense to me, such as what inspired Changez to spill out his story to the tourist. Also, not hearing the other side of the dialogue brings with it the occasional frustrations of not seeing the full picture. But they were minor complaints. The lyrical writing, the atmospheric descriptions, the intriguing story of Changez, who went from being successful to losing it all, the fast pacing, the clever narrative - all helped in keeping me very interested in this book. I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist for the most part and it did leave me thinking for a long time about what makes a person willing to conduct terrorist crimes, and most importantly, what sort of person I was for making certain assumptions of Changez.

 I read this ebook on Oyster.

16 comments:

Jackie Bailey said...

I thought this book was very clever and the ending especially so. I wonder if you've not picked up on the fact that the ending is ambiguous? It is worded very cleverly so what you think is happening is different depending on your thoughts going into the book. I didn't work it out when I first read it, but a review pointed it out and so I went back to read the last few pages and was quite shocked.
I look forward to your thoughts on Oyster!

Jenny @ Reading the End said...

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the Oyster app! I'm very intrigued by it too.


I didn't really know that this book was done in a style like this, and it makes me want to read it more than I have previously. I'm also intrigued by an ambiguous ending -- I feel annoyed with authors who end their books overly optimistically, but I like it when they leave it to me to decide what I think happened (I nearly always decide the most optimistic thing, but without feeling annoyed at the author).

Juju at Tales of Whimsy.com said...

Sounds pretty fascinating.

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

I think only reading one side of the story would feel odd and unfinished. I like the idea of this book but I'm not sure the execution is for me.

Athira / Aths said...

The ambiguity is what I liked the most. The reader could write his or her own next chapter depending on how he or she warmed up to Changez. Definitely a thought-provoking book and mostly, made me wonder about myself as a judge of other characters.

Athira / Aths said...

This one's ending would depend entirely on what you thought of the narrator! You could give him a happy ending or a sad one or a mixed one. There are all sorts of possibilities. I hope you give it a try - I think you will like it.

Athira / Aths said...

It sure was!

Athira / Aths said...

I thought a bit about that - the feeling of something unfinished in this book and although that one side of a picture frustrated me a bit, the ending showed me the ingenuity of it. You have no way of knowing what was to come next - it all depended on what you felt about the two people. It felt all very clever by the end - I can't think of a more appropriate way to narrate this story.

Lisa Sheppard said...

I can't imagine this book would have worked as well if it had been written in another style. The focus was always on Changez and it was easy to kind of slip into being the American yourself. I was really surprised by how much I liked this book; it really does make you think a lot about yourself.

Helen Murdoch said...

I think books like this one are important since they let us see someone we wouldn't normally encounter. And we hear where they are coming from (so to speak)

Athira / Aths said...

That's what I thought. You, as the reader, was the American tourist, so depending on your beliefs and opinions, you could be responding one way or the other. Depending on who you are, the ending could have gone in any direction.

Athira / Aths said...

Exactly! Sometimes I like to think I am a very forward thinking non-judgmental person. But when I read books like this, I realize I am just as judgmental as everyone else. Here is a guy who could have become Bill Gates, and he probably could still be, but what do you do about that spark of country interest in him? Should that even be a problem? Aren't we all patriotic people? Wouldn't we all pick up arms to defend, if it came to that? I loved how this book made me think of that.

techeditor said...

I read this, too.

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story within a story. One is the clever telling of the other.

At a café in Pakistan, a Pakistani man tells his story to an American man. The men are strangers. We learn about the Pakistani man through his narrative. The American remains a mystery man throughout. In paragraphs between parts of the Pakistani man’s story are hints about the American man, the purpose of his encounter with the Pakistani man, and perhaps even the Pakistani man’s purpose in telling his story.

In this short novel, the Pakistani man tells of coming to America to attend Princeton and then work for high wages at a New York company. He falls in love with an American who’s in love with a dead person. But she’s rich and gets him into all the right places. He’s living the high life.

Then, surprise, he decides on 9/11 that he’s disillusioned with America. He now sees America as that big, bad, obnoxiously rich and power-hungry nation that waves its flag as if it can’t get over itself and is stuck in some black-and-white movie. He smiles at the sight of the destruction of the Twin Towers.

I wouldn’t have bothered reading more. But I had read so many reviews of The Reluctant Fundamentalist that were favorable and praised its suspense. I figured something must be about to happen that would justify all this, and it was such a short book I stuck with it.

The Pakistani man continues to describe his disillusionment with America and his doomed love affair. He goes on to explain why he is back in Pakistan and what he is doing there. I guess the reviewers referred to the mystery American when they mentioned suspense.

The Pakistani man speaks of the necessity of knowing history but obviously knows little history himself. He complains more than once about the awful Americans invading Afghanistan for no reason and of Pakistan helping America but the Americans refusing to take their side when they go to war with India. He, of course, doesn't mention the Taliban in Afghanistan and their promise of another 9/11. He also forgets (I don't know how since he lived there) that Pakistan and India have been going at it with each other for years and that this war with India was a frequent occurrence.

So the Pakistani man’s story is told, and he and the American man are still at the café at the end of the day. And then comes the ambiguous end. My guess is one of two possibilities.

I can’t recommend this book.

Aarti said...

I can't wait to hear what you think of the Oyster app! I have debated it, but I don't think I read fast enough for it to make sense for me. Especially with the number of books I still have to read on my bookshelves, too!

Do you think this one would work well as an audiobook>

Athira / Aths said...

I don't know if you saw my Oyster app review yet, but much as I liked the app, the cost kept me away from it. I guess I'll register for it on a month-to-month basis, if I feel I may read a lot of Oyster books in a certain month.

Athira / Aths said...

Oh and yes, this book may actually be more amazing in audiobook. Since it is in the second person narrative, you may get the sense that the narrator is talking to you. I thought this book's construction was one of its more ingenious aspects.