Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Before I get into the review of this book, allow me to tell you story. I most probably would not have picked it up on my own, so I should tell you how I came to hear of it.
Earlier this year on Facebook, a friend of a friend posted a picture of their third-grade class. He tagged her, which is how it appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. He asked if anyone else recognised anybody in the photo and requested that we tag ourselves or the people in question.
I was astonished when I saw the photo because I have the exact same photo in my albums!
Ms Helen Aoyagi’s Third Grade Class 1979-1980
Front row: Yours Truly (from Malaysia), Amy, Joe, Neuzeil (sp?, from Hong Kong), ??, Ms Aoyagi, Priscilla, Tommy, Jennifer, Jenny, Hiro (from Japan)
Second row: Ron (from Israel), Kent, Karine, Karen, Flavia (from Brazil), Adam (from Australia)
Third row: Jay, Mohsin (from Pakistan), Douglas, Alejandro (from Venezuela), Adi, Amanda, Hobbie, Bobby, Lisa, Michael, Christine
This is what I remember. It may not be 100% correct.
Escondido Elementary was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed my time there greatly. Several of my classmates were from other countries and, like me, had parents who were studying at Stanford.
I responded to that Facebook post saying that I am the girl sitting in the front row on the far left — always have been among the shortest among my peers — and that I have the same photo in my albums with some names to go with the students pictured.
A small handful of Facebook users also responded and supplied names — and, more importantly — some updates. As it turns out, one of the students in Ms Aoyagi’s third-grade class that year was Mohsin Hamid who would grow up to be the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (Mohsin is in the top row, second from the left.)
Before that post appeared on Facebook, I had not heard of the book — or, at least not enough to make an impression — nor did I recognise the author as a former classmate. We were only in the same class for one year and didn’t really hang out together, you know, because of boy/girl germs and all that third-graders are particularly sensitive about.
I even misremembered his name as Mohmed and not Mohsin. Ms Aoyagi arranged the desks in the classroom into clusters. On the first day of school, I sat in a cluster of four desks and Mohsin was in the same group. We introduced ourselves and I remember him saying with a friendly smile, “You can call me ‘Moh’.” We didn’t stay in the same seating arrangement the entire year.
So, because of this weird connection I have with the author, I decided to check him out and read his book.
The story takes place in Lahore, Pakistan. Changez, the narrator, spots and American, invites him to sit together for a drink and a meal. At the same time, he regales the American with tales of his life in America first as a top student at Princeton and later as a consultant for a boutique business assessment company.
It is a short book — only 187 pages long — and the entire story takes place within the space of a couple of hours. Throughout the book, the American guest never speaks, although Changez occasionally addresses him directly, echoing his words, and comments on his body language and demeanor.
Changez tells the American of Erica, a sad and troubled girl he met while at Princeton, a girl with the ghost of her dead boyfriend still haunting her, making attempts at intimacy fraught with challenges, and ultimately, impossible.
Although Changez identifies as a Pakistani Muslim, he certainly does not behave as one. He admits it himself and makes no apologies or excuses for it. There is no mention of him praying or fasting; he talks freely of consuming alcohol and gives detailed descriptions of his and Erica’s fornication — both of which are expressly forbidden in Islam.
On a business trip to the Philippines, Changez notices that the locals show more respect and deference to his American colleagues than they do to him, and he makes a concerted effort to behave more American. And it is while he is in the Philippines that September 11 happens and things start to change.
While there are many thought-provoking passages, one stood out to me. Changez tells of a confrontation he had in the company parking lot with an angry American who shouted obscenities.
What did he look like, you ask? Well, sir, he. . . . But how odd! I cannot now recall the man’s particulars, his age, say, or his build; to be honest, I cannot now recall many of the details of the events I have been relating to you. But surely it is the gist that matters; I am, after all, telling you a history, and in history, as I suspect you — an American — will agree, it is the thrust of one’s narrative that counts, not the accuracy of one’s details. Still, I can assure you tat everything I have told you thus far happened, for all intents and purposes, more or less as I have described.
“…it is the thrust of one’s narrative that counts, not the accuracy of one’s details.” Something to ponder and discuss. Does this ‘thrust of one’s narrative’ spill over to other accounts of historical events? Is it really an American trait to emphasise substance over specifics?
Symbolisms (Or, “Maybe it’s just a good story. Why you hafta read so much into it?”)
Changez’ American girlfriend, Erica, could be a symbol for AmERICA. She misses her old boyfriend, Chris (“Christian” way of life?), and although she befriends Changez, she cannot truly get intimate with him unless she imagines — with his encouragement and permission — that he is Chris. When she does, the relationship irretrievably changes for the worse.
The company Changez works for, Underwood Samson, could also be a symbol for the United States. While they were quick to snatch him up and have him work for Team US, they were also quick to let him go when he failed to meet their standards. Without a job and a valid visa, Changez must return home to Pakistan.
Finally, just who is the American Changez is speaking to? Does he come in peace? Is he sympathetic to Changez’ story?
The book is an easy read in that the words flow well and Changez is an engaging narrator. At the same time, the book is troubling and haunting. It makes us question our friendships and loyalties.
Read it, and when you’re finished with it, read it again.