Although How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia sounds like the title of a self-help book, it’s actually a work of fiction. It does however take its structure from the kind of book that is bought and opened with great anticipation and expectation only to invariably disappoint. Self-help books are a triumph of hope over reality but we still can’t seem to get enough of them because every year sees a new clutch of titles. Mohsin Hamid’s novel ridicules such books and – by implication – the people who read them and try to follow their advice.
Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. And it’s true of personal improvement books too…. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.
The 12 chapters of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia are positioned as guidance for a poor, nameless, boy who wants to rise above his impoverished circumstances. Each chapter contains a lesson: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. It follows him from a child who is “huddled, shivering, on the packed earth” to a metro city which is “enormous, home to more people than half the countries in the world, to whom every few weeks is added a population equivalent to that of a small, sandy-beached, tropical island republic”. There he spots an opening selling bottled water. To get from a lowly job as a water delivery boy to the proprietor of his own distilling plant takes many years of effort, intuition and cunning plus some questionable practices – this is a business based initially on selling food with false eat-by dates and then selling boiled municipal water as ‘mineral water’ Over time in order to grow into our entreprenneur has to resort to bribery and extortion. All the time his heart remains set on something else: the ‘pretty girl’ from his neighbourhood whose star rises along with his. Their paths cross and recross but always she seems one step ahead of him.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is told in an audacious second person narrative style. Hamid says at the end of the novel that he adopted this approach because he wanted to push the boundaries of the reader-writer relationship. He sees the process of writing as a collaborative effort so for him the novel “is a self help book that is a second-person life-story that is an invitation to create. Together.”
I know some readers felt Hamid didn’t quite pull off the second person narrative voice and I don’t see how it fulfilled his objective of being a collaborative endeavour but I still loved the boldness and freshness of the style. There is a feeling of real energy about the novel, partly coming from the pace of the story – large chunks of time pass in just a few pages. Sometimes I wished Hamid had slowed down a bit to give more depth to his hero’s struggle up the greasy pole of business. It’s only in the latter chapters do we get a slower feel, when the boy is now an old man alone in the world and appreciating that he can find happiness only by relinquishing the advice of the self-help book. In essence the book’s message puts a different spin on the title – to become filthy rich as a human being means giving up on material ambitions.
Because the location is not specified (though it’s a fair bet the events take place in Hamid’s home country of Pakistan) and none of the characters have names, only generic descriptors (“the politician”; “the pretty girl”); the implication is that this is a tale which could be about anyone. The desire for wealth doesn’t apply just to Asia; aspiration is a fundamental part of human nature. There are thus – or could be – people just like them in many parts of the world going through similar experiences. The ‘you’ to whom this book’s guidance is directed could equally be ‘me’ is what Hamid seems to be suggesting. But this isn’t a book of mere polemic. Yes is does paint a portrait of the perils of a love of wealth but it’s also a warm and charming love story.
The Book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid was published in 2013 by Penguin.
The Author: Mohsin Hamid was born in Lahore, Pakistan though has since lived also in California, New York and London. His first novel, Moth Smoke was a riches-to-rags story about a Pakistani financier, who descends through the circles of Lahore society becomes addicted to heroin. His second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (my review is here), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and looked at the changing relationship between the new Pakistan and the west.
Why I read this book: Quite simply because I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist