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
I can’t believe I let December 1, 2016 come and go without marking it with a snapshot of what I’m reading, thinking about reading, buying. It got to almost half way through the month before I even realised I had forgotten. So let me do a quick re-wind…..
After the dreary experience of Little Women I needed a complete change of pace and subject. Waking Lions by the Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen was certainly far removed from the domestic world of Alcott – this is a novel set in Israel in which a doctor accidentally kills a man in a hit and run accident – and is then blackmailed for his actions. It had a lot of promise early on but got bogged down too much in detail.
Come December 1, my attention had turned back to the Booker prize project. I picked up The Conservationist by Nadime Gordiver about which I had heard good things. The fact that it’s set in South Africa was another plus point. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood but it didn’t do much for me – I found the untagged dialogue confusing and I’m not really sure where the book is going. So I put it to one side and picked up How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid instead. It was just the change I needed with its bold, humorous narrator who speaks directly to his main character and mocks the culture of self help books. Quite delicious.
As you’d expect at this time of the year, I’ve been very active with the book purchases. I try to get everyone in the family a book of some description – this year my mum is getting Our Souls at Night By Kent Haruf and Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; my husband is going to be opening a veritable mini library which includes Keeping On Keeping On, the latest collection of memoirs by Alan Bennett. This is certain to be a hit because it’s a follow on from Writing Home and Untold Stories, both of which had him laughing out loud at times. My dad is getting the Little Hummingbird Cafe cookery book – though he has hundreds of cake recipes in his repertoire having been a professional baker for 40 years he still likes to see what other people create and to have a go himself.
Of course, having to go shopping on line for other people does mean I get tempted myself. It doesn’t help that so many ‘best of’ lists come out around now. I tried to be judicious knowing that I will be unwrapping some book gifts on Dec 25 and the fact my TBR has just jumped over 200. But I still succumbed to Kindle versions of The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Tender is the Night by F. Scott. Fitzgerald (hope I like it more than Great Gatsby) and A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale (I didn’t care for his most recent novel A Place Called Winter but still think he deserves another go).
I feel rather adrift at the moment. No more episodes of The Crown which was a stupendous series on Netflix. No more riveting episodes of The Missing. No more Great British Bake Off. I’ve been trying to like the BBC new series Rillington about the mass murderer Reginald Christie but its not a patch on the film 10 Rillington Place with Richard Attenborough. Fortunately we have Wolf Hall (the adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s award winning novels about Thomas Cromwell) to keep our spirits alive….
Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of those books that end in such an ambiguous and unresolved way it’s tempting to start re-reading it immediately to find the clues missed the first time around.
The mystery begins immediately the book opens. It’s dusk in Lahore. An American visitor at a pavement cafe is approached by Changez, a local man who speaks immaculate English and who offers to help the stranger find the perfect cup of tea. Neither of these men is who they seem to be at first glance.
Is Changez just someone extending the hand of friendship to a visitor in his home or is there something more sinister in this encounter? Is the American acting nervous simply because he is unfamiliar territory or is there another reason why he keeps looking around him? And why is there a bulge in his jacket similar to one you would find if someone wore a gun holster?
Changez it turns out is a Princeton graduate who was once the star employee at a New York firm specialising in the evaluation of ailing companies prior to their takeover. He had flown first class, stayed in premium hotels and holidayed with some bright young things and fallen in love with the daughter of a wealthy American family. His initial enthusiasm for the American dream turned into disenchantment however to the point where the attack on the World Trade Center causes him to smile.
… at that moment my thoughts were not with the victims of the attack ——I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees.
Aghast at the way America responds with aggression towards Afghanistan, using Pakistan as their military base from which to launch attacks, he throws up his job and returns home to become a university lecturer.
The title and the tense atmosphere that builds as the conversation progresses sets up an idea that Changez has become increasingly politicised since his return but has he gone over to the dark side of fundamentalism? He tells his listener that he has made it his mission “to advocate a disengagement from your country by mine”, building a support group from among his students and orchestrating anti-American protests and demonstrations. Is he, as he claims “simply a university lecturer, nothing more nor less” or is he a radical who while advocating non violence himself turns a blind eye to the activities of his supporters?
Hamid has made his narrator a forceful, persuasive speaker. He is polite, considerate of his guest and finely attuned to the slightest change in his body language and facial expression. But there’s also a sense that he is an unreliable narrator, smoothly glossing over his own involvement in the failed assassination of an aid worker and glibly presenting his ideas as perfectly reasonable.
If Changez is a radical fundamentalist whose activities have come to the attention of the authorities, is the American merely a passive listener or is he a secret service operative engaged in a mission to eradicate this potential threat? Mohsin Hamid keeps up the suspense right to the end and even then doesn’t provide the answers. Instead he stops the action just at the point where it seems something violent might happen. Whether the American or Changez is the target, we never get to find out. It’s one of the reasons I throughly enjoyed this book — Hamid doesn’t lay all the answers out on a plate for readers, instead he leaves it free for us to design our own interpretation and explanations.
From the moment I read the opening sentence I had high hopes for this book and it didn’t disappoint. The structure is straightforward — it’s a dramatic monologue in the style of a framed narrative which Hamid makes compelling because of the strength of his characterisation of the narrator. It’s not a book of action but there is a feeling all the time that something is going to happen, we’re just not sure what.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007.
There are some similarities between Mohsin Hamid and the narrator of his book. Like Changez, Hamid studied at Princeton and worked for a management consultancy company in New York. His latest novel is How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.