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.