Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

When the twin towers fell on that fateful day, I knew that something earth-shattering had happened. I was at work when it all began to happen. Interestingly, at that time, I was working for an American publishing firm in Delhi. The entire office was enveloped in a silence that itself was foreboding. By the time I reached home and switched on the TV, the images of the falling towers were being shown over and over again. A little later, a feral Bush came out with this epoch-defining line: The world will not remain the same.

The words were not only prophetic, there was a certain determinism about them.

In his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, when Mohsin Hamid’s US-educated Pakistani protagonist Changez witnesses on TV in a Philippines hotel room the WTC towers falling, he breaks into an unlikely smile: “Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”

And from there, we begin to foresee how Changez, a Princeton-educated smart ass who is doing great with a top US finance firm, would turn his back on America (even though he loves certain things American) and the injustices it inflicts on the world, despite his earning a lucrative American salary, and his infatuation with an American woman, Erica. “No country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as America,” says Changez at one point to the unnamed American he is addressing in this monologue of a novel.

Changez is a modern Muslim, hailing from a well-to-do Pakistani family. He drinks and fornicates without any religious qualms. He is marked for a life of American success and affluence. But his Muslim identity, in the wake of the 9/11, begins to overwhelm him albeit in a slightly different way. More than being hurt in a religious sense, Changez's disillusionment is at a humane and secular (or even economic) level--and this kind of an approach towards character development in the light of the subject matter chosen exposes some of the weaknesses in the novelist's craft but more on that later.

From Manila, Changez returns to the US only to be treated by the immigration staff as a suspect—just because of his identity. He continues with his job although his doubts keeps growing, but in the narrative scheme, his blinders are yet to finally come off, his arc of vision yet to be broadened. Through his firm’s dealings, he is yet to see “the constant striving to realize a financial future” and “no thought being spared for “the critical personal and political issues” that affected “one’s emotional present.”

For this to happen, Changez is taken to a Latin American country where his vision finally becomes clear. He meets Juan-Bautista, the publisher whose firm he is evaluating for a sale. Over lunch, Juan-Bautista sees that Changez is upset for some reason and tells him about the janissaries (is it from the Persian word, Jaan-nisar, or self-sacrifice?): “the Christian boys who were captured and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world…they had fought to erase their own civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to”.

Changez realizes that he is a modern day janissary, “a servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war.” (The choice of the word 'kinship' here is significant--the author is circumspect to bring in the words Islam and Muslim--Kinship in this context sounds rather stand-offish, less emotional and less engaging. Is this because Mohsin is trying to show how rational, and not emotional, this Princeton-educated Pakistani Muslim is?)

His world view changes with this remarkable conversation. Meanwhile, the only thing that could have held him back in the US, his girlfriend Erica, who suffered from psychological disorders on account of her past lover, vanishes one day. He returns to his own folks, his own country, rejecting the American dream.

That summarizes the basic plot of the novel which is interesting and makes the book readable. In fact, I finished it in two or three sitting within two days (usually I take longer to read a novel, maybe days and weeks--I work full-time).

However, the very readability of the novel makes it appear weak, as if it’s just skimming the surface and not going deep enough. The issues that engage Changez’s mind and soul have more or less just been touched whereas they needed to be thoroughly built up and explored.

As the author has explained in some of the interviews, he had written the novel before 9/11 but after that watershed event he had felt compelled to revise it as circumstances changed. Probably this has watered down the narrative's power, resulting in a reading experience that is less richer, and characters appear to be less gray and more black and white. I would even say that the effort to make it readable, perhaps to win a larger readership, has turned the novel effeminate. Like Erica’s novel in the novel, which Changez had expected to be meaty, The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes across as a half-hearted attempt at capturing the genesis of a modern Muslim’s disgust with the American empire.

The novel’s central point is the hubris of the American empire which is built on the guts of finance: “Finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.” But even this issue has been perfunctorily dealt with. Mohsin has not exposed the ills of the American financial system in close ups—all we get is a larger, generalized picture. I am not an expert in this area myself but where are the deeper questions on corporate practices that are undermining America itself: the triumph of "managers' capitalism" over "owners' capitalism," the power of the imperial chief executives with "their jet planes...their pension plans, their club dues, their Park Avenue apartments," self-serving executives being abetted by self-serving directors, securities analysts, auditors, lenders, investment bankers, and others, while shareholders have suffered—the rot in the corporate system.

Finally, I have not enjoyed the form of the narrative device (monologue) that Mohsin has chosen for this work. He has tried to do something that Camus did with one of his novels but unfortunately, at least for me, this device does not work here. The entire novel is addressed to an American in a bazaar in Pakistan. The device, when it comes in between the narrative flow, breaks the “continuous and uninterrupted dream” in the novel. I rather like those chapters where Mohsin has tried least to address the American. Then it flows effortlessly and one appreciates the lyrical use of the language and acute observation.

The best chapters of the novel are the ones about Erica. In fact, those would have made a great novel in itself. On another level, the relationship between Changez and Erica works like a metaphor of the relationship between Changez (Muslims?) and America (Am-Erica): with time Erica begins to lose her mind and Changez grows apart from her. If Mohsin had intended this juxtaposition to work, then it has.

The ending of the novel is vague but I like it--it's almost noirish. The lack of a suitable literary structure apart, the novel would have risen to great literature had Moshin cared to add some more layers to the narrative, added depth to the events, characters and their motives.

P.S.: I had thought of writing a NYRB style of review for this novel, but then after weeks of dithering I decided against it. Why, I'll tell you. It would have taken me weeks to ponder, days to write, hours to revise, and seconds to realise that it is not there at all. So, you know):


Obiter Dictum said...

That's a book I have waiting for to arrive.

Zafar Anjum said...

I had bought the book from Kinukuniya Singapore. Isn't it available in your place?

gayatri viswanath said...

I loved your review.
Even I felt the same after reading the Reluctant Fundamentalist. Infact, the narrative is pretty poor and very unreliable[not like the unreliability which we see in Salman Rishdie's Midnight's Children which is outstanding].
Erica and Changez was the only thing I liked.I loved the way you related Erica to America. But I feel Erica's alter-ego. She reflects him, her actions shows the evolution of his character...AM-ERICA could also mean...I AM ERICA.

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Gayatri. I am glad you enjoyed it.