peteg's blog - noise - books - 2013 04 24 MohsinHamid TheReluctantFundamentalist

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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I read the first chapter of his recent How to get filthy rich in rising Asia (which was awesome) and decided to chew through this earlier one first as I had it on loan from the UNSW Library. They have none of his other works.

Hamid writes well, casting the reader as an American, possibly a security agent/provocateur, getting talked at by a Pakistani with a Princeton education in something like financial engineering. The ancient and continuing civilisation of Lahore is evoked by the market setting, the drinking of tea and the shared dinner. The ending is pleasantly ambiguous.

I enjoyed it for the most part. The eastern-boy-meets-white-western-girl story is a bit uninspired, though I grant that it goes to non-standard places and is probably a metaphor for something that I was too lazy to unpack. Changez's increasing awareness of inequity is stretches credulity: while he is from landed gentry on a downward trajectory, one would expect him to have been continuously aware of how rich the U.S. is, where that wealth comes from, and how it is exercised; even other Westerners are gobsmacked by American consumerism and obliviousness.

This is the only 9/11-themed novel I've read so far, though I guess Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown is in precisely the same genre, viz imaginings of the genesis of terrorists. (That book is on my shelf and I have the vaguest of memories of it being meh.) I didn't find Changez's reaction to the event all that plausible; I could imagine something like a quiet schadenfreude, but his exaltation reveals him to be a barbarian, despite his education and links to a venerable culture. The reviewer for the New York Times cites this pivot as "the substance of [this] elegant and chilling little novel", whereas I see it as a cheap and crass trolling of the Americans by the author. It disappoints precisely because the rest is far more subtle.

There is a recent movie that has a poor IMDB rating, or perhaps it is too new to judge, or maybe it really is mediocre (says Dana Stevens too). As Martin Donovan is in it, I may have to go.