Date finished: March 10th 2017
On a fairly regular basis – perhaps 1 in every 10 books – I expect to be rewarded with something great. Not out of a sense of entitlement but rather through experience, I’ve found that after ten or so books I’ll find one truly memorable title, one that I can recommend to many people and digest over the course of time; a book that renders the novels between itself and the last affecting work I read to be mere filler by comparison.
So, struggling with other work and an inability to immerse myself in any other works – the mind-bending meta-fiction of Borges, the labyrinthine tome of Foucault’s Pendulum, and an academic work on gun violence, all somewhat poor choices when I have other commitments – I pounced on the library in the hopes of finding a title that would jump out at me.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist won that bout, and it falls the right side of greatness to satisfy me for now. This was exactly the sort of book I was looking for: readable without compromising its depth, and a new experience.
Written in the style of a monologue, it concerns the story of a man we know only by his surname, Changez, who has met an American stranger in Lahore, Pakistan, from whose point of view we hear the novel, as though we were the American stranger. He asks us to hear his story over dinner and begins to recall his move to New York as a student and success in a financial valuation company, as well as his falling in love with an American girl. And then the tragedy of 9/11 hits and Changez finds that he, the girl of his dreams and the world around him begin to change in ways he can’t continue to ignore.
“You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums.”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s monologue style is immersive and Hamid’s prose is possessed of an elegant intelligence that proves highly absorbing. We come to truly feel as though we are sitting across from Changez as he recounts his tale. The love story aspect is original and thoughtful, shying away from romantic tropes, and Hamid does well to bring both America and Lahore to life in equal measure.
But what truly resonates here is the personal political dimension that Hamid describes. The Reluctant Fundamentalist gives an adopted American’s perspective on pre- and post-9/11 life delving into the dissolution of the American dream in the wake of resurfacing nationalism, the profound sense of dysphoric dissociation of the stranger in a strange land, and the difficulties in reconciling the disparity between one’s homeland and its relationship to the “land of the free”.
“It is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be.”
Indeed, it’s a fascinating book to be reading at this time, as the ugly head of racist political rhetoric once again rears its head and the discussion around the issue of immigration hits the peak of dichotomous debate. While western demagogues spurn angry masses into leveling the blame for all that’s wrong on the borders of other countries, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an affecting reminder of the collateral damage dealt home and abroad to the innocent bystanders by this divisive form of politics.
The calculation of the prose and the drip-feeding of details owe a legacy to Ishiguro, and, like Ishiguro’s work, the pay-off is proportionate to the build-up which, in the case of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is as reserved and subtle as its formulation. Hamid’s polemic is a work of precise, controlled anger; a politely devastating attack on a place and time that lives in infamy. It is a work likely to elicit diverse reactions for many years to come and it remains painfully relevant six years after its publication.