Monday, November 29, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

In my on-going effort to improve the quality of my bookshelf, I always ask people what they've read recently that they would recommend.  Some friends mentioned The Reluctant Fundamentalist and it sounded interesting so I checked it out from the local library.  The book was renewed twice before I got past the first page, but when I did finally get into it, I read it over the course of a couple of days.  It is a book that could easily be read in one sitting if you had a free afternoon. 

The construct of the book is a "conversation" that a Pakistani man named Changez has with an American at a restaurant in Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan.  (I put the word conversation in quotes because we only hear Changez's side of the discussion.)  The two meet seemingly by chance in the district of Old Anarkali where the American is looking for a place to have a cup of tea.  The Pakistani notices him and takes him to his favorite cafe.   Changez proceeds to tell his new acquaintance the story of the 4-1/2 years he spent in America, first at Princeton and then in New York working for a boutique investment banking firm.   His story flows seamlessly back and forth from his time at Princeton, his relationship with a troubled American woman and his experiences as an investment banker to his chldhood growing up in Lahore and his complicated feelings about America.  His recollections are interspersed with interruptions from the present as the pair notice the goings-on around them in the cafe.

Inevitably, the story turns to the events of 9/11, although they are mentioned almost in passing.  Changez confesses that, when he heard about the attacks, his first reaction was to smile.  He assures his companion that this is not because he is a man lacking compassion but because of the symbolism of the attack--America had finally been brought to its knees.  He was surprised by his reaction.  After all, America was a friend of Pakistan and he personally had a bright future ahead of him there.  Still, his feelings of being an outsider were deep-seated and the attacks tapped into that emotion.  From then on, his negative feelings about the United States that had been sublimated to the opportunities he had been given began to bubble to the surface.  He came to think of himself as a janissary.  (Janissaries were Christian boys who, in the 14th century, were captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army.  Janissaries were indoctrinated into the ways of Islam and left their affinity with their families and Christianity behind.)  The difference between him and a 14th century janissary, however, was that true janissaries were taken from their homes in their childhood, when memories and relationships had not been fully formed; he had been "taken" as a young adult and felt torn between his two worlds.

The reader knows from the outset of the book that this man is back in Pakistan, although we do not know the circumstances of his return to his country.  The ending of the book is ambiguous, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about the identities and motivations of Changez and the American, whose name is never disclosed.

Upon reflection, I am struck by the cleverness of the title of the book. During Changez's stint as an investment banker, his mentor tells him to "rely on the fundamentals".   So even before the awakening of his true feelings and his return to Pakistan, Changez is a fundamentalist of a sort.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a quick and thought-provoking read and would be a great selection for book groups.   Now I'm on to something lighter--The Reversal by Michael Connelly.  Enough already with all the 9/11 intensity!

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