Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

This is a brave, hard work showing the abyss that separates the West from Islam. At times a realistic narrative, Mohsin Hamid's novel veers into parable, with the narrator, the young Pakistani Changez, representing Islam and Erica, his white American girlfriend mired deep in a psychosis with self-destructive tendencies, representing the West.

It is also the best one-sided dialogue since Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, where a seductively compelling voice carries you along through a story almost against your will.

How does it end? There is a tension throughout the narrative. Who is the American Changez is talking to? Why does the waiter in the restaurant appear menacing? Hamid sets up a scenario of mutually assured destruction and leaves the reader the choice of outcome.

The realistic portion of the narrative -- Changez's career in New York and budding love affair with Erica -- is sharply drawn and readily recognizable. A bright foreign student fits in so well that his colleagues can forget he is foreign and be blissfully unaware of the deep and different currents that run through him. It is the catastrophe of 9/11 that bring these hidden currents to the surface.

There are some striking similarities to Netherland. Both stories involve foreigners who come to New York to work in finance. Both protagonists have their foreignness brought home to them by the terrorist attacks. Both end up going home. For all our globalized markets and economy, an individual's roots in culture and family will exert a pull in times of stress.

Hamid's work is more radical, because Joseph O'Neill's protagonist in Netherland is European, with much more affinity for his host country. It is hard even with the most open mind to accept Changez's feeling of happiness at the destruction of the World Trade Center, but it's important to keep your eyes open and acknowledge the reality of it.

I'll admit I had to check my globe to see where Lahore is located -- right on India's western border. That antagonism adds another layer to the book's conflict. It is not just Islam vs the West, but also against the vast Hindu state on its borders. Pakistan is as artificial a creation as Israel, a refuge based on religion. Oddly, Changez's description of the market, the tea, the food kind of make me want to visit Lahore.

The author bio says Hamid, who grew up in Lahore and attended Princeton like his protagonist, now lives in London, which has become a mecca for diversity. Like other writers from the subcontinent, Hamid has a wonderful, flowing style that is somehow entrancing to read. I'll look for his earlier book, Moth Smoke, and for his next one.

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