Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I do believe that I sometimes get sucked in by a good title and that certainly was the case with The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.  Originally I had heard about the book when a reporter from CBC Radio interviewed the author, and the title managed to stick in my mind until a recent trip to the library.  Another confession that I need to make is that in addition to my tendencies to gravitate towards books with appealing titles, I am prejudiced against small books.  This is silly I know, and there are plenty of classics which don't pass the two hundred page milestone, but there is a certain tactile pleasure in holding a large book.  Freudians may classify me how they will, I generally read books that are over three hundred pages, so this book was a slim number for me.  More of a novella really.

Now that all of those dramatic, mind-blowing confessions are out of the way, let me tell you about the book itself.  At the beginning of the book the main character, Changez meets an American in a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan.  Throughout the rest of the book, Changez recounts his life in America before and after the September 11th terrorist attacks to the stranger.  He begins the book as a Princeton graduate who is recruited by the prestigious financial firm, Underwood Samson and is on his way up the New York corporate ladder.  At the same time, he develops feelings for the troubled writer, Erica, who is his invitation to the city's social scene.  While they sashay from event to event, Changez becomes more and more drawn to her, even as she reveals secrets from her past which should give him some pause.  

The story takes a turn when a terrorist attack which occurs in India is attributed to a Pakistani group.  This brings the long-standing conflict between India and Pakistan to a head , and causes Changez's priorities to shift.  Around the same time, the attacks of 9/11 occurred and his adopted country becomes further embroiled in the affairs of the Middle East.  As the jingoistic fervour reaches its fever pitch, Changez finds himself an outsider, despite his hard work and Ivy League pedigree.  Slowly, as tensions increase in his home country, he questions his place in post-9/11 America.  It is no surprise that Changez chooses to return to his homeland (there is a bigger surprise than that), but rather the long decision-making process is more dramatic.  

As a story of the American Dream gone wrong, this small book is quite an interesting ride.  A Muslim man living and working in Manhattan during one of the most dramatic times in American history, Changez provides a unique point of view.  He presents himself as a modern Scheherazade, weaving a compelling story over the course of one night and thus the author creates an intensely readable narrative.  Once I got into the book, the pages just flew by.  I did have a bit of a hard time connecting with Changez, and felt frustrated with his unabated fascination with Erica, who clearly did not return his affection.  This disconnect does not diminish how well-written this book is and how important it is to reflect upon the events which immediately followed the September 11th terrorist attacks. The book is also slim, so even if you hate the book, at least you know that your misery will not last long.  Now that is a ringing endorsement.  

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