Since Falstaff's refused to review a couple of books, I figured I will do them first before moving to the others. Here's my take on Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In a cafe in Lahore's Old Anarkali district, a bearded Pakistani named Changez converses with an American who happens to be in the area. The conversation is one-sided, humility mixed with a good amount of sarcasm. The narrator talks about his life in the States and his reasons for his return to his homeland. His intentions and the identity of the American remain unknown; they are immaterial. Changez's story goes something like this:
Changez comes from an upper middle class family from Lahore where even the women are professionals. His upbringing is that of a typical upper class male (though slowly dropping off from that strata) in the developing world. He goes to Princeton on a scholarship and his life there is unremarkable. After a successful interview with a valuation firm called Underwood Samson (US), Changez moves to New York. He takes to NY and US, and the focus of his life is on "fundamentals" as US wants it to be. He rises fast and becomes the Boss's favorite. He also gets into a relationship with an all-American Princetonian called Erica, and through her is inducted into NY society.
While on a business trip to Manila, Sep 11 happens and watching it on TV, our man smiles at the symbolism of it. Back in the States, the world is changing. The attack on Afghanistan, racial profiling and slurs that he is subjected to, a trip back to the homeland, another trip to Chile where the client talks to him about janissaries and most of all, the alienation of Erica who now lives only in nostalgia all make Changez realise that he is wasting his time in the States. He quits his job, packs his bags and moves back to Pakistan. Whether he is a different kind of a fundamentalist now, one which the world is more familiar with, is left unanswered.
Its a nice enough setup, interesting in a number of ways. Hamid's writing is smooth and the book is a real fast read. The atmosphere is just right - one gets the feeling of sitting in a cafe, chilled out, listening to this man's story. Hamid, like good diasporic writers is very good with cultural displacement - his comparisons between Manila and Lahore, his reactions to Erica's father's remarks on Pakistan, the lack of refinment that he finds in his fellow Princetonians, their disregard for money, even the smile when the Towers come down are nice touches which most immigrants in the New World will be able to associate with. But beyond that, there's nothing more to the book - the plot is trite, Changez's transformation is too simplistic. The characters - Jim, Erica, Changez - are engaging but they all seem etched out by pop Western imagination than by anyone who's walked the streets of Lahore and Mahattan. The monologue, Changez's relationship with Erica which mirrors his relationship with America, the names of the characters are all interesting but in the absence of a credible storyline they seem mere stunts that are there to make up for the lack of a plot.
The other issue that bugs me about the book is this: we live in times when conversations between the West and the Islamic world are absolutely essential. Fundamentalism can be of more than one kind, everyone who disagrees with America is not a terrorist are all ideas that everyone should be made aware of and Hamid is to be appreciated for starting this conversation. But here's the thing: this book is currently on the Times bestseller list. Millions of Americans read this and (perhaps) think that they understand the other side, the terrorist psyche, they understand Changez. For some reason, that's a little disconcerting.
Don't get me wrong, its a nice enough book and I liked it. I would readily pick it up at an airport bookstore to keep me entertained on a short flight. As long as its understood that this is mostly entertainment, and it is not hugely insightful or substantative. Which is why I think that the right tribute for this book is not the Booker (though considering the times, its not surprising that it made it to the longlist) but a Hollywood adaptation. Which I am sure will happen soon enough.