Thursday, April 3, 2014

"Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America."

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was a great companion novel to Amy Waldman's The Submission.  In The Submission, the architect Mohammed Khan starts the story American and proud, but increasingly begins to feel like America does not want him, and becomes alienated in his own country.  The narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Changez, grows up in Pakistan and then works to make himself as American as possible, getting a highly sought-after position at a financial firm, chasing after a blue-blood, beautiful woman named Erika, and generally living the good life.  Then 9/11 happens, and he begins to think that maybe America isn't all that great.

This short novel is narrated through Changez's monologue.  He spends the whole book chatting with an American - we can't be sure, but the American seems to be someone operating undercover from a few hints.  Changez tells the American his life story as they sit and enjoy tea, a meal, and then a walk back to the American's hotel.

There was a lot of heavy symbolism in this book.  Changez = Change, Erika = America, Fundamentalism = America's self-absorption, and many more that I'm sure I missed.  I think the symbolism was a bit too heavy-handed for my liking, though clearly Hamid wanted to make a point and to hit readers over the head with it.

What I appreciated about this book was the way it turned fundamentalism on its head and showed people just how differently America can be viewed by people who have a different perspective.  Much like Mohammed Khan in The Submission, Changez wanted to be American, but Americans did not want to see him as American.  When Changez goes back to Pakistan, he becomes an anti-American activist, speaking out against American policies.  Does this make him a terrorist?  Would we assume that Europeans who speak out against American policies are terrorists and enemies of the state?

In many ways, The Reluctant Fundamentalist felt like a rehash of the racial and political debate that many Middle Easterners and South Asians already feel very close to.  In that way, it didn't break a ton of new ground for me, but I am aware that my experience can be quite different than other people's, and I'm glad that there are more and more books being published now that attempt to shed life on other perspectives.  Whether Changez is ultimately a terrorist or not is a question readers are left wondering at the end of the book, but the power of the story is that we could understand Changez going either way.

This is a short novel that packs a lot of debate and points to ponder in its few pages.  I listened to it on audiobook and enjoyed the narration.  Definitely recommend this novel if you want to see a different perspective on the after-effects of 9/11 and how other people might view America.

16 comments:

  1. I've had this one on my stacks for a number of years. It does sound heavy-handed, but I'm looking forward to giving it a try.

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  2. If the names and symbolism are that heavy-handed, then the author was going for an allegory. Sounds interesting.

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  3. I'm sure that I've read this book, but I can't remember much about it now. You have me interesting in reading it again (or for the first time.)

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  4. I read this when it first came out and just did not like it... It might have been timing? It's a book I am thinking I will reread one day...

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  5. I read this when it was first published, I had a pretty lukewarm reaction too. I liked the way the issues were explored, but I found the ending (or lack thereof) to be extremely frustrating.

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  6. I watched the movie, and enjoyed it (even if I am sure the book was better). got so angry there at how he was treated

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  7. This sounds like it would be a great book for a book club. I might look out for this one...

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  8. Really interesting topic, but to be honest the heavy-handedness puts me off.

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  9. I've read this a couple of times plus watched the movie. I find it very interesting and very readable.

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  10. "Would we assume that Europeans who speak out against American policies are terrorists and enemies of the state?" Would we assume that (white) Americans who speak out about American policies are terrorists and enemies of the state? Because that happens too. And yes, interesting!

    So this sounds interesting but maybe not so readable? In which case, can we just discuss the issues ourselves and not read the book? Yeah? Good :)

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  11. I really enjoyed this one too! Unfortunately, I think it is too heavy and abstract for the readers that really need to hear the book's message. If you read te reviews on amazon and similar sites, so many people say such bad things about this book because I think they just don't get t. It is pretty crazy though. Ave you seen the movie? They change it A LOT.

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    1. I have not seen the movie, no. Should I?

      And I can completely understand what you mean about people rating the book poorly because they kind of miss the point. Sigh.

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  12. I read this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it. I never heard of The Submission so I'll probably check it out. Now that you've read The Reluctant Fundamentalist, are you willing to pick up Hamid's latest book?

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    1. Hmm, I don't know. I think I would - I feel like he's an author with a lot of potential.

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  13. I read this a few years ago and remember really really liking it. I just read most recently, though, a book called American Dervish. And as much as I was annoyed by over half the reviews featured in the book's end pages using the phrase "post-9/11", American Dervish does share that voice you mentioned in your closing line. I thought it wonderful. Can't remember if you've already read it or not, but I highly recommend.

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