Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (2.5/5)

First published: 2007
Page count: 209

The back says: 'Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America...'

So speaks the mysterious stranger at a Lahore cafe as dusk settles. Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this speaker of immaculate English to seek you out. For he is more worldly than you might expect; better travelled and better educated. He knows the West better than you do. And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream - and a Western woman - and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens. Then the true reason for your meeting becomes abundantly clear...

I say: I am in two minds about this novel; on the one hand I think it’s excellently written with a beautiful and alert prose; but on the other hand I find it very self-important and predictable in its prejudice. It pretty much does what it says on the tin and in a lot of ways I’ve heard and read this story before – especially in the post 9/11 world and I find it immensely wearying.

Asian man, in this story Pakistani, moves to America and loves it at first but then becomes aware of how different he is and starts resenting the country and its people.


Hidden amongst the muddle of expectable tropes is a sprinkling of very astute observations about the way America is perceived portrayed (I cannot fully comment as I have never been there), whether it be based on reality or not. At the same time there are so many stereotypes that the narrator goes from fleshing out his character to to reducing it to a caricature.

“I thought about this. As I have already told you, I did not grow up in poverty. But I did grow up with a poor boy’s sense of longing, in my case not for what my family had never had, but for what we had had and lost. Some of my relatives held onto imagined memories the way homeless people hold onto lottery tickets. Nostalgia was their crack cocaine, if you will, and my childhood was littered with the consequences of their addiction: unserviceable debts, squabbles over inheritances, the odd alcoholic or suicide. In this, Jim [his boss] and I were indeed similar: he had grown up outside the candy store, and I had grown up on its threshold as its door was being shut.” – p 81

I like Hamid’s prose and I wouldn’t mind reading more of his work. However, this novel left me feeling a combination of meh and annoyance. Maybe it’s because of the way the narrator is constantly talking down to the American or just the general way he is presented. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is other than saying that it was a disappointing read.

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