Friday, July 11, 2014

The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In case you haven't figured it out by now, I read a lot on vacation. Like five books. In a week. It was positively delightful. What more do people want from their vacations? Ok, well, I have asked Kevin that our next vacation be a sight-seeing one (i.e. not the beach, but somewhere with more historical sites and museums for me to ogle), so Aruba was probably my last book-devouring trip for a while.

Unlike The Engagements, this pick definitely is not a traditional beach read. Who spends their pool time reading about the cultural struggles of a Pakistani living in America? Me, apparently.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told in a unique style. The main character, Changez, speaks in a first person monologue as though he were conversing with an American in a Pakistani cafĂ©. Changez tells the story of his time in America and how he came to return to Pakistan.

Changez originally went tot he states as a Princeton student. Post-graduation, he scores a prestigious job at a consulting firm. At that point, he establishes life in New York and states, "I was, in four and a half years, never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker." I love that image of New York as America's true melting pot, almost separate from the rest of the country in its uniqueness. 

Changez falls in love with a troubled young woman and excels at work. He still feels a connection, albeit thin, to his native country. Everything changes, however, on 9/11.

Typically, I try to avoid novels that center around 9/11. So many of them are too kitsch for my taste. Some hit too close to home with memories of that day. Some are all about giving a moral to the story. Some simply aren't offering a unique perspective. Cynical, perhaps, but all true reasons I avoid 9/11 books.

Hamid, however, gives the story from a vantage point few Americans have ever or will ever consider. Changez sees the events as an outsider, one who is quickly stereotyped as such. He describes the post-9/11 tone in the States as such, "I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back."

As Changez continues to tell his story, you begin to wonder about his motivations. Suddenly, you, the reader, are also seeing him as more than an exchange student or achiever of the American Dream. You not only see, but understand his disgruntled feelings toward the US and their retaliations for the horrible tragedy. Hamid writes, 
"As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own."
To see 9/11 from this perspective is so fascinating and certainly something I only given minimal thought to before. Being American, I obviously understand and remember the sentiment of the country in the years directly after that day. It was a time when it was too easy to overlook the views and beliefs of others, all in the name of justice. I don't want to get all political here, but I think many of us, myself including, have seriously evolved in our thinking on foreign relations since that time. Due, in part, to books and perspectives like this one.

Hamid leaves you wondering about Changez. You don't know if his intentions are pure or have come to personify the title of the book. I like that he leaves things open-ended. It gives the reader that much more to think about. You can walk away wondering if your impressions of other people are based on prejudices or facts. I liked that.

I did want to share one other really great quote from the book. It comes from a point when Changez is struggling with his dueling allegiances. As a Humanities teacher and a lover of history, I thought this idea was endlessly fascinating. It also gave me another idea of why there is resentment between these cultures. 
"Often, during my stay in your country, such comparisons troubled me. In fact, they did more than trouble me: they made me resentful. Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed."
I absolutely recommend this book, particularly if you are old enough to remember 9/11. If you aren't, it probably has some content you aren't quite ready for yet either. Though the broader story of Changez's changing mindset is what you walk away remembering, there are some really beautiful subplots woven in as well. 

There was a movie adaptation in 2012 that, though it was a box office flop, I plan on adding to my Netflix queue. I am eager to see how Hollywood adapts this story of American history from a non-American perspective. 

Pages: 200
Date Completed: June 2, 2014

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