Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Like the Cold War in previous decades, the post 9/11 years have produced their own fiction dealing with its various themes and conflicts, of which The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a fine example.

Hamid’s second novel is written in the form of a long conversation between Changez, a young Pakistani man, educated in at University in the US and once employed in a high flying New York firm, and an unnamed American who gets increasingly jumpy as the evening goes on.

Scion of a once wealthy family in Lahore, Changez graduates from Princeton and is soon interviewed for prestigious valuation firm Underwood Samson. This is not before he and his fellow graduates set out for a holiday on the Greek Islands. Among their group is Erica, whom Changez falls for. She tells him that she is grieving for her boyfriend who died about a year before. He tells her about his life growing up in Lahore:

She ordered a beer; I did the same. “So what’s Pakistan like?” she asked. I told her Pakistan was many things, from seaside to desert to farmland stretched between rivers and canals; I told her that I had driven with my parents and my brother to China on the Karakoram Highway, passing along the bottoms of valleys higher than the tops of the Alps; I told her that alcohol was illegal for Muslims to buy and so I had a Christian bootlegger who delivered booze to my house in a Suzuki pickup.

Life soon takes over after their return to New York and Changez is scooped up into the high spending lifestyle of Underwood Samson. He is amazed that spending a large amount of company money on drink is not only permitted, it is actively encouraged:

But for me, at the age of twenty-two, this experience was a revelation. I could, if I desired, take my colleagues out for an after-work drink – an activity classified as “new hire cultivation” – and with impunity spend in an hour more than my father earned in a day! As you can imagine, we new hires availed ourselves of the opportunity to cultivate one another on a regular basis. I remember the first night we did so; we went to the bar at the Royalton, on the Forty-Fourth Street. Sherman came with us on this occasion and ordered a bottle of vintage champagne to celebrate our induction... Sherman left when the champagne was done, but he told us to charge our bill to Underwood Samson. We did so, staggering out into the street around midnight.

Changez is a great success in the firm, a number one valuator, and he also meets up with Erica again. He is introduced to her friends and family and is served wine at home with her parents. He takes a moment to explain the relationship between Pakistanis and drink to his unnamed companion at the table:

You seem puzzled by this – and not for the first time. Perhaps you misconstrue the significance of my beard, which, I should in any case make clear, I had not yet kept when I arrived in New York. In truth, many Pakistanis drink; alcohol’s illegality in our country has roughly the same effect as marijuana’s in yours. Moreover, not all of our drinkers are western-educated urbanites such as myself; our newspapers regularly carry accounts of villagers dying or going blind after consuming poor-quality moonshine. Indeed, in our poetry and folk songs intoxication occupies a recurring role as a facilitator of love and spiritual enlightenment. What? Is it not a sin? Yes, it certainly is – as so, for that matter, is coveting thy neighbor’s wife. I see you smile; we understand one another, then.

The attacks on September 11th 2001 leave Changez feeling increasingly alienated and distracted as the world around him takes arbitrary positions. Erica, who had a severe bout of mental illness when her boyfriend died, becomes unwell again and their relationship disintegrates. As the America slides into conflict with Afghanistan his emotions become increasingly polarised:

My reaction caught me by surprise; Afghanistan was Pakistan’s neighbour, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the sight of what I took to be the beginning of its invasion by your countrymen caused me to tremble with fury. I had to sit down to calm myself, and I remember polishing off a third of a bottle of whiskey before I was able to fall asleep.

A trip home at Christmas causes him to finally take sides and he leaves his firm soon afterwards, and comes back to Pakistan on a permanent basis. There he lectures at the local university, encouraging students to break with the west. One of his protégés has been involved in an outrage and as the evening draws to a close, the identity of his American companion and why he is there becomes apparent...


  1. Mohsin Hamid invites us to listen as Changez relates his history, a history that explains the other side of a conflict we know all too well. The Reluctant Fundamentalist the novel will persist in telling the tale of a Pakistani--tought by Princeton and employed by business elite--and his journey through foreign lands and scenarios; an anthem, in fact, that will be curricula to explain the effects of 9/11 from a man on both sides of the conflict.

  2. I think you're right - this is going to be seen as an important book in years to come.