Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid

Another book group pick. I don't know for sure why the person who requested it chose it because she wasn't present at the last meeting, but I do know why this novel, or really, novella, has come to the forefront again. The Times Square attempted bomber, Faisal Shahzad, bears more than skin deep resemblance to the narrator of this book, and I imagine that people looking for clues have gravitated toward this one. I'm glad this Booker-Man Prize shortlisted work of fiction has had a second wave of interest, though I suspect people looking for conclusive answers will be disappointed. I think what they will find, though, is a penetrating look at American society about a character both outside it and inside it, and his progressive disenchantment is well worth considering. It is, in fact, open to interpretation.

The narrator, Changez, is a Pakistani, and the entire novel is narrated by him in one sitting in a cafe in Lahore. His willing, captive or hostile listener is an American stranger and he is only one of those whom Changez tries to find some sort of mirror or connection in. In a sense, the failed attempt in Times Square, which happened long after the novel went to print, raises the stakes and perhaps even changes the reading by a reader now. I don't think Hamid would mind that, as the book is all about our ambivalent interpretations of each other. I had originally thought to write that I don't get the ending, but having read an interview with him, I realize that's partly his intent.

This book is full of acute observations about the foreigner's position, and particularly the Muslim foreigner's position in America today. It's interesting to watch how far a liberal American is willing to go with him and where and if there is a point where the viewpoint diverges. We must of course always remember that Changez is not Hamid and though I'm sure their viewpoints overlap at many points, but they are not identical.

I had a funny feeling of a haunting in this book, although it is not about ghosts. Briefly, I can feel the ghosts of the books that Hamid has read before writing this. It is by no means derivative, but this story of an Asian man who falls for and is emotionally captured by a damaged Western woman feels like a story I've heard before.

Actually, it's a very Western story, come to think of it.

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