Seth T.'s Reviews > The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
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Aug 11, 2010

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Read in March, 2010

Generally speaking, Moshin Hamid's slight novel is a brisk, enjoyable, and largely compelling read. And one that, when finished, fails to satisfy in any deeply meaningful way.

And that's fine. The same could be said about The Lord of the Rings.

Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist presents a surreal, impossible, and rather-one-sided conversation in a Lahore marketplace between a Pakistani man named for Ghengis Khan and an unnamed American. In the course of Gengis Khan's almost-monologue, he reveals that he (now bearded and a stereotypical Pakistani's Pakistani) had once and very recently been deeply engaged by the American allure. And having graduated from Princeton and been picked up by a highly exclusive and exquisitely capitalistic corporate appraisal company, he was once all about what America, presumably, is about. By conversation's end, having stretched from midday to midnight, Ghengis Khan reveals exactly how his allegiances turned, stimulated by the dual catalysts of the World Trade Center attack and the dissolution of a hopeful romance.

Well before the tale's end, we discover that Ghengis Khan's story of love and disappointment is probably more allegory than history. All for the benefit of his American audience (both fictional and metafictional).

Characters are named conveniently to represent ideas. There's a John the Baptist (Juan-Bautista), essentially, cleansing Ghengis Khan and preparing him for the new world he'll be joining. There's Erica, who pretty clearly represents the joys and favours and mystery and disillusionment to be found in America. There's a Chris, who represents the lost joys that the Christian West might have offered those it blessed, only now sought after through the desperation of nostalgia. Our storyteller works for Underwood Samson a stand-in both for the U.S. and for everything that American capitalistic exceptionalism stands for. As for the storyteller himself, his name is Changez (Urdu for Ghengis) and his is a story about changes.

It's all very well-put-together and cute in its way, but this story tends to trample the thriller-aspect that Hamid is trying to build. In a certain manner this is not an entirely bad thing as when one rounds the final bend of the story, it is discovered that the book is less about being a thriller and more about being a pedagogical device. Hamid wants the reader to confront his or her own presuppositions and biases leaving the conclusion ambiguous, recognizing that many people's demand for story-closure will have them attempting to brute-force a finale onto the book even though no plausible ending is demanded or even hinted at.

In some ways the book succeeds in unveiling the fears and beliefs of readers—if my experience discussing the book with others is any indication. However, there are a couple major faults that prevent the book from truly allowing this to take place: 1) the lamentable choice of cover art (on several of the editions) plays into Islamic fundamentalism where the ideology finds no place in the Changez's story; and 2) those wishing the American to be some sort of secret agent or assassin must be confronted with the fact that no agent or assassin would act with the naive ineptitude that Changez's potentially-furtive conversational partner displays.

In all, I enjoyed The Reluctant Fundamentalist for the taut example of storytelling displayed but ultimately found it could have been better conceived, especially so far as Hamid's pedagogical, reflective angle is concerned.

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