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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
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Sep 15, 2008

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bookshelves: terrorism

** spoiler alert ** This is a lovely, short, very easy-to-read post 9/11 book.

The structure of this is tale is Changez telling his personal story to a burly American visitor (probably a spook of some sort) to his country, in his function as a guide to Pakistan. The tone was very reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling, at least as far as I recall from my reading of Kipling many years back. Think The Man Who Would Be King. This makes sense given the subject matter of the book, colonialism versus the third world.

Changez, born to fading gentry in Pakistan, has attended Princeton on scholarship, gotten a lucrative job with a top tier financial company, and is in love with beautiful, blond upper-class Yank. Life is good. But when 9/11 happens he discovers that he feels some satisfaction in the great giant being taken down a notch. In the newly paranoid USA, his background marks him as a threat to many and life changes.

Essentially what we have here is a foreigner (Changez) falling in love with America (get it? amERICA), but his amERICA is too damaged by the premature loss of her boyfriend to cancer at age 22 (Read Vietnam or whatever other fall one might choose) to cope. The result of this is that amERICA suffers from extreme nostalgia and becomes incapable of truly embracing Changez (subtle).

Erica’s father irks him with presumptions about corruption in Pakistan. He sees a “typically American undercurrent of condescension” (p 55) American indifference to third world concerns is noted repeatedly here. It is no secret that the USA is notoriously unempathetic to the concerns of others since the Marshall Plan.

Fundamentals here are the tools taught him in his finance career (efficiency). Fundamentals are implied for other things, knowing who you are, what your place is in the world. There are, surprisingly, no overt connections made to religious fundamentalism. Presumably one of the author’s points is that the values held high in the west (efficiency uber alles) are just as unfeeling and extreme as those of the religious nuts.

I did not take this as a personal tale. It is a metaphoric one. I mean the main character has but a single name, Changez. For that alone, how could the book be anything other than metaphorical? So I was not troubled by the contradictions in the character. For example, Changez feels an affinity with the jeepney driver in the Philippines, yet the choices he makes are all to strive within the western world. He manages to get a scholarship to attend Princeton, but feels it necessary to hide his relative poverty. What? Are there no other scholarship kids at Princeton? He is elitist in his orientation, wanting to hang with the rich kids, wanting to work for the heavy hitter financial company, even after it becomes clear to him that the work will cost people their livelihoods, wanting to be with the crazy girl when it is clear that she is over the edge. It is not America that rejects the foreigner here, but the foreigner who rejects America. So it is not a personal tale. It is a metaphoric one. It would have been better had the walking symbols here been made more reasonable, had their desires and impulses been a little more grounded in flesh and blood reality.

You’re not a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Hamid's personal, FB, twitter pages

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Comments (showing 1-20 of 20) (20 new)

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Kamil Great review and even nicer interpretation of the story.
However, I do not think the choices Changez made being a kid are in contradiction with the shift that he went through becoming a man. America/western world seduced him, by welcoming him, showing great promise but somehow never letting be embraced totally, finally closing itself from him, as Erica did.
He chased the promise, as a student but somehow felt a out of place.
While young Jim was foreign in regards with social class, Changes had also cope with cultural differences. That made all the difference, especially while the culture/world he grew up in started to be treated as enemy by the group he started to assimilate.

Will Byrnes Certainly a reasonable interpretation

Supratim Wonderful review, Will !!! The review helped me to understand the book and let me see it in a new light.

Will Byrnes Thanks, Supratim

message 5: by Jan (new)

Jan Rice I was thinking John Updike's Terrorist, but totally different! Thanks for this review, Will.

"...he feels some satisfaction in the great giant being taken down a notch." Have you seen the play Disgraced, by Ayad Akhtar? That line reminded me.

"...He manages to get a scholarship to attend Princeton, but feels it necessary to hide his relative poverty." Had me thinking of the great Gatsby--100 years earlier--wouldn't go b/c he couldn't stand the humiliation of having to work. At least this guy does attend!

Will Byrnes Jan wrote: "I was thinking John Updike's Terrorist, but totally different! Thanks for this review, Will.

"...he feels some satisfaction in the great giant being taken down a notch." Have you seen..."

Don't get out to the theater much, so no.

At least this guy does attend!
Yep, and experiences wrenching conflict.

Will Byrnes Cynthia Porter wrote: "i will help you what do you what again"

Hi Cynthia, or Ava. It was not clear that your messages were intended for me or for someone else. Please let me know if you have a question or comment relating to this review. iI will be happy to respond.

Mizuki I read this book before and it's a thoughtful review.

Will Byrnes Thanks Mizuki

message 10: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Thanks, Tess

Blair I read this book a while ago, but I forgot about it until I read this review. I see it as being about the American Dream. A dream, of course, is a simplification and distortion of a complex reality. Changez learns about America from the limited information that reached him in Pakistan, then in the very artificial world of a university campus. His relationship with Erica and his job at the financial firm are the continuation of the dream, and he ends up feeling betrayed by both.

Coming from within this society, I say get over the girl, and if you don’t like what your company does, go work for something you can believe in. Its not like you don’t have choices. But when you live in a dream those choices are not apparent. Instead, you wake up and the dream is over. When Changez woke up from his dream he went back to his waking life in Pakistan. He apparently spends the rest of his life doing little but telling people what a nightmare America is.

And this how the world sees America, from both inside and out: dreams and nightmares.

Good review, and thanks for reminding me about this book. I will use these thoughts for my own review.

message 12: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes The dream element makes a lot of sense.

message 13: by dogcat (new)

dogcat dud you basicly explained the whole book

message 14: by Caroline (new)

Caroline I saw the film a couple of months ago, and enjoyed it enormously. There the lead figure had been fleshed out and seemed a real personality. Not the same for his girlfriend, her contradictions didn't make sense, or even vaguely fit into an overall package. I loved the very end of the film....(view spoiler)

message 15: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes He could do with a bit of fleshing out. She is mostly non-person to begin with, so it seems ok that she remained a less than human figure in the film.

message 16: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Ah, interesting that you think that....

message 17: by Wendy (new)

Wendy Cosin Will, I just finished his latest book, Exit West, and loved it. I didn't read The Reluctant Fundamentalist (and don't want to after reading your review). I think you'd like the new one if you can get your hands on it. Comes out in March.

message 18: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Will keep an eye out for it

Laura I just finished the book, and agree with much of your review Will. I hadn't thought of Erica as a metaphor for America, but it certainly makes sense.

message 20: by Will (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will Byrnes Yep

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