Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Reading group: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

At the end of the last reading group meeting we were all a bit drunk, I think, and we cooked up the idea of having this month's meeting in the house in Wales where John and I would be spending most of August. We must have been mad: not only is the house still very much gutted, it's also pretty small, and most people would have had to camp in the field outside, and with these August winds howling and the stream that runs through the field swelling one night and flooding, it was clearly not on. We chickened out, and came back to Manc and held the meeting at our house here instead. In any case, the book suggested by Jenny for discussion, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was probably best discussed in a less abandoned and celebratory mood.

It was a sombre evening, dark already when people turned up at eight huddled and drenched from the walk around the corner, an evening well suited to the grave theme and formal tone of this book, a novella-length dramatic monologue delivered in a Lahore marketplace cafe by Changez, the Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated ex high-flying New York financial analyst, and addressed to an American stranger.

Jenny said she chose the book because of its subject matter and because it had been Booker shortlisted (which last would no doubt have drawn wry comment from the anti-hype, anti-prize Mark had he not been absent from the group for some time now because of his studies). She briefly recapped the story which Changez tells the stranger: of his meteoric success at university and in the financial company he joins thereafter, of his relationship with the young and beautiful New Yorker Erica who however is blighted by past sadness, the death of her first, childhood love, and of the way that both areas of Changez's life take a downward turn after 9/11. Erica becomes strangely sadder and indeed psychotically obsessed with the dead Chris, finally withdrawing from Changez altogether; Changez's social status is threatened by the growing American suspicion of all Muslims, and at the same time he comes to realize that he has been a willing dupe in the West's usurpation of his own people who, as he points out to the stranger, although now suffering poverty, built sophisticated cities and conducted a sophisticated civilization when westerners were still barbarians.

Meanwhile, this being a dramatic monologue, as this story is unfolding so is another, on the level of dramatic action: the relationship between Changez and the stranger is tense and highly ambiguous. Changez buttonholes the stranger, who appears immediately afraid, especially of the burly waiter. During the course of the meal which Changez 'invites' the stranger to share - in fact appearing rather to impose it on him, as he does his story - we learn that this louring and intent-seeming waiter has been a freedom fighter in Afghanistan. Yet who is this American stranger in this city without tourism? He must be a businessman, Changez concludes (and the stranger fails to confirm or deny this); yet why does his hand continually move towards his inside pocket? And what is that glint of metal there? Is it a cigarette case or a gun? Who is trapping or hounding down whom? Jenny said she concluded that the stranger had been sent by the Americans to take out Changez, the new if reluctant fundamentalist. Doug however said that since Changez took such pains to engage the stranger he had concluded it was the other way around, that the American stranger was being trapped by Changez and his new fundamentalist confederates. In the end, though, we all agreed that you couldn't really conclude either: indeed both were possible (in the best spy thriller tradition) and, more importantly, the book was deliberately ambiguous (it's an ambiguity that holds right up to and including the dramatic end), sending the important message that it in our current political situation friendship and enmity become muddied, and it's not possible to pinpoint goodies and baddies (as the traditional spy thriller ultimately does).

Jenny said that she found the book a little puzzling, a bit thin maybe. She thought that Erica's sudden emotional descent and its link with 9/11 wasn't really explained and that Changez's political turnaround was perfunctory and possibly unconvincing (and people murmured agreement). She said that pondering this she had wondered what made someone a fundamentalist, and had decided it was probably when something goes wrong in their personal life and they need something to fill a gap. Taking this back to the book, she thought that maybe the point was that if Changez's relationship with Erica had worked out, then he wouldn't have become a fundamentalist.

I said that I didn't think that we were meant to give the book that kind of psychological reading, and that rather it was an allegory, as indicated by the symbolic naming. Erica stands for the Am-erica which after 9/11 is lost, like her, in nostalgia for past glory and invulnerability - a point which Changez (and the author) makes explicitly (and indeed rather over-explicitly). Chris, her dead boyfriend, stands for the death of any vibrancy or integrity in Western Christian civilization, Western Christianity being now reduced to its own version of fundamentalism. There's another kind of fundamentalism in the West too, it's implied, that of the cult of materialism and finance - the mantra of the finance company for which Changez worked is 'focus on the fundamentals' - and it is indeed this fundamentalism about which Changez becomes reluctant as his views change. John added that Changez was also of course symbolically named, as he both changes and becomes perhaps an agent for change.

People agreed that the book made more sense read in this way, but nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, they still found it thin. I asked them what they thought of the voice - Changez's voice in which the whole book is of course couched. It's a very formal voice, suited to the formal cultural mores of Changez's Pakistani background and the kind of English he would have learned there: 'Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?' Jenny said she really liked the voice: it was one of the reasons she picked out the book; she likes books in which the voice is calm and measured yet there is something tense or sinister about what is being conveyed. I agreed about this, yet I wasn't sure that the voice in this book rang true: wouldn't someone as bright as Changez pick up the slicker lingo of American business and finance - and how could he be so successful without doing so? Doug, who works in finance too, agreed, now that he thought about it. Jenny said, But the Americans absolutely love that old-fashioned formal kind of English, they have a real snobbery about it, which seemed a valid point, but then wasn't the point about Changez that he had excelled at fitting in and hiding his outsider status?

Trevor said there was something else about the book which bothered him, which had made him wonder whether it really worked in the psychological and temporal terms set up by its dramatic monologue form. It had continually occurred to him as he read to wonder if Changez would really have been able to detain such a reluctant stranger for so long, and was it psychologically realistic that he would in those circumstances have told, or been indulged in the telling of, such an intimate tale, including the intimate details of a sexual relationship? And most of all, could he really possibly have told a tale of such length in the space of a single meal? And everyone else said that the very same thoughts had also troubled them.

All in all, the consensus was that the book was interesting but perhaps rather little: Jenny said she didn't think it had the weight to make it worthy of its Booker shortlisting, and Doug said that he felt that it benefited from its timeliness, but that in 50 years people would be unlikely to find it so important as a work of literature.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Millie D said...

I've really enyed all your comments about this book as my reading group have just read it too, so brilliant to see other peoples views, Thanks.

Elizabeth Baines said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Millie.