These days we’re all super-sensitive, particularly when we feel that we’re just a cog in a large, globalized wheel. The problem is, more and more of us take that kind of realization badly, and perhaps violently, and we find ourselves locked in conflicts off all kinds. Jabberwock, in his review of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, points out the anger of that moment when blissfully ignorant old people “uninformed about the world outside their own backyards” ascribe their seemingly harmless stereotypes to you. It’s happened to most of us, and the truth is that people probably should know better, but really, maybe we could all be a little less thin-skinned.
Hamid’s engaging novel takes the form of a narrative by Changez, a young Pakistani who had the American dream — admission to Princeton, high-powered job on Wall Street — only to be engulfed by distrust after 9/11, attuned and sensitive to the profiling and racism around him, and unable to cope with America’s reaction to the attack. Changez is anything but the religious, impoverished type turned radical, he’s the Lahore rich kid who had the opportunity of a lifetime many Lahoris dream about. He’s immensely likable, and a study in how quiet, patient observation will get you the girl (well, sort of). Changez meets Erica on a trip with friends to Greece, and wins her over by simply listening, though one suspects that the Pakistani-English accent might have had something to do with it too.
Changez has since moved back to Lahore, and the novel is a recounting told to an American he “meets” in Lahore’s central district of how he, apparently reluctantly, became a fundamentalist. The American never actually gets to speak, we learn about him and his thoughts through Changez’s observation and often sarcastic commentary. It has a slightly overdone effect, chiefly to allow Hamid to paint a stereotype of the American intelligence/military/law enforcement agent in Pakistan and hinting at some stereotypes about Pakistanis as well (I for one was reminded of the buffoonish speech of Salah, played by John Rhys-Davies, in the Indiana Jones films, where everything ended in an exclamation point.) The unknown American figure is constantly nervous about his surroundings, suspicious of the narrator’s hospitality, and angered by criticism of America.
Hamid’s writing fares much better when speaking about Changez’s experiences in the U.S. It’s not overly descriptive, but has the feel of a journal, which works well given the narrator’s young age (22) at the time. Sometimes Hamid packs a little too much into this sparse book — it’s finally a visit to Neruda’s house in Valparaiso, Chile and a two-paragraph discussion of the janisarries (young Christian children taken by the Ottomans and trained to be ruthless soldiers) that gives Changez the final push back to Pakistan — as if to emphasize the complexity of the whirlings in young Changez’s mind.
But back to Erica. The metaphor is a little too symbolic; the name “Erica” contained as it is within “America” made me think, “if only there was a little piece of America that loved Changez there wouldn’t have been a problem.” Of course Erica, at the end of the day, will never see Changez as a person in his own right, and can never love him in a healthy way. In fact, she will never really see him at all, lost as she is in the memory of her true love who died young of cancer. Changez finally realizes this upon reading Erica’s unpublished manuscript:
“…I had begun to understand that she had chosen not to be part of my story; her own had proved too compelling, and she was — at that moment and in her own way — following it to its conclusion, passing through places I could not reach.”
The implication is pretty clear: had Changez and Erica been able to enter into a loving, healthy relationship he would not have drifted toward fundamentalism. At the same time, one can’t help wonder what kind of relationship they could have had, and what would happen when, inevitably, there was a substantive disagreement between them.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is, then, a novel that picks up the refrain of “Why doesn’t America see us?” and uses American disdain, ignorance, or simple inability to see the larger world outside as a justification for anti-Americanism. And the judgment against America is handed down by Changez in a tone as if from on high:
“As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an America had to be stopped in the interest not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.”
Near the end of the book, Changez points out the popularity of the classes he now teaches in Lahore, noting that the students are not radicals either, but that they sure as hell are angry. The novel doesn’t have the length or the scope to delve into the complexities of life in Pakistan or to analyze the often disastrous entanglements of religion, history and foreign policy in the region that might contribute or create that anger, but then that’s the point: most people don’t have the time either. Instead, it’s just easier to be pissed off. And easier still, to kill because of it.