- Title: The Reluctant Fundamentalist
- Author: Mohsin Hamid
- # of Pages: 191
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid turned out to be another one-day read. It’s relatively short, not even 200 pages, and it is told from the point of view of the main character Changez, telling his story to an American stranger as one continuous monologue. The book is literally just a story being told. We do not know what is going on in Changez’s setting lest he chooses to mention something. The entire time he talks he is sitting in a restaurant with this foreigner he met seemingly at random, only leaving near the end as they walk to the stranger’s hotel. The reactions of the American to the story, the arrival and departure of the waiter, the noises and sights surrounding the two as they sit in Lahore in Pakistan and dine – all of these occurrences are known to us only if Changez chooses to address them.
Changez tells the American about the time he spent in America. Changez is one of few foreign students who get accepted to Princeton University in the United States. Once he graduates he joins a company that evaluates the worth of businesses. The company is known for accepting few and only the very best and for young Changez this is a new beginning. Changez talks about his time in college and about his progress in the new company. Alongside the general theme of Changez’s self discovery as a young adult living alone in America (his family stays in Pakistan), we are told about his love story with an American woman called Erica. Changez becomes infatuated with Erica on a trip to Greece with fellow graduates and their romance continues once they return to New York, only to take a turn for the worse as events in Erica’s past return to haunt her.
Shortly after comes the attack on the World Trade Center known as 9/11. The main point of Changez’s story is to describe his constant battle with himself and with the society he is part of as he tries to figure out who he is – both American and Pakistani. 9/11 leads to a strengthening of the united national identity of Americans and Changez begins to be regarded as an outsider – one who doesn’t belong. Once America invades Afghanistan, an ally of Changez’s home country, Changez begins to develop hostility towards America. Moreover, tension between Pakistan and India grows and Changez is torn between staying in America with his well paying job and in close proximity to the woman he loves and leaving to return to his family whose life is in danger.
During Changez’s story we see how he goes from loving America – its opportunities and its freedom, to hating it for interfering and meddling with other countries’ affairs and bringing terror to his people. Very harsh criticism towards US politics is displayed in this novel. The ending is an open one and the situation which takes place at the end leaves you curious as to the fate of Changez and his American guest. Towards the end of the novel Changez tells the American “you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.” However, by the end, Changez’s words and the American’s actions lead to an open ending that leaves us wondering whether the two will fall to their stereotypical roles or maybe that they do understand each other more clearly now.
I have to admit at first I was disappointed by the lack of a substantial ending with a clear conclusion. Around the halfway mark I realized the story was progressing slowly but by the last fourth I realized that it probably wasn’t going to have a very clear purpose at all. However, after taking some time and thinking about it I’ve realized that maybe that’s the whole point. The story is about Changez’s struggle with his identity and his unrequited love, and it doesn’t need to have some major finale where all of the pieces fall into place. I do agree with some very serious criticism Changez directs towards America and its actions and standards. I also really enjoyed the writing style – the idea that the entire thing is written as one long twelve chapter monologue. I’ve never read a book written like that before and it was interesting to see how Hamid manages to form a proper setting and even address the happenings around the two men only through Changez’s comments and reactions to the American man. For example, we know when the American seems worried when Changez tells him to relax and to not worry and we know when he gets a phone call because Changez says that he sees the man’s phone has rung and that he’ll wait till the man answers it.
I can relate to the story in a personal way. I spent six and a half years of my childhood living in America, returning afterwards to my birthplace city of Tel Aviv. Albeit, I was much younger than Changez and not nearly in the same position since I am white and I was not even five years old during 9/11, but I can relate to the theme of identity struggles. I spent most of my childhood away from Israel only to return as a teenager with no social and cultural roots. It’s interesting to see the development of Changez’s attitude towards America and how it conflicts with his strong ties to his family and his homeland. Also, I have an interest in politics and social issues and both of these were prominent themes in Changez’s thoughts.
I also enjoyed figuring out how the title related to the book. Changez goes from denying there’s an issue to coming to terms with this hostility he has towards Americans, that isn’t necessarily something he wants to feel. At first he’s unwilling – reluctant if you will – to let these personal qualms trouble him and he dismisses them, but eventually he understands he must take the hard path in order to feel right again. Fundamentalism is defined as “… a point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism” and in a way this is what Changez ends up reaching in his own state of mind.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of those books in which the journey and the writing often take on more importance than the actual plot and the “point of it all.” I enjoyed it very much and, in all honesty, writing this review has made me like it even more. It’s an interesting way to experience the state of mind of a foreigner in America during 9/11 and in general displays well the hardships of having two, sometimes incompatible, identities.