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Lahore nights

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”
The Unquiet Pakistani

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Mohsin Hamid
Harcourt, 184 pp., $22
($12.10 at Amazon)

On its own, the image of a man in his hotel room watching the collapse of the World Trade Center and smiling is revolting. That’s where Changez, the oddly-named Pakistani hero of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” is when the towers fall: in a hotel in Manila, at the end of a long day’s work for his high-powered consulting firm in Manhattan. And that’s what he’s doing at the sight of the falling towers: “I was in my room, packing my things. I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realized that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one—and then the other—of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.” Maybe it’s for lines like that that Mohsin Hamid’s second novel vaulted to the top of bestseller lists without advertising or reviews helping it on.

The smile, of course, is not exactly what it looks like, nor is Changez quite the fundamentalist the book’s title makes him out to be, reluctant or not. Even his name is not quite the French oddity I first took it to be: my savviest reader informed me that it's the odd spelling for Gengis, as in Gengis Khan, which adds yet another ironic overlay to the rear-view-mirrored narrative. By the time Changez smiles at the collapse of the towers, he’s spent seventy-two pages and will spend many more describing his Pakistani-bred sense of inferiority at the grandness of other cities, New York and Manila and even Chile’s Valparaiso among them, ahead of Lahore, city of his birth, and one of the greatest cities of Asia still, though few would know it in the West. Let’s not forget that Rudyard Kipling lived five formative and carousing years in Lahore when, between 1882 and 1887, he was the assistant editor of The Civil and Military Gazette while his father was the curator of the Lahore Museum: there’s resentment, too, for the white man’s burden’s symbolic loop out of Lahore’s more recent history, after millennia of white men’s irrelevance: “Four thousand years ago,” Changez tells his American interlocutor, “we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed.” He returns to the theme later on, railing about the greatness of Lahore’s Royal Mosque and Shalimar Gardens “when your country was still a collection of thirteen small countries, gnawing at the edge of a continent,” and tastes resentment worse than bile when he describes his own family’s circumstances compared to his own: “This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of lowliness.” What he resents above all is himself. It’s being “a modern-day Janissary. A servant of the American empire at a time when it was invading a country with a kinship to mine and was perhaps even colluding to ensure that my own country faced the threat of war.”

The towers’ collapse evens the score a little. It eases his conscience while stroking his bruised ego.

The smile has nothing to do with the fundamentalism of the 9/11 hijackers or their motives, with any Islamic politics, any terrorism desired or enjoyed. With the score slightly evening in his favor, it’s a smile of competitiveness from the “shark” that Changez has established himself to be—and indeed was just told he was by his boss Jim. To which he smiled. As he tells his story, Changez was a mere 22 year old finishing Princeton when he was hired by Underwood Samson, the consulting firm, and given an $80,000-a-year salary plus limitless charge account. His family, like Lahore, had once been aloft in lore and lucre. It was now living on nostalgia more than any wealth he could count on. He was a scrapper, making it on merit and, yes, resentment. It’s his fuel. It muscles his sardonic smiles. It’s his reluctant fundamentalism.

But the story begins a few years after that stint with Underwood Samson. Changez’ few months with the firm and his New York days are long gone. The story tells why and how. He’s having tea with a slightly paranoid American meant to be entirely mysterious down to his words: the entire book is Changez’ side of the conversation. The form recalls a wonderfully powerful, novella-length story by the Israeli novelist Avraham A.B. Yehoshua, “Conversation in Jerusalem,” published in the December 30, 1991, New Yorker: It’s 1918, a young, Jewish military lawyer attached to the British Expeditionary Force driving into Palestine, is preparing to prosecute a spy. He’s speaking to a Colonel just arrived from England to serve as presiding judge on the tribunal “despite his lack of legal education.” But the reader is privy only to the lawyer’s half of the conversation. As in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” the ever-presently absent side of the conversation paints an unmistakable portrait of the Other Man. My memory of “Conversation in Jerusalem” is slight, though I remember the Colonel for being naïve in that whitish way that shadows the imperious in lands they presume to own.

The same naiveté informs Changez’ American counterpart, whose satellite phone, darting fears and predictable sensitivities point him toward something of an intelligence agent or a hit man (“for we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me”). Not much of an imaginative literary stretch there, but maybe a necessary convention for Hamid the novelist to get across the creed and screed of Changez the fundamentalist: he needs an American as foil, he needs him out of his usual element, and it works as it “brings to mind the behavior of and animal that has ventured too far from its lair and is now, in unfamiliar surroundings, uncertain whether it is predator or prey!” The line is one of Hamid’s few ventures away from the subtle and the cunning to sledge-hammer the point: for all his powers, the American, so familiar with shallowness, is out of his depths. The one-sided conversation is itself one of the book’s most potent ironies. Just as Changez derides, as he describes the American campaign in Afghanistan, “the partisan and sports-event like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their twenty-first century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below,” the one-sided conversation evens another score. The American is, for once, silenced where it matters. The reader needn’t hear him, Mohsin-Changez is suggesting, because the American voice has been deafening the world in the years since 9/11. It and what Changez calls its “typically American undercurrent of condescension” can stand to be muzzled, or at least interpreted exclusively through the voice of Those Others—in this case, Changez’s broadening “arc of vision” and what he calls “my Pakistaniness.” For us, condemned to the nationalistic one-sidedness of American-only sounds and furies since 9/11, it’s a voice worth hearing both for its literary quality, thanks to Hamid, and its Changez’ vision: his soul is having a cataract operation before our eyes. By the time he tells the American that he “should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins,” the point has already been made many times over.

So far “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” sounds like a clever polemic in an even more clever format set in the cleverest of locales, “the district of Old Anarkali,” named for “a courtesan immured for loving a prince.” A good novelist doesn’t chance his settings nor leave them unspoken for, and Mohsin Hamid is proving himself to be a very good novelist. Anarkali, which means pomegranate blossom in Persian, was either a courtesan or a royal wife to Akbar, one of history’s greatest, and most tolerant, rulers (he was a one-man Enlightenment on the subcontinent a half century before John Locke was fitted with his first diaper). Burying Anarkali alive for falling in love with his son was an uncharacteristic act of savagery for a man so indulgent of others’ freedoms. The Akbar connection may be another unspoken if very distant echo of Changez’ resentments over what has been lost, while the Anarkali connection is a more direct one to the parallel plot of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”: a doomed love story between Changez and Erica, a wealthy would-be novelist who, unfortunately for Changez, cannot get the hell over her dead ex. The reader wishes she would even more than Changez, whose shark instincts are entirely disabled by Erica’s use of him. Is it a coincidence that Erica’s dead boyfriend’s name is Chris? Surely not. But if Hamid is trying to explore a little spiritual sickness in American Christendom by way of Erica’s dead beau, that part of the story doesn’t succeed as well as the more score-settling parts of the conversation in Lahore, even if Erica is as hung up on her Chris as Changez is hung up on his lost lore. The love story appears more grafted onto the book than organically necessary. It doesn’t detract so much as it occasionally grates on the reader’s patience: Erica isn’t a very interesting character, at least not nearly so when compared to Changez, the American, and even the sub-plotting cadre of Changez’ American firm from whom he felt “a constant murmur of reproach.”

There’s a somewhat clever finish to the novel in the darks and murmurs of Lahore’s late night, after Changez has delivered a couple of arias on America’s affronts to the world and its imbecilic definition of terrorism (“defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniform of soldiers”). But even then you don’t get the sense that our reluctant fundamentalist has stopped “wholeheartedly” supporting topless sunbathing or missing his old luxuries— Lahore’s of centuries past or New York’s of years past. He’s explained why he’s no longer in New York (it’s not “his Pakistaniness”). He’s come up with one way of giving constructive vent to his resentments. But he’s still ending the day, and maybe the night, with this latest breed of the Quiet American. Neither the American nor the novel is nearly as complex or complete as Graham Greene’s. It’s nevertheless satisfyingly disturbing: I closed the book with a reluctant smile.

From “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Affronts were everywhere; the rhetoric emerging from your country at that moment in history—not just from the government, but from the media and supposedly critical journalists as well—provided a ready and constant fuel for my anger. It seemed to me then—and to be honest, sir, it seems to me still—that America was engaged only in posturing. 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 interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.

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