The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Changez, a Lahore-born and raised Pakistani, returns home after graduating from Princeton in the US and getting fired from his job at a prestigious New York finance firm. A woman may be to blame, but so is America's reaction to 9/11 in general and a semi-bearded Pakistani in particular. His story is unspooled through a dinner conversation with an unnamed American who Changez happens to meet next a market in Lahore. 

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize (in 2007), the Reluctant Fundamentalist is a mediation on identity and nostalgia (both personal and public), class (Changez comes from a noble, but falling family in Pakistan and climbs the ladder in America's education realm and New York’s finance sector) and the truth/fiction of the stories and myths we use to define us. 

The novel's tension lies in understanding why Changez rescinds his role as bridge between two countries (or, two worlds). Here Changez lectures his unnamed guest:

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.

While much of the narrative flow takes place on the personal level (and in the the US), Lahore becomes a great unnamed character:

You will have noticed that the newer districts of Lahore are poorly suited to the needs of those who must walk. In their spaciousness — with their public parks and wide, tree-lined boulevards — they enforce an ancient hierarchy that comes to us from the countryside: the superiority of the mounted man over the man on foot. But here, where we sit, and in the even older districts that lie between us and the River Ravi—the congested, maze-like heart of this city—Lahore is more democratically urban. Indeed, in these places it is the man with four wheel who is forced to dismount and become part of the crowd.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Mohsin Hamid's second novel. He’s now written four, and he continues his experimentation with the dramatic monologue, in which a single speaker uses stories to reveal his or her character to a silent audience. These tales, especially in the hands of compelling narrators like Changez, have an intimate and warmth to them that is supposed to persuade the listener.

As always, such conviction should be taken with a grain of salt. Check out these CliffsNotes questions you should ask yourself when coming across a dramatic monologue:  

- Who is the speaker talking to or why? 
- What tactics is the speaker using to make his case?
- Does the speaker seem to change his mind during the poem?

Reviewers and book jacket blurbers spent a lot of time exploring the underlying tension between this man of the “East” who once lived in the “West.” If we know Changez through his stories, though, we don't know much about the man he's speaking to. Much was written about the first CliffsNotes question above— who is the person Changez speaks to? He is just a tourist? Or, something a bit more complicated? 

Mohsin Hamid explains some of his explorations with story forms: 

In my final year, as I was starting my first novel, I read The Fall by Camus. It is written as a dramatic monologue, with the protagonist constantly addressing the reader as “you,” and it changed how I thought books could work. I was amazed by the potential of the “you”, of how much space it could open up in fiction.

The book I was writing then, back in 1993, became Moth Smoke, the tale of a pot-smoking ex-banker who falls disastrously in love with his best friend’s wife. You, the reader, are cast as his judge. The story has what might be called a realistic narrative – there is no magic, no aliens – but the frame of the trial that it uses isn’t realism. It is something else: make-believe, play, with “you” given an active role.

In my second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I wanted to explore this further, push the boundaries of what I knew how to do with “you”. Camus’s novel was a guide, but my project was my own: to try to show, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, how feelings already present inside a reader – fear, anger, suspicion, loyalty – could colour a narrative so that the reader, as much as or even more than the writer, is deciding what is really going on. I wanted the novel to be a kind of mirror, to let readers see how they are reading, and, therefore, how they are living and how they are deciding their politics.

In all, this is a fascinating read.