The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Book Review

Mohsin Hamid’s second novel is out. It has made to several bestsellers’ lists and invokes a theme central to our times. I am posting a well written review by Mahi here that in spite of its subjectivity expresses the viewpoint of an intelligent and informed reader. This review was written exclusively for Jahane Rumi and therefore I am grateful to Mahi for this special gesture. Hope he continues to contribute here!

Book Review By Mahipal Reddy* 

The title, with a play on the word Fundamentalist, is the high point of this book. The protagonist, Changez, earns a living in New York assessing fundamentals of companies, which he is increasingly reluctant to do, compelled by a growing affinity for his homeland Pakistan and under-attack neighbor, Afghanistan, in the aftermath of 9/11. The reluctance eventually prompts a return to Pakistan, where
Changez recounts his adult life to an American visitor.

The style of narration – a monologue – is a clever choice and one with the potential for a novel, satisfying reader experience. But the portrayal of the American man through quick references within the monologue exposes the limitations of this format. Additionally, the man is made visible only though stereo-typical cultural differences and tourist apprehensions, which lends a tone of condescension to the narrative. It may have been intentional, but seemed unnecessary.

The book suffers from an underlying lack of depth. The seminal phases of the story – Changez’s acceptance of American undergraduate life and the American dream, the slipping away of his never-truly-started love life with an American girl, his rapid disenchantment with America and its foreign policy excursions and his choice to move away from that life to Pakistan – take place without triggering a reflective commentary or insight from the author. In other words, the book remains a superficial story, even while the reader is expecting something more fundamental all the while. Is that the reader’s fault? Perhaps not.

Having approached the book with excited expectations, partly due to the title and partly the author’s background, I was disappointed. The title promised an insightful dance on the difficult subject of fundamentalism, with a certain gravitas, but it faltered to achieve this goal. In fact, one felt that the author did not attempt to delve further into the intent of the book’s catchy title. There are many specific instances of disappointment in addition to the overall reaction of one, but the one that qualifies for mention is the ending. Throughout the book, the author builds a theme of some impending finale/disaster, which never materializes. Clearly the author conveyed something in his mind, but it leaves the reader lost and wondering if the author pulled a prank.

To me this actually captures the essence of the book – promising much but delivering a insipid tale.

Language-wise, the book is obviously written in competent English, but one cannot say more. It is not a book you read to enjoy the medium, the skill of expression.

* Mahi set sail in India and is adrift in the US. He has traveled a little, lamented that he isn’t from Japan but hopes to get back to India in the near future. He likes to read but reads little. Enlightenment he waits for, convinced God can move faster than him.

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

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  2. This review by Mr. Mahi Pal Reddy for sure is not going to make readers to go out and buy the book. “Fundamentalist” like “Terrorist” is the catch phrase of our time and from this review it appears that the author Mohsin Hamid is merely trying to capitalize on the current sentiments. Mr. Reddy on the other hand, even though not a Muslim or from Pakistan/Afghanistan is keen observer of both. His exclusive interest in the subject has fascination of its own. We shall wait more from Mr. Reddy.

  3. I would disagree with the review. I felt that it was an excellent book. The book spoke to the reader. Yes, the author leaves a lot to you to conjecture, but that is what made the experience more enjoyable for me. To me was that was a strength of the book.

    Moreover, the book is an attempt to hold a mirror to the other side and I think Hamid does that fantastically with the cloudy impression he gives us of the American and open ended questions he leaves us.

    My own review of the book can be found here:

    http://ayesha.wordpress.com/2007/05/17/the-reluctant-fundamentalist-a-review/

  4. Yes, the book is not worth owning. Borrow from a library if possible.

    Just to clarify, my interest is not ‘exclusive’ to this subject, otherwise I’d be a fundamentalist or a singularly focused social scientist myself🙂

  5. Ayesha: This is a subject where many people will be inclined to see it from a US/West vs Muslim prism. Which then holds hostage, the assessment of the book, to a narrower political allegiance. To me, the book wasn’t simply about telling an American ‘my side’ of the story (‘holding up a mirror’ to use your words from your blog review). For anyone aggrieved about uncaring, haughty Americans, this is enough. In reality though, it has to bring insight, unique perspective, to the table should an American or anyone else you consider unsympathetic sit up and take notice. This the author does not do. Then how many ‘Americans’ (other than the ones already against Bush) are going to actually find a point in it?

    To a degree, this book helps you let out the frustration or vengefulness one feels about America. From Ayesha’s review, I find this is her angle of approach.

    Also, it seems Changez being a ‘secular’ guy or a non-practising Muslim (drinks, doesn’t pray, etc), is enough to legitimize his disenchantment or grouse with America. To me it is not. Its immaterial whether you are religious or secular – you can have a fantastic standpoint being either. That a fundamentalist stand can be vindicated when secular people adopt it is not meaningful to me. That way we’d never have had the many many ‘secular’ monsters the world has had.

    Put simply, is it enough for a book, in a somewhat novel way, to make a political view heard? No.

  6. I agree with Mr. Mahipal Reddy’s assessment of the book.

    The protagonist’s monologue for me had subservient tone and sounded too much like a character from a Merchant-Ivory film set in pre-partition era.

    The book is obviously and intentionally catering to a Western audience, which is rather unfortunate. According to Mohsin Hamed, it took him 7 years to come up with this latest offering. Perhaps, he waited too long, as it seems he got lost along the way.

    His non-fiction writing is far better than his recent book.

  7. I won’t link to my own review of the book, since I don’t feel like it really matters substantially–people will buy it, if only for the curiousity factor–but I personally disliked it. It rang of inauthenticity, especially the language in which Hamid wrote, this bizarre pre-Partition British Raj tone, vocabulary and syntax. Ugh.

  8. Omer, Ayesha, Aamir and Sin(!)
    Many thanks for the comments. I must confess that I agree with the remark that Hamid’s non-fiction writings are much better. He has contributed in presenting an alternative voice and image for Pakistan. Perhpas on this account his novels are also welcome – however, this one harps on the biggest cliche of our times..


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