“One of those novels that continue to reveal their depth, their several hidden meanings, long after the last page is turned.”
I would rather call this excellent little book a „novella“ than a novel. Not only because of its brevity, though. I learned in school that a „novella“ tells us about a „miraculous occurrence“, often with rising suspense, and an open ending. Well, that‘s the perfect definition in this case!
I must apologize for several spoilers. But my assessment of the book would not be possible without them. The worth of this charming work of art lies not in the „what“, in the plot, but in the way of its telling. Anyway, but if you would prefer not to know anything about the ending, then you should not read this review.
The language level is rather „simple“, but deceptively so. The story is told in the first person by a Pakistani, Changez. He was educated in the U.S., and his English is a curious mixture between business talk and local influences from his homeland. Not totally unlike the „Indian English“ you encounter in modern English novels from the Commonwealth.
But is it really a „story“ as such? It is a discussion between two men. Changez‘ partner is an American tourist he encounters in a café in Lahore. (Although, later on, we begin to suspect that this man is everything but a tourist…!) The author‘s trick is to only show us one part of the conversation: Changez. So the reader has to do the main work here: he has to infer most of the time. We have to imagine one half of the discussion. Plus, we have to substract what Changez really means from what he says.
For, of course, he tries to portray himself and his country only in the best of lights, facing this stranger. He is telling his life‘s story to an American, I guess in the hope of justifying himself. America has been Changez‘ uprising and his downfall at the same time. He has to come to terms with what he can, in retrospect, only regard as failure. He has been wealthy and successful in the U.S., but only at the cost of betraying himself and his ideals, his roots. Plus, he has lost the love of his life, the American student Erica. After 9/11 he is completely disillusioned with life in the U.S., and returns to Pakistan. He then becomes a „teacher“… but we are left in doubt as to what kind of „teacher“ he really is.
As I said at the beginning, suspense is slowly but steadily building up during the course of the discussion. Changez is becoming more and more animated. The evening is wearing on, until the two men at last leave the café. They walk across town… and it becomes more and more clear that the ending will be tragic. At least one of them will be dead before the night is over.
I was totally stunned when I reached this conclusion. I should have begun reading the book all over again from the start! Although tragic, the book is perfectly credible. A naive and honest young man comes to the West for his education. But the prize he has to pay is nothing less than his soul. What a contrast between the first and last chapters! We as readers are always one or two steps ahead of Changez, often knowing more about him than he does himself. Sometimes, this was truly heartbreaking!
I also have to say something about the love story. Changez is talking about Erica as his „girlfriend“, but I wonder if she ever was… She is a tragic and twisted figure herself, suffering from chronic depression after the death of her former boyfriend. I have to say, there were numerous parallels to a novel by Haruki Murakami, „Norwegian Wood“… But Hamid has not been copying, he has created something individual.
This book can be read with ease in one sitting. But I would suggest reading it slowly, with much attention to detail and language. A second reading will surely deepen the experience. It is a parable about political extremism and lost hopes, and how the two intertwine. A modern gem already.”
Added 11th July 2019
NO MAJOR SPOILERS
A deceptively easy read, achieved by the conversational tone of the narrator, Changez. A coming of age story which, on the face of it, is not uncommon. A bright and ambitious young Pakistani excels at Princeton and goes on to shine at Underwood Samson, an acquisition company in New York. While his abilities put him on a par with his classmates and colleagues, it is his distinguishing features, his origins and financial status that set him apart.
The people he establishes a connection with are his boss, Jim, by virtue of their common unprivileged background, the only other foreign recruit at the company, Wainwright, and the troubled Erica.
So the reader is swept by the honest account of the ‘hungry’ Changez, who, by force of circumstance becomes conflicted, and starts questioning his place in a country that looks upon him with suspicion following 9/11. Gradually, through a series of events, his eagerness to belong yields to a more confrontational attitude. He grows a beard and can no longer ignore the tug back to his roots, to where he is needed and wanted, and where he can be true to himself and his people.
That’s on the face of it. But this 209-page multi-layered perceptive novel packs a wealth of thought-provoking themes from self-awareness, belonging, loyalty, alienation, to imperialism, power and prejudice. As Changez’s past unfolds, his attitude towards the mysterious companion gains depth, taking on a different dimension. The reassurances he gives to the American, far from being innocuous and genuine, seem laced with perverse pleasure. It’s almost as if he relishes the American’s uneasiness, having experienced the same discomfort when he was back in the States. Now, on his own turf, Changez is in a position of power, and makes the most of it.
Nuances surface. The choice of names, for instance: Changez (Change), Erica (AmERICA), Underwood Samson (US), or even Samson the judge.
A haunting, fascinating read!! The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of those novels that continue to reveal their depth, their several hidden meanings, long after the last page is turned.
D K Haffar
Added 1st March 2019