I read this absolutely fascinating book in a day, and was captivated not only by the story but by the writing as well. It is written in a poetic and romantic way, whilst all the while addressing very current and controversial topics in a very human way.
The story takes place in a single afternoon in a café in Lahore, and we follow the conversation between two strangers. One is a Pakistani man called Changez and the other is an unnamed American. Changez tells the story of how he became, that’s right, a fundamentalist. He is currently a professor who is frequently accused of inciting fundamentalist beliefs in his students, but he has come a long way from his time in America, where he studied at Princeton and worked as a financial analyst at one of the best consultancy firms. He tells of how he loved America and felt so strongly attached to New York, where he lived, that he was ashamed of his native Pakistan. However his life and philosophy is turned upside down by the 9/11 attacks, and he finds himself lost in America, which seems to have turned his back on him. He returns to Lahore where he meets the unnamed American, and the book comes to a climatic and mysterious ending.
My favourite thing about this book was the marvellous way that it was written. I have never read a book written in a similar stream of consciousness, monologue fashion that flows so well. In fact, despite the poetic nature of the narrative, the sentences never felt convoluted, and not a single word felt out of place. I thought it was astounding how the whole book is told through Changez’s speech – we never hear from anybody else, only what Changez replies. The opening paragraph is a perfect example of the writing style of the book: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” Hamid also managed to effortlessly switch between Changez telling his life story to Changez talking to the American in front of him, and to capture both a sense of reading a first-person narrative and also reading a person’s transcribed speech.
I was rather surprised that the actual events of the novel were not more dramatic, however I was pleased. It was quite a refreshing take on a topic that is addressed so differently in the mainstream media, and looked at the human story behind the sensationalised topic and Hamid does not shy away from showing ‘un-American’ views through his characters. The book is still ambiguous though; Changez is articulate, incredibly friendly, welcoming and generous to the America. Instead of being some sort of monster, he is a professor, who advocates non-violent forms of protest and supports the sovereignty of his country. One of his students has turned to a more violent method and so Changez is in the limelight, but is he really to blame? What made the book even more striking was the ambiguous ending, where it is not clear whether Changez is being hunted for his views or whether Changez really is the sinister figure that the book’s title would suggest that he is.
I was also intrigued by the way in which every aspect of Changez’s life had a symbolic role in his development as a character. His employers’ motto of focusing on fundamentals seemed like a joke at times, and I actually did smile at the irony a few times. I was also interested in Changez’s relationship with Erica and his relationship with America, and Erica as a symbol of America. Particularly, I thought the description of America and Erica as living in a world of the past was fascinating, and what seemed to be, when I began reading, a simple story about a man’s radicalisation, turned out to be a complex analysis of America, and his relationship with it.
I think that The Reluctant Fundamentalist deserves far more than this simple 700-word review, and maybe something more along the lines of an essay with a word count of far over a few thousand. It was a truly mesmerising read, both in terms of the issues addressed and the style of writing that Hamid adopted. At times it felt like I was listening to a particularly articulate speaker and at others as if I was listening to a poetry recital. I would recommend this book to everyone – and have already started!