The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In the wake of 9/11, a few thoughtful people, in addition to being angry and sorrowful, wondered why “they” hated us. What had America done to inspire such hatred? Why would anyone wish to kill innocents? Would knowing the answers help prevent future attacks?
Mohsin Hamid can’t answer those questions completely, but he does give us some insight into the thinking of those living in the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the excellent short novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. An immensely troubling book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of a young Pakistani man, known to us only as Changez, who studies at Princeton and captures a high-paying, high-profile job at a financial services firm in New York upon his graduation. Ultimately he returns to Pakistan, where he meets an American man and invites him to tea, over which he relates the story of his life.
The tea, which precedes a meaty dinner followed by a too-sweet dessert, is somehow filled with menace, though it is never entirely clear from whence the menace originates, until, perhaps, the end of the book—and maybe not even then. The waiter is rather too attentive and a bit threatening, making the nameless American uneasy. The American is a large man who insists on sitting with his back to the wall and seems to be carrying a gun. He is very closed-mouthed, leaving Changez to carry the conversation by himself.
Changez’s background in Pakistan is one of genteel poverty—or, if not exactly poverty, of belonging to a failing aristocracy, where money is never in abundance but honor is, perhaps, overly so. Thus, when Changez is at Princeton, he works hard to support himself, but in three different jobs where he will be unnoticed—in odd corners of the campus, for instance, like libraries few people frequent. In the summer following his graduation, he goes to Greece on the strength of a sign-on bonus with his high-flying finance firm, and falls in love with the beautiful and wealthy Erica. Erica seems to return his affection, but she is troubled by a death that she still grieves with all her body, soul, and mind.
Changez throws himself into his work, and excels. He seems set to become the golden boy at his firm, and is on assignment in an exciting locale—the Philippines—when terrorists strike the World Trade Center.
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.
Your disgust is evident; indeed, your large hand has, perhaps without your noticing, clenched into a fist. But please believe me when I tell you I am no sociopath; I am not indifferent to the suffering of others…. [W]hen I tell you I was pleased at the slaughter of thousands of innocents, I do so with a profound sense of perplexity.
And so begins the unraveling of Changez’s carefully constructed life. He begins to question America’s exercise of power from a point of view foreign to any American—from that of one who is subject to American power, who can be thrust into war by America (in this case, a war engineered between India and Pakistan by American politicking) without having any voice in the decisions leading to it. He begins to wonder why he is seeking money and power foreign to his traditions and his people, and why these things matter to him and what he is really about. Yes, he loves New York in a way that few New Yorkers can really understand, but does he love Lahore, his home city in Pakistan, more dearly? What are his true obligations? What is patriotism, and what does it mean in the wake of the attack on the Twin Towers?
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a short and powerful book. It will make some people very angry. It will make other people very self-righteous. It will make most everyone thoughtful.