The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid tells the story of a Pakistani citizen named Changez, his move from an undergraduate degree at Princeton to an NYC-based valuation firm called Underwood Samson & Company, and his relationship with the WASP-ish Erica, pre- and post-9/11. Changez narrates the entire novel—at times in first person, but often in second person as well, as Hamid frames the story as a conversation between Changez (now returned to Pakistan) and an un-named American man in the Old Anarkali Bazaar in Lahore. Changez invites the American man to try a cup of tea, which turns into a full meal and then dessert. What begins as a seemingly harmless conversation slowly darkens as the novel progresses.
Just as Changez’s politeness masks something perhaps more sinister, the novel’s apparent stream-lined simplicity masks its depth and richness. The novel resounds with the theme of isolation v.s. openness and appearances v.s. reality. Obsessed with her memories of Chris, a childhood friend-turned-lover who has passed away, Erica retreats further and further into herself, preferring to live in her own fantasies rather than in the real world. Her inward movement mirrors America’s growing mistrust of “foreigners” and increasing isolationism post-9/11. Changez, on the other hand, moves from an isolated focus on solely “getting the job done” and appraising companies to realizing that the reports he and his company makes affect the companies’ employees—real people trying to make a living. He begins as well to view himself as a perpetual outsider, and to connect these companies to larger flows of capital—capital that is disproportionately held by people of Erica’s complexion rather than his own.
Another theme in the novel, connected to that of isolation and openness, is that of control. Hamid’s novel is very much a novel of “talking back” (à la Edward Said)—of insisting that one’s voice be heard in a world that so frequently ignores or talks over it. The only voice we truly hear in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is Changez’s. Changez holds his two layers of audience (the unnamed American and the reader holding the book) essentially captive. While he includes dialogue between himself and other characters, one is always aware that this dialogue is filtered through Changez’s limited first-person report of the conversation. As such, Hamid also conflates the reader with the uncomfortable American, who, twitchy and suspicious, views everyone around him as a potential threat.
Interestingly, however, the novel does not entirely reassure us that the figures of whom the American is suspicious aren’t, in fact, a threat to him. The novel ends ambiguously. Because we only receive the information Changez gives us, we will never know what actually happens on the dark road in front of the American’s hotel. In other words, the novel itself is dangerously uni-vocal, warning us through its very structure against only listening to one side of any story.
Hamid’s novel thus utilizes a technique—oral storytelling—often explored in post-colonial novels, and with, I think, the intent of “talking back” against the dominant, hegemonic voices, and it explores post-colonial themes of fractured identity, diaspora, and flows of global capital. But it does this so subtly, one might barely register the way it very faintly echoes sprawling epics like Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. Hamid’s novel is like its narrator—intelligent, well-mannered, deeper than it may appear, focused, controlled, and sinister. While giving a 3D portrayal of a (mostly) sympathetic man and telling what appears at first to be primarily a love story, it also raises questions that it doesn’t fully answer—not just about the text itself, but also about how to live ethically, fully, and also safely as an American, as a Pakistani, and as a global citizen post-9/11.