‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid

ReluctantFundamentalist

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 209 pages; 2008.

Visit any bookstore in London right now and it’s hard to miss the displays of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist — it seems to be everywhere. The careful positioning of it — especially on the “3 for 2” tables — obviously works, because against my better judgment I recently bought a copy and devoured it in one sitting. Easy enough to do, actually, because at just 209 pages and typeset in a relatively large font, this is more a novella than a novel, and hence it’s a very quick read.

An international bestseller that has been translated into some 16 languages, The Reluctant Fundamentalist has also been shortlisted for a host of literary awards including the Man Booker Prize 2007, the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2007 and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize 2008. But it has also attracted much flak centered around its alleged anti-American stance (it’s no plot spoiler to say that the main character smiles when he sees the collapse of the World Trade Towers on TV, pleased because “someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”).

This is shallow criticism, because the book’s greatest failing is not its content, but the way in which the story is narrated. This is a fictional account of a young, intelligent and ambitious Pakistani who is educated at Princeton University and secures a highly desirable job in New York. When he falls in love with a troubled rich white girl he begins to realise that her material trappings cannot alleviate her pain.

Then, following the attacks on the World Trade Centre, when the entire city is in mourning, he begins to question the purpose of his own life and the Western values that leave him feeling so cold, detached and unfulfilled. He returns to Lahore, and it is here that his story begins: a first-person narrative that is addressed to an unseen acquaintance (effectively you, the reader) in a little cafe as dusk descends.

It is this narrative device that I found particularly troublesome. The tone of the voice is cool, arrogant and slightly menacing, which is fine. But every now and then the narrative flow is interrupted by rather clunky direct addresses to the unseen acquaintance — “But observe! A flower seller approaches. I will summon him to our table. You are not in the mood? Surely you cannot object to a single strand of jasmine buds.” — which act as unwanted reminders that you are reading a book which means you can never fully lose yourself in the story.

This is a great shame, because it’s a good story about an issue not much discussed in popular literature, that of the foreign man who’s turned his back on the American dream. If nothing else it’s a thought-provoking read and would certainly make great fodder for a book group discussion, but on the whole I found The Reluctant Fundamentalist disappointing and nowhere near as exciting or as provocative as I had been lead to believe. And the conclusion, which is as predictable as they come, left me feeling like I’d been terribly short-changed.

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7 thoughts on “‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid

  1. I agree with your review. I think Hamid should’ve kept the manuscript a bit longer and tidied it up. I liked this book, but as I read, I kept thinking he must’ve been writing under a short deadline. Some parts just seemed rushed. I thought the characters were great, but the narration–bleh.

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  2. I thought the narrative device you mention was occasionally intrusive, but not so much that it upset my pleasure in the story itself. I agree that the story was certainly thought-provoking, but I too was hoping for something bit more shocking and controversial than what I got. Still, the writing was simple without losing its emotional impact, which I particularly appreciated.

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  3. I agree too – good idea, liked it to an extent, but it was just too trite in the end. I actually liked the conceit of him interrupting the story now and again to address his interlocutor, but agree that the ending was wincingly obvious. Unless it was some sort of double bluff that I still haven’t worked out.
    Interesting that the paperback has been given such a bland cover, a sort of reassuring ethni-lit look, when the hardback had quite a striking and unusual design – see my blog review for that (not sure how to do a link here, sorry).

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  4. Brandon, apparently this was Hamid’s sixth draft of the book. There’s an interesting interview with him here: http://www.penguin.co.uk/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780141029542,00.html
    You need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to read it.
    JS Peyton, yes, I probably should have pointed out in my review that the prose style was very sparse and simple, which I actually liked very much. It was just the narrative device I didn’t much appreciate.
    John, I wasn’t aware you’d reviewed the book so thanks for letting me know… I don’t actually mind the cover of the paperback. It’s intriguing in a “I wonder what that chap is looking at” kind of way. (PS> Just cut and past the URL here and it will automatically create a link)
    Apologies for not responding to these comments earlier — I’m ***still*** without a broadband connection!! Plus, I’ve moved out of home for a bit to let the builders in to renovate a bedroom and bathroom, so I only get internet access at work.

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  5. Interesting review. I’ve seen the book at just about every bookstore I go in these days and been slightly intrigued.
    I believe I’ll go back to my TBR pile instead.

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  6. I read another book recently in which the reader was directly addressed from time to time. There wasn’t a set-up as there is here—no cafe at dusk—just an occsasional “look at this…”
    I find that, the more a novel tries to draw the reader in using techniques like this, the more it pushes him or her away and, as you say, reminds them that they’re just reading a novel.
    Isn’t there a Camus novel that does this, too? In a bar?

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  7. C.B. James, if you’re intrigued I’d suggest it is worth reading… I think it is one of those books you either love or hate.
    Rob, intrusive narrators are a pet hate of mine, if only because I read as a form of escapism and it’s a bit hard to do that when you are being constantly reminded that you are reading a book. I’ve not read any Camus (shame on me), so I can’t help you out with your question…

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