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.