The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamid

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How does The Reluctant Fundamentalist address key ideas?

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Mohsin Hamid’s novella The Reluctant Fundamentalist depicts the tale of Pakistani man Changez and his reaction to the events succeeding September 11. The story begins with an American man at a café in Lahore. Changez initiates conversation with the man and describes his life in America.

Changez’s tale begins with his transition from Pakistan to America. He attends Princeton and is able to follow his financially driven dreams after being recruited into a prestigious valuation firm, Underwood Samson. As Changez starts to achieve economic success, he begins questioning his role in America.

Changez’s identity crisis deepens following the events of 9/11, and he starts to develop bitterness towards his adopted country. His complex relationship with Erica, a former classmate from Princeton, and encounter with Juan-Bautista, a client of Underwood Samson, parallels the dilemmas Changez faces throughout the narrative, as well as the novella’s theme of discovering one’s purpose.

Erica’s role in the novel mirrors Changez’s perception of America. Initially, Changez sees Erica and America as representative of a promising future, but as time goes on he begins to observe the damage. Changez’s revelation deepens after 9/11; he notices how broken Erica is and how ruthless America is. He realizes he cannot associate himself with either Erica or America without causing damage, and uses this revelation to reflect on his purpose.

As Changez’s resentment toward America increases, he starts to define his position. Juan-Bautista’s description of the janissaries represents Changez’s dilemma: he cannot remain loyal to America as it destroys Pakistan. With this discovery, Changez diverges from his ties to America and discovers his purpose—to advocate for Pakistan’s disengagement from America.

In summary, some of the key ideas include, but are not limited to, the importance of being, and staying, true to one's values, even when such principles clash with societal norms and expectations; the effects of terrorism on a nation's culture; and the dilemma one faces when he or she has contradicting loyalties.

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One way that Hamid's novel addresses key ideas is by incorporating the reader into the narrative.

One of the key ideas in The Reluctant Fundamentalist is its discussion of terrorism.  The question of Changez's identity haunts the novel's ending. It is not clear if Changez is a terrorist or what the resolution is between he and the American.  Hamid does not give a direct answer.  Rather, he allows the reader's imagination to guide how this key issue is resolved:

The form of the novel, with the narrator and his audience both acting as characters, allowed me to mirror the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another. The Pakistani narrator wonders: Is this just a normal guy or is he a killer out to get me? The American man who is his audience wonders the same. And this allows the novel to inhabit the interior emotional world much like the exterior political world in which it will be read. The form of the novel is an invitation to the reader. If the reader accepts, then he or she will be called upon to judge the novel’s outcome and shape its ending.

In allowing an "invitation to the reader," Hamid addresses a key issue in the novel.  

Hamid accepts that the world after September 11 has infected everyone with a certain set of biases with which they view the world.  Before we can figure out the form of this world, we have to be honest about our preconceptions that guide our understanding of the world.  Changez has his constructions, America has its own, the American possesses his own, and the reader contains their own sets of prejudices.  In addressing it in this way, Hamid suggests our own understanding helps to "shape" our view of the world.  In this setting, there is no absolute truth.  Rather, truth can only be understood through our own perception.  Incorporating the reader into this issue enables the reader to "judge the novel's outcome" for themselves.

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