The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Mohsin Hamid
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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1645

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told from the first-person point of view in the present, as a kind of prose dramatic monologue addressed to Changez’s unnamed guest at a restaurant in the Old Anarkali district of Lahore, Pakistan. With first-person narration there is usually a problem with the reliability of the narrator, and that is the case with this novel. As is the case with Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues, which are much shorter, the speaker not only tells his own story but also gives his readers information that they must weigh and interpret. In effect, there are two stories, the one Changez tells about why he became an Islamic fundamentalist and the account of the interaction between Changez and his listener. Those two stories are intertwined throughout the novel.

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Changez’s story begins with his trip to America, where his outstanding record at Princeton University leads to his job with the Underwood Samson company, which evaluates businesses. Before he joins the company, he and some other Princeton graduates travel to Greece, where he falls in love with Erica, who is still recovering from the death of her fiancé, Chris. Jealous of the time she devotes to Chuck and Mike, Changez reveals his incipient anti-American feelings, feelings that deepen after 9/11. He finds his American rivals to be “devoid of refinement,” disrespectful of their elders, and insistent on having things their way. When Chuck mimics his mannerisms, Changez states that his dream is to be the dictator of an Islamic republic with nuclear capability; he suggests that it is only a joke, but later events indicate that it is not. Erica, however, he considers above reproach, belonging more to the camp of the classy actress Gwyneth Paltrow than to the camp of the vulgar pop star Britney Spears.

After Changez assumes his post with Underwood Samson, Erica’s parents invite him to their home in the Hamptons, where he interprets Erica’s father’s comment, “You guys have got some serious problems with fundamentalism,” as an expression of typical American condescension. While Changez becomes Erica’s unofficial escort, she cannot forget Chris, and their “affair” is never really consummated. She drifts away from him and from life and finally is sent to a clinic, then disappears. Erica’s mother gives him Erica’s manuscript, but to his dismay he is not even a footnote in the book. What seemed so attainable is out of reach.

His business career follows a similar pattern. Jim, who interviews him for the job at Underwood Samson, sees his potential, notes that he is “hungry” (ambitious), and that like Jim, he is a “shark” and “outsider,” a term that initially suggests that they both come from disadvantaged backgrounds. At Underwood Samson, efficiency is the god, and the training is “mental judo for business.” Changez excels in this competitive environment, emerging first in the class and being assigned to work in the Philippines, where he does an outstanding job. The bombing of the World Trade Center’s twin towers changes everything. He actually smiles at the 9/11 event, is “pleased at the slaughter of thousands of innocents,” and relishes the notion that America has been “brought to her knees.” Like other Muslims, he experiences some persecution: He is profiled at the airport, called a “fucking Arab” in the company parking lot, and encounters some prejudice at work. Nevertheless, he receives a good review and a bonus for his work.

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He then returns to visit his family in Pakistan, where he discovers that he is seeing things through the eyes of a foreigner, an “entitled and unsympathetic American.” The family home has not changed; he has changed. Even his parents sense that he is divided in his feelings about America. Partly as a result of what he begins to see as self-contempt, he begins to grow a beard, an act that only causes more apprehension when he returns to Underwood Samson. He asks himself “how it was that America was able to wreak such havoc in the world with so few apparent consequences at home.” Without a “stable core” and uncertain as to where he belongs, he is assigned to a job in Valparaíso, Chile, a city he compares to Lahore. Like Herman Melville’s Bartleby, he stops working and goes into a kind of occupational coma. Juan Bautista, the owner of the firm he is evaluating, notices his state and tells him he is a janissary, a mercenary working for a foreign government. Looking at his life from a different perspective, he sees himself as a member of a suspect race and as an indentured servant. Changez returns to New York, where he meets with a disappointed Jim, who fires him. Changez has his regrets and wonders if he will miss “this city of possibility, with its magical vibrancy and sense of excitement.” He returns to Lahore, becomes a university professor, becomes involved in politics, and even spends a night in jail for taking part in an anti-American demonstration.

Interspersed throughout Changez’s story are his comments to his guest, who sits with his back against the restaurant wall and refuses to take off his jacket, which may contain a shoulder holster and gun. Changez describes his guest as inscrutable, with a “wary gaze” that seems to focus on the women in the marketplace. He is “ill at ease” as he glances constantly around him, and Changez wonders if he is “predator or prey.” Since the guest is so suspicious, when the tea arrives, Changez switches the teacups in case the guest fears being drugged or poisoned. When the lights go out in the market, the guest leaps to his feet. From Changez’s comments, the guest has reason to be apprehensive. Changez is curious about the nature of the guest’s business and declares that “tonight is a night of some importance.” The waiter, described as “burly,” is a bit intimidating and threatening, though the reader cannot tell if Changez is reassuring his guest or trying to make him more suspicious. As the evening wears on and the area becomes almost deserted, the tension increases, as does the ominous tenor of the comments Changez makes. He mentions that his guest is familiar with “the bloodiest of tasks” and declares that “such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own.”

When Changez and the guest finally leave, the waiter follows them. Changez denies that the sound they hear is a pistol shot and notes that his guest seems ready to “bolt.” The narrator even raises the possibility that he signaled the people following them. The situation is ambiguous: Changez admits he is paranoid and fears for his life because of his political activity, but his attempt to shake his guest’s hand may be an attempt to detain him for the grim-faced waiter and his accomplices. One of his comments reflects the ambiguity: “You should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.” When Changez extends his hand, the guest reaches into his jacket and Changez sees the “glint of metal,” which he adds enigmatically may be from a credit card holder. The indeterminate ending leaves readers with a host of unanswered questions: Who is the prey? Who is the predator? Is Changez attempting to ingratiate himself with the guest or is he trying to frighten him to forestall an assassination? What was the purpose of the meeting?

At the end of the novel, Changez is waiting, fearful that America might send an emissary to intimidate him or worse. He feels “rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe,” an appropriate allusion to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). Cultured, literary men, both Kurtz and Changez have “gone native” and turned to violence; Changez may, like Kurtz, be waiting for an emissary. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Heart of Darkness, The Reluctant Fundamentalist may indeed end in violence, but in Hamid’s tale the reader is not sure who commits the violence, the American representing Western values or the Pakistani representing the East and the Other. Hamid’s tale is told not by someone like Marlowe, but by someone like Kurtz.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist juxtaposes two cultures and has the protagonist adept at operating in both. America is the land of opportunity, riches, excitement, freedom, and “illiterate barbarians” as opposed to Pakistan, which is an older culture with traditional values. When speaking of bats, Changez remarks that they belong to “a dreamier world incompatible with the pollution and congestion of a modern metropolis.” Changez resents the fact that people do not realize that his countrymen were creating magnificent literature and monuments while America was but a “collection of thirteen small colonies, gnawing away at the edge of a continent.” He also resents the way America operates, using its financial power to impose its values on other peoples, including Iraq and Afghanistan.

Changez is, however, a “reluctant” fundamentalist, one who has to be forced by his experiences and by America’s foreign policy (he is particularly upset by what he regards as America’s pro-Indian policy) to turn against a country where he found so much success. He attained the American Dream so many immigrants desire, but then he rejected it. Essentially, his story is also the story of a Muslim world that also turned against the values and power it sought in America and the West. His story also accounts for why the twin towers were bombed, even though most Americans are more concerned with seeking revenge than in attempting to understand why the atrocity occurred. A reading of The Reluctant Fundamentalist provides some answers, even if they are not the ones Americans want to hear.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41

Booklist 103, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2007): 50.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 6-7.

London Review of Books 29, no. 19 (October 4, 2007): 25-26.

The New York Review of Books 54, no. 15 (October 11, 2007): 22-24.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (April 22, 2007): 8.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 49 (December 11, 2006): 42.

School Library Journal 53, no. 8 (August, 2007): 144.

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