Success of understatement
Can an American Listen for So Long?By Saeed Ur Rehman A review ofThe Reluctant FundamentalistMohsin HamidKarachi: Oxford University Press, 2007.pp. 111. Rs. 195 In his first novel, Moth Smoke, Mohsin Hamid announced his arrival on the global literary scene by flaunting his skills of storytelling with multiple points of view and narrative voices and a clever, though somewhat too perfectly planned, twist at the end. Though the experimentation was helpful in bringing out all the numerous layers of an urban nightmare called Lahore, many reviewers considered the novel to be a brilliant tale which recycled common metaphors in Urdu literature for a postmodern age. The moth, the flame, the feuds of Mughal dynasties, and intoxicated lovers were all used for depicting an unhinged contemporary Lahore. Through this reuse, the novel laid bare the frenetic, drug-infused shenanigans of the elite of Lahore and captured a Betty Trask award for the novelist.Still, if compared with Moth Smoke, though it is not fair to compare the two for they deal with very different topics, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a maturer performance and tells a story of greater significance. What is immediately apparent is that Mohsin Hamid has developed an extremely controlled way of telling a story. The flaunting of literary tricks and self-reflexive cynicism of the multiple narrative voices are gone. Instead, Hamid has done something which many Pakistani writers, especially those who write in Urdu, should learn to do. Hamid has mastered the art of understatement. The deceptively easygoing narrative of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is about global geopolitical alliances and civilizational solidarity. In Anarkali Bazaar, our narrator, Changez, meets an unnamed American at a restaurant and proceeds to tell his story. The name of the narrator, because of the built-in pun (many on-line users prefer to use a 'z' instead of an 's' to pluralize a word), somehow gives away the plot of the novel. A perceptive reader can immediately guess that the narrator changes his life or personality in this story.Changez begins to tell his story in the first-person and Hamid limits the voice, narration, commentary, to this narrator. Not even once, we hear the American interlocutor. The reader only accesses the American as his words are echoed in the questions or answers of Changez. As far as storytelling is concerned, this device works perfectly and its deployment is superb. The politics of using this device are even more interesting. For the first time in Pakistan's intricate and messy relationship with the United States of America, we have a scenario, though fictional, where the American listens to the Pakistani for such a long time. The American voice is missing or is only present through the Pakistani voice. The various ramifications of this fictional interaction are healthy for Pakistani literature as well as Pakistani identity. What is not very encouraging is that the narrator ultimately ends up believing in the division of identities. Either one can be subsumed in the West or one can withdraw into fundamentalism. This either-or problem is solved reluctantly by an intellectual rejection of the West (represented here by the USA) and uncritical solidarity with the Orient (represented by Pakistan): hence the title The Reluctant Fundamentalist.The rejection of the USA by Changez is even more disturbing when one considers that he is an extremely successful financial analyst working for an elite firm in New York. Changez's rejection of the USA is different from that of a Mullah. Changez does not withdraw from his Western life because he has found religion as a zone of ultimate comfort but because he is not happy serving a civilization which does not respect his culture of origin and because the USA is a shallow country (this is suggested in a discussion of the fake grandeur of the ersatz Gothic architecture of Princeton University). This dissatisfaction with many things American is not helped by a doomed love-affair with a psychologically fragile American girl named Erica. Changez's growing uneasiness with America intensifies when he becomes a target of a racist slur as his opponents mistake him as an Arab. Changez displays his capacity for potentially murderous rage, which is perhaps the most tense situation in the narrative. Even this incident does not lead to direct violence. It is a success of Hamid's understatement that it unnerves the reader with hints of what sociologists call structural violence.The main resolution of the narrative comes at a location which is neither Pakistani nor the United States. On an assignment to Latin America, Changez meets an elderly publisher who provides the necessary epiphany for Changez to choose his sides. Changez sides with his culture of origin and gives up his role as globe-trotting mercenary of American capitalism. All this makes fine storytelling: an easy grace, an unputdownable narrative, the familiar cultural and civilizational forces pulling and pushing the loyalties of Pakistanis everyhere in the world. What is disturbing about Changez is the way in which he reflects many Pakistanis who believe that the world comprises of two neat halves -- the West and the East – and the twain will never meet peacefully. In this context, the schizophrenic split personality of the fundamentalist self as captured by Mohsin Hamid becomes very astute. As a depiction of the clash of fundamentalisms (to borrow a phrase from Tariq Ali), it is an excellent achievement. If one wants to learn something about how to question the civilizational divide, one has to turn to other books which help one question the solidity of identity labels. This book is a realistic depiction of those people who suspend their questioning in order to reach some firm conclusions.