The Reluctant Fundamentalist

I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.

There are adjustments one must make if one comes here from America; a different way of observing is required. I recall the Americanness of my own gaze when I returned to Lahore that winter when war was in the offing. I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared, with cracks running through its ceilings and dry bubbles of paint flaking off where dampness had entered its walls…I was saddened to find it in such a state—no, more than saddened, I was shamed. This was where I came from, this was my provenance, and it smacked of my lowliness.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist opens with the simple question: “excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” An unnamed, vigilant American is seated against the back wall of a cafe in Lahore when he is approached by the speaker, a bearded Pakistani who offers his assistance. The young man introduces himself as a lover of America and, in a one-sided conversation that lasts long into the night, explains his affinity for America and how he came to be in Lahore.

Changez was once a model immigrant to the United States. Elected from the cream of the international crop of applicants, he graduated at the top of the Princeton class of 2001 and won a job offer from the prestigious Underwood Samson corporate valuation firm. The sign-on bonus from the job allowed Changez to take a trip to Greece with scions of American wealth and fortune, where he meets Erica, a beautiful writer reeling from the death of her childhood love. Naturally, Changez falls for her.

The seeds of their courtship contribute to Changez’ charmed life, but the relationship that sprouts creates the first crack in the facade that will lead him back to Lahore. Memories of her old boyfriend form a labyrinth that Erica cannot escape; as much as she likes Changez and as much as he tries to help her, their relationship is doomed. Her condition deteriorates parallel to his relationship with America.

Then the Twin Towers fall. In an instant, Changez transforms from just another New Yorker to a Pakistani, a potential threat. He remains valued at work, but under a new level of scrutiny from his coworkers. Thoughts of the American war in Afghanistan and fears of a war with India intrude on his working hours, threatening his once-promising career. Now he grows a beard and soon he makes plans to return to Lahore where he becomes a teacher.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist uses a simple story-telling device to juxtapose two young men. The outgoing, talkative Pakistani Changez bears only passing resemblance to the guarded, watchful Changez in America. Mohsin Hamid gives no indication that Changez is an unreliable narrator, so the differences lay in his level of comfort. In Pakistan, Changez cheerfully talks about the women, the market, the waiter, the food, and his past; in the United States, even a successful immigrant is an outsider feeling his way around. At the same time, he is shocked to learn that the years in the United States alienated him from Pakistan when the home he returns to looks grungy and dilapidated to his western eyes.

This fundamental tension is at the heart of the book, with everything else serving to highlight it further. The romantic storyline, for instance, is effective, but feels like an extended metaphor about living in the past and the impossibility of Changez’ American ambitions. (The digital assistant for Bank of America is also named “Erica”.) I felt deep sympathy for Changez, particularly on the issue of feeling out of place, and could relate to the experience of relocating from the superficially new that is identified with America to the lived in that is somewhat worse for wear. In that sense, and not for the first time, I took slight issue with defining “America” synonymous with New York and New Jersey. But neither that complaint nor the somewhat predictable arc of the Lahore storyline detracts from a masterful novel.

In sum, I loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid tackles the experience of disassociation and loss at a lively clip, with a protagonist who bears no visible scars. Exit West, his most recent novel is a bit more sophisticated and less predictable, but The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, deserves every accolade it received.

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I’ve fallen behind again and am giving up on writing about every book. I still plan to write about Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, but am delaying because I intend to watch the film again first. I also finished Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, which is a perfectly pleasant installment in his Stormlight Archive world, but not something to read on its own. I’m now in the middle of Tana French’s The Broken Harbour, a riveting murder mystery set in Ireland.

Exit West, Mohsin Hamid

Online there was sex and security and plenty and glamour.

In a once-vibrant city hemmed in by an approaching civil war, two people meet while taking a night class. Saeed is fascinated and intimidated by Nadia. The former is quiet, reserved, and a simple traditionalist. Not a radical, but Romantic and nostalgic. The latter presents a formal, cloaked form to the world, but beneath it is a fiercely independent woman who veils her body precisely so that she may act as she wishes.

Their affair begins innocuously enough, but becomes increasingly fraught as war disrupts the routines of life. Together they exit west, passing through doors to other worlds. First they land in Mykonos, then London, and finally outside San Fransisco. Nadia and Saeed are forever linked, but where she becomes liberated, he succumbs to his nostalgia. The relationship is doomed to failure, but not out of malice. Nadia and Saeed cling to each other, first out of affection and then out of familiarity. Indeed, the shared trauma of dislocation extends an affair that could have ended as unremarkably as it started simply because people change.

Exit West is a beautiful and tender emigration story. Hamid does not name Nadia and Saeed’s home city, but it is a Pakistani setting that could also be a composite of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, all deeply torn by the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. When the war closes the world open to people online and by phone collapses into the immediate concerns of survival, and the opportunities for sensuality, through sex and drugs and other forms of pleasure, disappear. Gone is the world that allowed Saeed’s parents to lead satisfying and well-rounded lives in the city and in their own home. The young lovers cling to each other to preserve what they can, remembering what might have been through their bodies.

Escape comes at a price and each time they they enter lands of plenty, it is with nothing to their names. Hamid’s focus in Exit West is the consequences of each move on Nadia and Saeed, and how they experience the world. News of hatred and war and political actions are dim observations rather than the central issue because that is how the protagonists experience these things. The result is a sad and sympathetic story of two people trying to find their way in the world.

Violence is omnipresent, surrounding and affecting Nadia and Saeed, but only directly touching them once. Each chapter of the main narrative is further divided by interludes that give a glimpse of someone and somewhere else. Doors and windows feature also prominently in these passages and serve to reinforce the transience and fragility of life.

Exit West is a story of loss and dislocation, remembering and forgetting, but it is also fundamentally optimistic. This emerges in the story’s conclusion (which I will not go into here), but also in the way in which the protagonists look at the world. Both Nadia and Saeed are looking for a better life, first in their intimate relationships and employment, but later in terms of safety and security. These ambitions drive them. They resist the temptation to turn bitter at the violence and hatred that they encounter, instead choosing to embrace the kindness and generosity of people they meet.

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I just finished reading Inventing Ethan Allen, a study about the cultural memory of Vermont’s founding “patriot.”