Book Review / Notes on Literature: Brief Thoughts on “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a novel that’s easy to like, even love. This is due in large part to the hypnotic narrative voice of Changez, its first person narrator-protagonist. The novel is set up as an apparently casual conversation between him and an unnamed American visitor at a café in the old district of Anarkali in Lahore.

Enough, I believe, has been said and written about the political undercurrents in the novel. Suffice to say that all of the personal and political conflicts in it arise from a widely known act of terrorism and its retributive consequences. In this post, I’d like to skip over that and dwell briefly on what a great formal narrative achievement The Reluctant Fundamentalist is; on what a great, good, even old fashioned, story it is, suffused with the nostalgia and dreaminess inherent in the act of remembering and shot through with the bitterness and frustration accompanying the realisation that once intimately familiar people and places have irrevocably changed.

Lahore was home to even larger creatures of the night back then—flying foxes, my father used to call them—and when we drove along Mall Road in the evenings we would see them hanging upside down from the canopies of the oldest trees. They are gone now; it is possible that, like butterflies and fireflies, they belonged to a dreamier world incompatible with the pollution and congestion of a modern metropolis.

Virtuoso exercise in concision that it is, it would nevertheless not be too much of a spoiler to say that over the course of the narrative, Changez recounts nothing but change: change in his attitude towards his homeland and his ancestral home; change in his attitude towards his American dream; unfathomable, irresistible change in the girl he fell in love with.

…but I think I knew even then that she was disappearing into a powerful nostalgia, one from which only she could choose whether or not to return.

Much of the poignancy of the tale arises from the counterpointing of political and cultural clashes with personal conflicts that are as mystifying, as devastating.

Using minimal prose that nevertheless manages to sound ornate, Hamid evokes a sense of time and place, not by meticulous description, but by subtly dropping a telling detail here and a suggestive metaphor there.

It was a beautiful spot… to push off from the granite and sail through the air, gazing across at the far bank of the mighty river, where a small house exhaled smoke from its chimney…

It’s only in retrospect that I realised that this minimalist verbal image making manages to convey the ethereal, subjective nature of memories to the same fabulous effect as Omohide Poroporo (literally, “memories come tumbling down”), one of the most subtly beautiful animated works to come out of the studio Ghibli stable of Miyazaki and Takahata. In spite of the realistic subject matter, fabulous is just about the right word to describe this tale, for it belongs as much to the tradition of Scheherazade and the Ancient Mariner as to that of Camus and Fitzgerald.

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