Mohsin Hamid‘s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Penguin, 2007) is a little gem of a novel. It is the story of Changez, a Pakistani from an old Lahori family fallen on genteel poverty, who goes to America to get a good education and make money. It is a tale of enchantment followed by disenchantment. Changez wins a scholarship to Princeton, is a straight-A student and goes right into a top valuation firm, Underwood Samson, earning $80,000 a year. By “focusing on the fundamentals”, the firm’s motto, Changez helps to value companies prior to sale for asset stripping or downsizing. At the sharp end of the market, he is to embody “change”, to be a mujahid for global capital, and not to succumb to “nostalgia”, or to be overly-concerned by the resentful looks of workers who know they are about to be sacked. He is not without compunctions on this score, but hides this well, both from others and himself, and is complimented on being a “shark”, an outsider from a shabby-genteel background who will always be hungry to prove himself. While at Princeton he meets and is captivated by the magnetic but guileless Erica, the daughter of a wealthy investment banker, who secures his entry into New York’s high society.
All, then, seems well until 9/11 when Changez’s new world begins to crumble. He is somehow “remarkably pleased” by the attacks. At the Paki-Punjab Deli, a tiny home away from home, the taxi-drivers talk in quiet voices of friends being beaten up or disappearing, of the bombing of Afghanistan. Changez scours the internet for news of India’s potentially nuclear stand-off with Pakistan after the bombing of its Parliament by Kashmiri separatists. While working in Manila, a look of “undisguised hostility” from a Filipino unnerves him as he glides by in his limousine: should he identify with the downtrodden Filipino or be content with his new-found status as a “Master of the Universe”, as Tom Wolfe dubbed the species? His relationship with Erica becomes stillborn, as she succumbs to her “nostalgia”, her loss and grief for a deceased childhood sweetheart, Chris. Changez can only connect with Erica, break into her intense reverie of love, if he play-acts being Chris, literally becoming not-himself.
Changez’s moment of realisation comes during a business trip to Chile. Juan-Bautista, the book-loving director of the troubled printing firm he is assessing, somehow discerns this discontent in Changez, and poses to him a question that he cannot answer:
“I have been observing you, and I think it is no exaggeration to say, young man, that you seem upset. May I ask you a rather personal question?” “Certainly,” I said. “Does it trouble you,” he inquired, “to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?” “We just value,” I replied. “We do not decide whether to buy or to sell, or indeed what happens to a company after we have valued it.” He nodded; he lit a cigarette and took a sip from his glass of wine. Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?” “No,” I said. “They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisation, so they had nothing else to turn to.”
He tipped the ash of his cigarette onto a plate. “How old were you when you went to America?” he asked. “I went for college,” I said. “I was eighteen.” “Ah, much older,” he said. “The janissaries were always taken in childhood. It would have been far more difficult to devote themselves to their adopted empire, you see, if they had memories they could not forget.” He smiled and speculated no more on the subject.
Changez’s response is to return to New York immediately: he can no longer be “a modern-day janissary”, “a servant of the American empire at a time it was invading a country with a kinship to mine”. With his newly-grown beard a source of suspicion, he is fired by Underwood Samson and is escorted from the premises by security guards. He also finds out that Erica, committed to a private retreat on the banks of the Hudson river, has drowned herself. With his work visa expired, Changez returns to Pakistan, determined to do his part to stop America “in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own”. He leaves his jacket at a kerbside in memory of Erica, who had left her clothes at the riverside before drowning herself.
What is unusual about The Reluctant Fundamentalist is that the entire setting of the novel consists of two strangers, two men, a Pakistani, Changez, and an unnamed American, meeting together at a bazaar restaurant in Lahore one evening. The whole novel is told in Changez’s voice, relating his tale to an American, whose voice we never hear, a telling inversion of normal relations.
Changez’s story is continually interrupted by the American, who seems paranoid and even frightened. Changez offers constant reassurances. No, the tea or grilled meats they are eating are not poisoned. No, the waiter does not seem to have a hostile intent towards you. At the same time Changez’s pointed questions to the American reveal that he has some ill-intent in mind. Is that the bulge of a shoulder-holster under your jacket? Don’t the hourly calls on your satellite phone recall Agency practice?
In the novel’s denouement, Changez is revealed as a fanatic, reminiscent, with his mixture of ingenuity, charm and ruthlessness, to the LSE graduate Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who murdered the journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. As Changez walks the American back to his hotel, he relates the final chapter of his story. A lecturer in finance at a local university, he has become the voice of anti-American discontent on campus and helps to mentor and lead student protests. One of his students gets wrapped up in an attempt to murder an American aid worker; a television interview with Changez condemning American imperial violence is flashed around the world. He has become a target, and feels “rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe”.
The book ends just before the moment of violence. The unnamed American agent is pulling out a gun as Changez and his student supporters (from the restaurant) close in to either kidnap or kill him. As such the book ends on a question mark and offers no conclusions. It works to confirm the clash of civilisations, embattled as it did then seem in 2002 with the neoconservative project yet to realise its full ambition (and limit) in the killing fields of Iraq. Changez’s reluctance to be the janissary of capitalism seems matched by his reluctance to casually dispatch the unnamed American: he must relate his story first and explain why. The potential of resolution only resides in true dialogue, exchange and understanding to build a more equal world, to find a luminous mixture between “change” and “nostalgia”. Instead, here, there is no dialogue: only indifferent empire and nihilistic resistance.