An International Student of Literature in England.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid is the first novel of the semester I had to read for the module Contemporary Fiction and I found it awesome! It’s a very promising start which motivates me a lot for this semester because reading it was actually enjoyable – a feeling I hadn’t felt in a while and missed. Nothing beats an afternoon in bed with a good book, tea and biscuits. And, cherry on the cake, it’s short (about 200 pages) and very simple to read. After being unable to finish a single book in a while, it’s very nice and refreshing!
The first striking element is the narration: the Pakistani first person narrator, Changez, talks about his life in the USA to an unmanned and completely voiceless interlocutor, an American tourist he met on the street. We thus learn about Changez’s experiences in New York, his graduation from Princeton and his gradual move from being a “product” of this culture and feeling like a “New Yorker” to his rejection of America following 9/11. At the same time, he talks about his budding love with Erica and her own story of loss, trauma and mental illness.
“But I did grow up up with a poor boy’s sense of longing, in my case for not for what my family had never had, but for what we had had and lost.”
The title can be misleading: this novel is not about fundamentalism or even about religion. It does evoke terrorism though, in an interesting and indirect way. It is in fact surprising how little Changez mentions faith when we, readers, expect him to. And want to. But the narrator doesn’t say what we are waiting to hear and constantly plays with us.
“I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck be its determination to look back.”
The novel explores the themes of identity, mental illness, loss, the dangers of nationalism, racism and to some extent, radicalization (religious or not). We are placed at the centre of the novel and are always questioned. Our assumptions are challenged and the ending remains open which is a bit frustrating but also a way for the author to question us and our beliefs. I really enjoyed it although I wish it was a bit more straightforward and clearer at times — you’ll see what I mean.
“I kind of miss home, too,” she said. “Except my home was a guy with long, skinny fingers.”
A film adaptation came out recently (2013) but I haven’t had the time to watch it yet. It could be good but it’d lack all the work the narrator does so I don’t know how it’d work in a film. Please let me know if it’s worth watching in the comments below!