And Letters: Review of The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

I looked forward to reading Mohsin Hamid’s second novel published in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, having read and enjoyed his first novel, Moth Smoke.  What struck me with Moth Smoke was Hamid’s confidence as a writer.  Reading Moth Smoke never gave me that slight uneasiness that results from reading a new writer who hasn’t quite grown into their writing shoes.  With a more experienced writer, in contrast, you can walk to your shelf and pull off any novel by say, an Ann Patchett or a John Irving,  comfortable in knowing you are in capable storytelling hands.  Hamid is such a novelist.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist exudes the same confidence as Moth Smoke. Which is not to say that Hamid over-reaches or is shy about using unconventional storytelling techniques.  This short -184 pages- novel consists entirely of one side of a conversation between the Pakistani narrator and an American stranger over the course of one evening in a cafe in Lahore.

The tension and uneasiness that lies between all things Pakistani and all things American under-girds The Reluctant Fundamentalist as it did in Moth Smoke. Yet, the conversation is not an angry rant or confrontation.  The narrator, Changez, tells the American stranger of his  experience of being a Princeton-educated Pakistani man in New York with a promising career in a prestigious American firm.  While Changez  always feels culturally different from most of his American colleagues and friends, the benefits of his lifestyle seem to him worth any compromises.  His emotional roller coaster of angst, dissatisfaction, and guilt only begins after he has fallen in love with a troubled American young woman who cannot love him back.

As an older and wiser Changez relates his saga to the American stranger in a Lahore cafe, he acknowledges the American’s discomfort, wariness and suspicions, and attempts to allay the man’s fears. Yet, despite Changez’s likableness, the accessibility of his story, one can’t help feel the creepiness and danger inherent in the c conversation.  I vacillated between feeling compassion for Changez and scanning for veiled threats between the lines.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the story of lost love, broken hearts, and the guilt that accompanies the lust for success and money.  It is about the cultural abyss between the haves and the have-nots and the tidal pull of patriotism and loyalty.    No matter how well we can identify with this Middle Eastern man’s feelings and experience, we are still left with “us” v. “them”.  No matter how much we like Changez, like the American stranger, we can never let down our guard.  But, then, isn’t that where bigotry begins?  Fear becomes an excuse for suspicion, suspicion breeds contempt, and contempt precludes any chance of connection.

Like Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is more than a story.   It’s a guided meditation.  Hamid’s skillful storytelling allows us a safe space in which to examine thoughts and feelings that we otherwise might not acknowledge even to ourselves.


And Letters — Review of Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid brackets his first novel, Moth Smoke, with the story of Aurengzeb, the brutal ruler of the Mughal Empire. On his deathbed, he regrets his life of cruelty and tells his sons not to follow his example. But it was too late; the sons had already inherited their father’s fighting spirit.

Against this ancient canvas, Hamid tells a story of modern Pakistan, rich with corruption, drugs, and privilege. Daru Shezad is a restless, bored banker who looses his job and spirals downward from there, sleeping with his best friend’s wife and wading ever deeper into criminal activities to support himself.

I knew the story would be dark when, early in the book, Daru drives the roads of Lahore on the way to visit a friend he’s not seen in a long time. He drives with his knee as he empties the tobacco from a cigarette and fills it back up with hash. I could not forget years of seeing news coverage of car bombs exploding in Middle Eastern countries. Daru’s elaborate cigarette choreography was ominous. Didn’t he know he lived in a dangerous place? The answer to that question is, not really.

The title, Moth Smoke, comes from a game Daru makes up involving a moth, a flaming candle, and a tennis racket. Like the moth who can’t help but fly close to the flame, Daru cannot see his own reckless behavior. The game mirrors his accelerating downward spiral. Daru isn’t an admirable man, or even a likable one, but he is disarmingly clueless as to his flaws. For instance, while he fiercely resents not quite ranking with the jet set, he sees nothing wrong with physically and verbally abusing his young house servant, refusing to pay his salary for weeks on end.

Despite his modern lifestyle, he is still tied fast to the ancient tradition of class. Hamid neither glorifies nor judges modern Pakistan and there’s no sentimentality for tradition. In Lahore, as in other cities of the world, people get jobs, lose jobs, go to parties, and fall in love, and betray friends. In Moth Smoke, though, it takes place in the shadow of Pakistan’s first nuclear test and you cannot forget that Pakistan is another character in this story.