Normally it does not take long before the Monthly Book Group drifts off the book and on to other subjects. But this evening they started off down the highways and byways without even mentioning the book. We spent at least fifteen minutes discussing beers that they had brought – the Spitfires and Fursty Ferrets – and the beers they would have brought if they could have remembered the names – before polite coughs from your correspondent and the proposer gave way to less polite coughs and finally we turned to the book.
Which was “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” by Mohsin Hamid (2007). The proposer had read it before a trip to the Indian sub-continent. Hamid was born in Pakistan in 1971, and had spent part of his childhood in the US where his father, a professor, was doing a P.H.D. He had returned to Lahore aged 9, but went back to the States at the age of 18 to study literature at Princeton, followed by a law degree at Harvard. A spell of work in a corporate law firm was followed by work in marketing, where his employer allowed him 3 months off per year to write. This led to his first book “Moth Smoke” (2000). He moved to London in 2001, and then back to Lahore in 2009.
He describes himself as a “transcontinental mongrel”. He started this book in 2000, re-wrote it after 9/11, and spent 7 years in total working on it until its publication. Speaking of its brevity, he said he would rather people read it twice than gave up half way through. The book had been a great success, winning 5 awards and being translated into 26 languages.
The proposer had found the book fascinating, and thought-provoking. The narrator’s dramatic monologue was quiet and courteous, and left your imagination to fill in the blanks. He liked the love story, and the wide range of emotions evoked by the book. Although the ambiguity of the ending annoyed some, he liked the way if gave scope to the imagination.
The book received a warm reception from the Group. The book was beautifully written, and cleverly constructed. “Compelling”. “Totally absorbing”. “It drew you in immediately, and was difficult to put down. Indeed it could easily be read in one sitting”. “Such a pleasure to read it”. “Delightful. Despite the weight of meaning, elegant and easy to read”.
The device of the “dramatic monologue” worked surprisingly well. It was as if he were there talking to you. It was quite a technical achievement not to allow the American to say anything in direct speech without creating a sense of artificiality.
It was particularly interesting in the context of the aftermath of 9/11 and its impact on Changez. We heard a lot about the impact of 9/11 on the Western world, but little about its impact on the Islamic world. And there was a lot of sympathy with the central message about how differently American behaviour was perceived in the East from Americans’ own perception of their actions.
The book seduced you, playing in to the liberal mindset (and Lahore was the most liberal part of Pakistan). He was saying in effect – look at me, I’m not an Islamist, I’m much like you, but I’m deeply fed up with America’s behaviour. The thrust of the book was that the US was ignorant, and the point of the book was to educate.
The names of the characters flagged up some of the themes Hamid had in mind. “Changez” – based on the French for change. “Erica” was short for America, and you could read the character as a metaphor for America, and the book as an allegorical fable. Was Chris short for Christian? And so what about the fact that Erica could only have successful sex with the narrator if she imagined he was Chris – a white American, no doubt Christian? Underwood Samson and Co has the initials U.S.A. Co. And “Juan-Batista” was Spanish for John the Baptist (who asked people to repent of their sins, perhaps such as working for a heartless capitalist company?).
However, while noting these games with names, most felt that the character of Erica and her story stood up as a substantive and poignant story rather than simply as an allegorical device. It was the most emotionally engaging thread in the book.
What about meaning of the last scene? Some felt the narrator with his liberal ideals would not be drawn into a murder, even if his interlocutor were an assassin. But in the end we agreed that all it was safe to assume was that violence of some kind was likely to result from the narrator’s activity in Pakistan.
Positive as the view of the book was, there were a few reservations. Some felt that the last quarter of the book was less compelling, less sharp than the earlier material, and the ending unsatisfactory. The pace dropped, Erica was off the scene, and there was a much more overt political polemic. And can you really trust a writer of fiction, who can control what does and does not go into his material, when he has a strong political agenda?
It was interesting that Hamid had said that a novel was often a divided man’s conversation with himself. That obviously applied in this book, much of which must be autobiographical, and which conveyed a degree of self-absorption. But perhaps most young men were self-obsessed? Well, noted one, the writer certainly came over as very intense in an interview that he had seen.
It was no surprise, suggested one, to learn that Hamid had studied literature. There were several nods to other writers: such as Fitzgerald, and his theme of people trying to re-create the past in “The Great Gatsby”; Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” – another novella told through a monologue; and Neruda, the values of whose love poetry might be contrasted with the heartless Underwood Samson, and who was also a politician.
Moreover, perhaps he tried rather too hard to spell out his themes in case critics missed them, both with the name games, and with passages such as:
“Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one’s boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be.”
The theme of nostalgia for the past is central to Erica’s story, as she cannot move on from Chris, and also central to the inability of Changez to let go of Erica and to his desire to return home. But the author then tries to tie together his personal and geopolitical themes:
“America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms…”
This seems forced – America might be returning to type, but the idea that it was nostalgic seems introduced for the purposes of thematic symmetry. As with many other students of literature turned writer (a phenomenon developing in the twentieth century with the emergence of English as an academic discipline) such passages felt a little contrived, from the analytical left side of the brain rather than the intuitive right…
“Well I don’t know about contrived, but he is certainly very controlled. Look at how long Changez courts Erica before he even manages a kiss. He doesn’t seem a flesh and blood man…”
“ Indeed, he seems deeply inhibited, and some of the Pakistani middle classes are very reserved…”
“Yes” weighed in another in professorial tones “Can’t imagine him saying to Erica “Gie us a sh*g then, doll!’…
… and don’t put that in the blog!” he added demonstratively, sufficiently demonstratively to collapse the end of the sofa and fall off.
(The said sofa, reader, was one of those with a mechanism under one arm which usefully converts it into a chaise longue: particularly useful, for example, should you be sitting next to an Erica…)
So what, then, was the book really about? Fundamentalism? But although there was quite a lot about Muslim culture and countries, there was nothing at all about the religion as such, which is the basis of fundamentalism, as most understand it. Indeed in an interview Hamin had suggested the fundamentalism he was writing about was that of the capitalist Underwood Samson, whose modus operandi was to “focus on the fundamentals” – the financial fundamentals – of businesses.
We concluded that the central theme was really that of America, and the damage that he had come to feel it was doing in its ill-considered and bullying foreign policies. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” was essentially a title well chosen for selling the book.
(Err…isn’t that capitalist behaviour?….ventured your scribe, in a rare contribution to the debate, to be swiftly silenced by a few anti-capitalist glares. Oh well, back to scribbling and claret…).
He brought out well the fears of countries such as Pakistan, caught between Afghanistan and India:
“I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East……Finance was the primary means by which the American empire expressed its power.
“You [America] retreated into myths of your own superiority…you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away …the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage”.
Arguably his views about India being wound up by the US to threaten a war of attack against Pakistan were rather neurotic, but it was illuminating to see the Pakistani perspective.
And then we left the book – surprise! – to go off on a tour of world politics, revisiting some of the sites visited in earlier discussions of the sub-continent (see for example the discussion of “Three Cups of Tea” in October 2008).
Interesting stops on our tour included:
– the thought that American policy was generally based on what it saw as its strategic interests (the Hamiltonian approach) but often dressed up in terms of some sort of moral crusade (the Jeffersonian approach). It was disappointing that, at least so far, Obama seemed to have bought into the same strategic views as his predecessor. In UK foreign policy you could also see a dichotomy between idealism and pragmatism (Castlereagh/Canning; Gladstone/Disraeli; Blair/Hurd);
– the observation that the effect of Partition had ironically been to marginalise the Muslim tradition and Pakistan, despite the fact that the Muslim tradition could claim to have been the dominant, most progressive and most tolerant cultural force in the sub-continent prior to Partition;
– the fact that English was written to a much higher grammatical standard in the sub-continent than it was in Britain nowadays, as could be seen in both newspapers and literature. Was it fanciful to imagine that in fifty years Indian sub-continent literature might have taken over from American as the major external influence on British writers? And it was always attractive to read books with a more varied setting than those offered by the London-based novelists’ staple offering of Islington and adultery…
Briefly revisiting the book, we speculated whether – much as we had enjoyed it – it would still be being read in fifty years time. The topicality of its subject matter and viewpoint had no doubt helped its current success, and the success of other books in this field such as “The Islamist”. But other books that had been written to meet a topical demand – such as the spate of books in 1929 about the horrors of the First World War – remained widely read classics.
And then we returned to the subject of refreshments. One was drinking the remnants of a Merlot left over from cooking a venison casserole. One had been on the Lafite 95 the day before (was it not rather young?). The proposer was quaffing the Wine Society’s Exhibition Central Otago Pinot Noir…
Your correspondent carefully turned his bottle to disguise the Co-op Claret label.
And then the settee collapsed again.
And that was it.