Saturday, 6 August 2011

the reluctant fundamentalist [moshin hamid]

Hamid's book is the kind of text you can read in a single sitting. I read it in two. The narrative is compelling, the style flows easily, and the book's remit appears to be bold and topical. I came across it via an article discussing why there's been no truly successful novel about the fall of the twin towers. One of the article's conclusions was that the event itself was experienced so profoundly by the world's public that fiction finds it hard to live up to the real thing. Hamid's novel, as the title suggests, at least offers a fresh perspective on the theme by adopting a narrator who's Pakistani, living in Lahore, talking to an American spook. The implication is that the narrator is the reluctant fundamentalist of the title and that his personal experience of 9/11 contributed to his radical politics.

The book follows the narrator's fortunes working for a Morgan Stanley/ McKinsey style organisation called Underwood Samson. His job is to value companies, presumably facilitating asset stripping or hostile takeover. He has secured his post in spite of his third world pedigree, and in order to ensure this does not handicap him he works harder than his peers and looks set for a golden future. The novel's description of the conflicts felt by the narrator as he seeks to realise the Western dream of affluence and power is acute. No matter how hard he tries he will always be an outsider. When he watches the towers go down from a Philippines hotel he cheers in spite of himself. Later on a trip to Valparaiso in Chile he crumbles, unable to participate in the deconstruction of a venerable publishing company. He quits and returns to Lahore.

As the novel restlessly trespasses over four continents in the course of its 200 pages it feels for a moment as if Hamid is the writer who will be capable of relating the East/ West; North/ South; Third/First world divide. His premise is perfect and his observations are meticulous. However, sad to say, the book kind of fizzles out. Firstly, the narrator's transformation into a cult political teacher in Pakistan (the fundamentalist of the title) is dealt with in the space of a few paragraphs, so cursory that they fail to investigate this essential stage in his development in any depth. Secondly, the conceit around which the tale is spun of the narrator talking to a US spook in a Lahore marketplace goes nowhere.

All of which leaves the reader with the impression that they've only really read half a novel. A strong, promising half a novel, but also, ultimately, a lazy one. Underneath the book's supposed examination of what might lead a man to become a fundamentalist (or even a terrorist), one cannot help thinking that this ends up being another contribution to the Orientalism debate. Hamid's book with its ferociously simple prose style and lack of any considered denouement seems tailor made for consumption by a 'Western' audience. There's no real subversion in the narrator's destiny; he doesn't shock or upset or alienate us. If there have to be "fundamentalists" in this world, (and the shortcuts the book takes as it addresses the narrator's transformation don't leave us much the wiser as to what this word really means), 'we' would probably want them to be just like him.

No comments: