Return of the Native

Sunday, April 22, 2007


By Mohsin Hamid

Harcourt. 184 pp. $22

Some books are acts of courage, maybe because the author tries out an unproven style, addresses an unpopular theme or allows characters to say things that no one wants to hear. Mohsin Hamid's new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, does all those things.

Told in the form of an extended monologue, the novel reflects on a young Pakistani's almost five years in America. After excelling at Princeton, Changez had become a highly regarded employee at a prestigious financial firm. He seemed to have achieved the perfect American life. We know from the beginning, however, that it will not last long.

Changez narrates his story from a café in Lahore, his birthplace, while speaking to an American man whose role is unclear. Changez tells him, "Yes, I was happy in that moment. I felt bathed in a warm sense of accomplishment. Nothing troubled me; I was a young New Yorker with the city at my feet." (Tellingly, while he didn't see himself as a foreigner during this time, the two colleagues closest to him were also outsiders: one "non-white," the other a gay man who grew up poor.) In the aftermath of Sept. 11, as the tone of the country becomes more hostile, Changez's corporate cloak lifts, and his life in America no longer seems so perfect.

Paralleling the narrative of Changez's work life is the tale of his romantic involvement with Erica, an elegant and well-to-do New Yorker who has emotional baggage that eventually leads to a breakdown. The impossible love story softens the book, allowing Changez to tell the same story from a different perspective. Both of his potential conquests (America, Erica) have deep appeal, yet both have been damaged, making it impossible for them to be part of Changez's life.

Hamid's writing is strongest when Changez is analyzing the finer points of being a foreigner, "well-liked as an exotic acquaintance." When he goes out with Erica, he takes "advantage of the ethnic exception clause that is written into every code of etiquette" and wears a kurta and jeans because his blazer looks shabby. Later, when he is back in Pakistan and his parents ask for details of his American life, he says, "It was odd to speak of that world here, as it would be odd to sing in a mosque; what is natural in one place can seem unnatural in another, and some concepts travel poorly, if at all."

Perhaps as a result of speaking Urdu and English, Hamid's style is delightfully distinct. His clever tale lingers in the mind, partly because of the nature and originality of the troubled love story and partly because of Changez himself, who is not always likable. Or noble.

The courage of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in the telling of a story about a Pakistani man who makes it and then throws it away because he doesn't want it anymore, because he realizes that making it in America is not what he thought it was or what it used to be. The monologue form allows for an intimate conversation, as the reader and the American listener become one. Are we sitting across from Changez at a table in Lahore, joining him in a sumptuous dinner? Do his comments cause us to bristle, making us more and more uncomfortable?

Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel, and for those who want a different voice, a different view of the aftermath of 9/11, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is well worth reading. ·

-- Laila Halaby, the author of "West of the Jordan" and "Once in a Promised Land"

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