The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Book Review)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

How are you all this fine May morning? Really? That’s wonderful! As for me, I’m feeling a wee bit uneasy. Why? Well, I can’t say for certain, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the fact that I just finished reading Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. What? You’ve never heard of it before? Well, I personally found it to be one of the most entertaining and profound pieces of literature ever published. If you’d like, I could tell you about it. You would? Oh capital! Well now, let’s see. Where to begin?

I suppose what I found most charming about the novel was its ambiguity. I can’t even begin to describe to you how frustrating it is to open up a book and know within the first five pages the kind of plot, characters, and settings you’re going to encounter. The best stories are , in my opinion, the ones that aren’t obvious, that leave room for individual interpretations as to the meaning of their content. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if we knew which of the narrator’s accounts was true. Lois Lowry’s The Giver was made far more powerful by the fact that we didn’t know for certain if the protagonists got away, or if they simply died in their attempt. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a study in ambiguous characters and story-telling, even if it doesn’t look like that on the surface. When I first started reading it, I thought I was going to get a predictable, “don’t discriminate against people because of where they come from or what they look like” books. And I won’t deny, there were several points in the story where I felt like that was what I was reading. I mean really, what else are you supposed to think when the opening line of the novel is “Do not be frightened by my beard; I am a lover of America.” And yet, as I read further, I became less and less certain of the direction which the novel would take, and let me tell you, I was seriously grateful for that unexpected turn of events.

The whole story is basically just one long conversation between two men–one Pakistani, one American–in a restaurant in Lahore. The Pakistani, a man named Changez, tells the American about his time in the States, studying at Princeton, working for a consultancy firm as an analyst, and dating a beautiful, brilliant, but broken young novelist named Erica. The American, for his part, never reveals who he is, what he does for a living or why he’s in Pakistan. The author drops hints here and there as to his true identity–he’s extremely fit, he’s a former soldier, he has a gun-shaped bulge under his shirt–but you’re never told outright, “he’s a CIA operative who’s been sent to kill Changez.” Actually, come to think of it, you’re never really led to believe that he’s been sent to kill Changez. If anything, you get more of a feeling that Changez is the one whose been sent to kill him. How? Well, as the story progresses, the pleasant Lahore marketplace where the two are sharing their meal becomes darker and more foreboding. The lights dim, the other guests leave, and all that we are left with is Changez telling an increasingly morbid and hate-filled tale. See, after 9-11, he felt more and more unwelcome in the States, partly because of increased police and Homeland Security scrutiny, but mostly because of Erica’s apparent suicide and his own sense of guilt at serving a nation that subjugates and exploits people in the Third World. He likens himself to a Janissary–a Christian youth taken in by the Sultan to serve the Ottoman Empire–and discusses how, after losing his job and working visa, he returned to Lahore, where he taught economics, and anti-American rhetoric, to University students. (I personally find it kind of ironic that he would use the Janissaries as the metaphor for how he feels. After all, being a Janissary was considered a great honor among Ottoman Christians. Boys who were taken in by the Sultan would often go on to become Generals or Politicians; people with wealth and influence. Many Muslim families would actually lie about their children’s’ faith in the hopes that they too might be granted this lofty position. Not all that different, if you think about it, than white parents these days claiming that their kids are part latino or Native American in order to get them into good schools.)

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much else, for fear of spoiling the story, but I will say this, the way the book ends left me positively drowning in questions. What happens to Changez? What happens to the AMerican? Who was Changez, really? Who was the American? Was any of what Changez said actually true? And so on. Yes, the novel came off as preachy at times, but the totally ambiguous cliff-hanger of an ending more than made up for it. And you know what, I feel like that was actually the perfect way to write a book about terrorism. I mean, after all, we live in a dangerous, ambiguous world. Anybody can be a terrorist; a prince or a pauper; a pet-walker or a PhD. You can never be certain who would like to help you and who would like to see you dead. The Reluctant Fundamentalist captures that uncertainty perfectly, and carries it through the story until the last, tension-filled page.

So, to sum it all up, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is highly enjoyable, easy to read, thought-provoking about the causes and catalysts for terrorism and, best of all, isn’t too long. A solid 8.5 out of 10, if you ask me. Check it out if you’ve got the time.

Born From Blood And Tears: A Review Of Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Someone once asked me why I wanted to make films. At the time, I didn’t quite know how to respond, and so told them something about a life-long love of story-telling that I hoped to nurture into adulthood. This answer wasn’t entirely true, even I could see that, but it seemed to satisfy the person in question, because they never brought it up again. It did not, however, satisfy me. For weeks after that encounter, all I could think about was why I wanted to be a filmmaker. Honestly, what was the reason? Was it the attractive prospect of fame and fortune? Was it the incessant need to be in the spotlight? Was it an unconscious desire to foist my philosophies and political views on the world? Night after night I pondered this weighty quandary, but never managed to produce a satisfactory answer. And then, when I had all but given up on my search for the big “why?” it came to me. I wanted to write screenplays because I wanted to tell the story of the human animal. I wanted to examine every aspect of our souls, our hearts, our minds. I wanted to dissect the things that drive us, the things that most of us go our whole lives without knowing. I wanted to create works of art that were profound, but also entertaining enough, to help us understand what it means to be human and to make this bizarre, beautiful, and at times brutal, experience of life a little bit easier. What I wanted, in short, was to make films like Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man.

This 2013 British-Australian drama tells the true story of Eric Lomax, a Scottish soldier who was captured and tortured by the Japanese during World War 2, and his search for reconciliation with Takashi Nagase, the Japanese interpreter who oversaw many of his torture sessions. Blessed with stunning visuals, a gorgeous color-scheme, a highly lyrical soundtrack and stellar performances from its stars–Colin Firth, Hiroyuki Sanada, and their younger counterparts Jeremy Irvine and Tanroh Ishida–The Railway Man is easily one of the most powerful films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. It’s not just that it tells the story of a period of history that I have a personal connection to and that’s often overlooked, it also gives each of its characters an enormous amount of depth and anguish. Too many war movies these days focus solely on the experiences of one side and how the conflict affected them afterwards. Such pictures completely ignore the fact that war is demeaning to all of its participants–to both the torturers and the tortured, both the victors and the vanquished. We might not like to believe it but, in war, there are only victims. The Railway Man captures this phenomena perfectly. Both the British and the Japanese are shown as suffering severe PTSD following the war. You never get a sense that one group is “the good guys” or that the only means of closure is revenge. Even the torture scenes, which are beautifully shot in spite of their brutality, showcase the discomfort of both parties. The picture’s success in demonstrating this is due, in large part, to the performances of Firth, Sanada, Irvine and Ishida. Whenever you hear Irvine scream out in pain, you never get the feeling that he’s exaggerating or putting on a show. When you see Firth confront Sanada after years of regret and anguish, the former positively simmering with rage, the later a broken shell attempting to make amends, you believe every syllable of their dialogue. It would have been too easy for either man to fall prey to melodramatic cliches, for one character to come out as the clear moral superior, but both actors manage to display the ambiguity of their real life counterparts with breathtaking precision. If the Academy doesn’t choose to honor either Irvine or Sanada with at least a nomination for best supporting actor, I’ll be seriously disappointed.

Now, of course, as with all works of art, The Railway Man has its fair share of flaws. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie, which introduces us to Lomax following the war, are very slow, and resemble a romantic comedy for middle-aged people. I understand why the director chose to start off here–he wanted to illustrate that, even after all these years, Lomax, a likable everyman, is still haunted by his experiences,–but still, it took me a while to get into the movie. Likewise, the scenes with Nicole Kidman are just plain awful. I was kind of surprised by this, since most mainstream critics said she was the best thing in the movie, but the fact remains, her character is flat, she lacks any back story, and to be honest, I really found Kidman’s acting to be rather annoying. Finally, the film doesn’t hesitate to take some serious liberties with history. First of all, in real life, Eric Lomax was a proud Scottish patriot. In the movie, he’s portrayed as being English. Second, when Lomax and Nagase actually met with each other all those years after the war ended, it was to find some closure and reconciliation. In the movie, its set up as though Lomax went seeking revenge, but had a change of heart and chose to forgive his former captor. And thirdly, in real life, Lomax was married at the time he met Nicole Kidman’s character. The movie never bothers to discuss this first marriage, and instead sets Lomax up as a sad, lonely man who never was able to find love after the war.

Yes, The Railway Man is far from perfect, but these imperfections just make the movie’s brilliant moments shine all the brighter, and I would love it if more pop-corn chewing audiences would go and bask in this brilliance. I can’t believe I’m saying this but, I’d give the picture a 9 out of 10. It’s perfectly paced, flawlessly acted, and beautiful to look at. And on top of that, it tells a truly inspiring tale of suffering and reconciliation and, honestly, who wouldn’t want to see a thing like that?