Why “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” Will Keep You On The Edge Of Your Seat

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.

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