The Reluctant Fundamentalist: Mohsin Hamid. Hamish Hamilton (Penguin): 2007.
 
Commentary
 
The book is written as a conversation between Changez and an unknown American in a Lahore restaurant. This useful technique gives the author opportunity to move away from simple narrative.
 
Changez, a Pakistani from a middle-class, intellectual family, wins a full scholarship to Princeton. He majors in business subjects, graduates very well and is head-hunted by Underwood Samson; a firm which values take-over targets for those planning the take-over.  Changez is consistently the best performer of his intake at Underwood Samson, so much so he earns the special attention of Jim, one of the partners. For a time all goes successfully for Changez and he is well placed to become one of the stars of the firm. When redundancies are made in response to slowing economic conditions, Changez retains his job.
 
He meets Erica, a flawed woman as it turns out, whose life has been blighted by the death of boyfriend Chris. Erica dwells on the deceased Chris. She has written a novel (or novella as she calls it due to its abbreviated length) and it is due to go to the publisher. It never does. Erica has art-loving friends and moves in NY high-society into which she introduces Changez. The relationship with Erica is not a success, despite Changez’s best efforts, and she declines emotionally ultimately committing suicide.
 
The nature of Changez’s work begins to trouble him as he seems to be undermining hard-working, ‘good’ people in the target companies. . He is encouraged to be aggressive in pursuit of his career by Jim because this will further the ends of Underwood Samson. He is told it is in the nature of young Americans to be competitive. Corporate collegiality is a sad myth Jim tells him. Changez begins to find all this distasteful. Then the 9/11 attacks occur; the turning point in the book.
 
Changez does not share the grief and emotional dislocation which afflicts New York, and indeed America, after 9/11. He also begins to see Erica’s infatuation with the dead beau as a metaphor for America’s infatuation with the values of its past.
 
War between Pakistan and India threatens, with the Americans likely to support India. This also helps to change Changez’s originally favourable view of America.
 
The unknown American is a subtle vehicle for the receipt of opinion in the book. For instance he finds the restaurant waiter intimidating, a metaphor for the uncertainty which Americans now feel for those from potential terrorist-source countries, or indeed foreigners generally. The waiter ultimately follows both he and Changez home at the end of the book. This has Unknown reaching, perhaps, for a gun as the book ends; a metaphor for the American way of solving problems by violence. 
 
Changez returns to Pakistan having become disillusioned with America and in fact tacitly thinking the 9/11 raid was something America brought upon itself. Erica has committed suicide before he comes back to America.
 
The book relies heavily upon metaphor.  Here are some to add to those already mentioned.
 
  • The work of Underwood Samson involves disrupting the lives of others- a metaphor for the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
 
  • Early, P15, Changez eulogises his country’s tea as he converses with the unknown American. A metaphor for the ultimate ‘goodness’ and legitimacy of Pakistan.
 
  • Underwood SAMSON (the Greek hero remember) is a metaphor for mighty America with all its dependence on hierarchy and achievement at whatever personal or social cost.
 
  • Chris is a metaphor for the America that was and now he has gone. So perhaps has the ‘old’ America.
 
  • Erica is a metaphor for the America that is: neurotic, uncertain, doubtful value systems and her ultimate suicide is a bleak commentary on America’s future.
 
  • At one point in the restaurant conversation the smell of cooking meat is contrasted with a nearby woman’s perfume. A metaphoric comparison of the views Americans may have held before and after 9/11. 
 
  • Changez asks Erica to pretend he is Chris during lovemaking- a metaphor for the dual nature he is asked to assume as a Pakistani working in the US.
 
 
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a good, provocative, read. It does not necessarily promote the views of the author but encourages the reader to take an alternative view of the causes, and consequences of the events of September 2001. It does not in any way excuse the violence of the event.