Minimalist literature is very nearly hit or miss for my tastes. I very nearly detest Hemingway, but Vonnegut I could read all day and never grow tired of it. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a minimalist novel that uses a frame story; meaning that a story is told within the story by a character. The most widely read example of this, in my mind, is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the story of Kurtz is told to a crew of shipmates by Charles Marlow. That example in particular kept coming to mind throughout the novel, and I was satisfied in my thinking when near the end of the novel Marlow and Kurtz are mentioned by name. The novel does not approach near the level of darkness and debauchery that Conrad’s does, though; instead feeling almost like a coming of age story.
It is the story of Changez, a Pakistani man who is recounting his college days at Princeton and his days of working at a law firm in New York, and what ultimately led him to return to Pakistan, to an American at a Cafe in Lahore. He tells this American, for reasons that are never known, of deep, personal details in his life, including his experiences with a girl, Erica, that he was in love with while he lived in the Big Apple.
The novel is highly political and will almost certainly cause those with deep conservative leanings to huff and puff at some of the things that Changez both recollects and comments upon throughout the story. However, this should not be a reason to avoid the novel as much as it should be a encouraging prod towards reading it and interacting with thoughts that could potentially challenge or even change your own.
Changez struggles to feel like a single identity, as he feels within himself a variety of cultures pulling him in completely different directions at all points. His personal struggles take on a catalyst in the form of September 11th. Changez’s main observation about 9/11 is one that he feels as a Pakistani, but is felt by many around the world: 9/11 was the “real world” breaking into America’s mythical, manufactured one. He is upset and grieves the loss of lives, yet part of him understands exactly what happened and it is not nearly as difficult for him to process as it is for the typical American. Following the attacks he is subjected to racism and Islamomophobia, and paranoia about losing his job because of what boils down to his having a beard and being dark skinned. Yet feels himself to be torn more daily by his willing participation in a system that he views as oppressing innocent people who had nothing to do with the attacks on 9/11.
Perhaps what can be learned most from The Reluctant Fundamentalist is what can be taken from his critiques of America, post-9/11. From an outsider’s view, he reveals lapses in judgment, quick, unfounded reactions, and media-driven misguided ideals. His stark critique of dangerous nationalism and nostalgia was salient:
Possibly this was due to my state of mind, but it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back. Living in New York was suddenly like living in a film about the Second World War; I, a foreigner, found myself staring out at a set that ought to be viewed not in Technicolor but in grainy black and white. What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me- a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty? I did not know- but that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether- if it could indeed by animated- it contained a part written for someone like me.
Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
There are passages littered throughout the book that, plainly, are challenging to western readers who may find themselves guilty of what Changez is bringing to light. Perhaps what is most difficult to understand, as an American, is just how far America reaches outside of its borders, whether people want it to or not:
A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts, and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage.
Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Above all, this novel examines what it means to exist after 9/11 in an extremely polarized world. In its wake we find a world with loads of gray area yet very few wanting to admit that it is there at all. I give The Reluctant Fundamentalist 11 out of 12.
Recommended to: Those who enjoy minimalist literature, those who like fast-paced political pieces, and those who are interested in learning what 9/11 was like for people outside of the west.
Avoid as if it were the comment section of an article on institutionalized racism: those who don’t think there can be a valid take on 9/11 that deems America’s actions just after it questionable, and those who don’t want to read a book that is certainly provocative.