Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is an intriguing, menacing monologue

From The Week of April 22, 2013

For society, radicalism is a dangerous and pernicious force. Not only is it nearly impossible to eliminate, being that it counterintuitively draws nourishment from every attempted extermination, it neatly divides the world into us and them, righteous and wicked, brave and servile, polarities that are as unhelpful as they are inaccurate. Radicalism is a siren's call to those aimless souls who, in seeking a purpose, fall prey to its song of enslavement, demanding obeisance in exchange for guidance in a manner that saps the victim of his most valuable essence, the will to be free. But while we have a solid grasp of how radicalism impacts our world, our understanding of how people come to be radicalized is far less solid. Enter Mohsin Hamid's brief but engaging novel.

In a comfortable cafe in the heart of Lahore, Pakistan's second city, two men engage in a consequential, lopsided dialogue. The narrator, an intelligent man who was raised in Pakistan and educated in America, carries the conversation, describing how he came to the united States, full of western dreams and western ideals. While his American companion listens, the narrator, reveals how a devastatingly complex relationship with an American woman of privilege and an increasingly soulless job at a financial firm in New York ate away at his idealism, leaving him profoundly unhappy. As the American listens with mounting tension, the narrator reveals how this growing sense of discontentment was sharpened with the onset of 9/11, an event which, or so the narrator believes, presaged Pakistan's political and military crisis with India in the early aughts. The narrator cannot forgive America for this threat to his homeland. And so with increasing malice, the night unfolds with the American's safety in grave doubt.

Published to acclaim in 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a work as poignant as it is swift. Describing in conversational detail the disintegration of one man's life and dreams for his future, it offers up to a West drowning in its own, biased conception of the world, a view from the other side of the tracks. For the narrator embodies the promise of young, intelligent Asians who come to the United States, believing in the very dream sold to them by both Hollywood and the American government. And like all men who invest themselves in dreams that are not based on reality, they find themselves disappointed when the truth of the West, and America in particular, is far more nuanced and complicated than they would have ever anticipated. This leaves them feeling betrayed, tricked into working to perpetuate the designs of an unfathomably large machine that doesn't care about them, much less the safety or the sanctity of the nations from which they've emigrated.

Similarly, The Reluctant Fundamentalist's other character, the American listener, embodies the West with whom the narrator is truly dialoguing. The American is given no right of reply, no bully pulpit with which to refute or drown out the narrator's arguments. He is, instead, forced to listen to a man who has come to hate what he stands for, seeing in its smugness, arrogance and thoughtlessness a toxic stew of sins that must be corrected one way or another. This captivity is mesmerizing, endowing the work with a kind of mesmerizing bondage. One understands the lash is coming, that it is driven by anger and betrayal, but that there is nothing that can be done to avoid it, that the thing must be seen through to its inevitable and perhaps even violent conclusion.

For all its charm, The Reluctant Fundamentalist never quite pays off its promise. Mr. Hamid sheds some light on the mystery of his central premise, why some Muslims come to despise America after being embraced by it, but he never succeeds in answering what might be the unanswerable. For as much as his narrator lays out his reasons for his heart's hardening toward the West, these feel like self-serving excuses designed to justify the failure of an intelligent, educated man to be happy. Perhaps this is Mr. Hamid's point, that radicalism is an outgrowth of dissatisfaction, but this has very little to do with the West. Indeed, the West, in such a scenario, is merely a boogeyman against which one can take out their frustrations. The narrator hasn't catalogued America's many extraordinary crimes, overthrowing governments, supporting dictators, targeted killings. No, he seems taken, instead, by his own internal drama in a manner that suggests he's less than stable.

Regardless, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a fascinating read, all the more potent for its breeziness. Provocative and mysterious... (3/5 Stars)

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