Come, tell me, what were you looking for? Surely, at this time of day, only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali -- named, as you may be aware, after a courtesan immured for loving a prince -- and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed correctly?"
So begins a conversation between a young, bearded Pakistani and an unidentified, nervous American at a cafe in Lahore. After the jump, my review.
"The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is a short, simply constructed novel. The whole of it takes place over a single evening in an outdoor cafe in Lahore. The novel consists of a dialog between two men, a young, bearded Pakistani (who I'll call our hero, although he may not be some people's idea of a hero) and an unidentified, nervous American. Actually, the novel consists of only one half of a dialog, the part spoken by our hero. He tells his life story to the American, whose own part of the conversation is not related to the reader.
Our hero is from an upper class Pakistani family whose family fortune is on the decline. He succeeds in getting admitted to Princeton University, where he excels and goes on to win a prestigious job with a powerful Wall Street firm. He falls in love with a beautiful but troubled American woman. Then, 9/11 happens and everything changes. He begins to see things through different eyes. Americans begin to see him through different eyes. To keep from giving away the whole story, let me summarize by saying our hero ends up back in Lahore telling his life story to that unidentified, nervous American. There's a sense of foreboding throughout the tea, the dinner, the fading of the day and coming of the night.
What makes this novel beneficial for Americans to read is its ability to show the mindset of an intelligent, educated Pakistani (and foreigners in general). Our hero is not some illiterate tribal jihadist. He's not a fighter at all, certainly not a terrorist. Mohsin Hamid's novel lets us get inside his head and begin to understand how even intelligent, educated foreigners, those who know America's promise and blessing from the inside, having lived among us, might still come to resent America.
Our hero tells his dinner companion, "As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away."
You don't have to agree with our hero to gain insight into how he feels. If empathy is a good trait (and I think it is), and if good literature cultivates empathy (as they say it does), then "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" is a must-read.
On the other hand, the structure of the novel is sometimes offputting, with the narrator constantly interrupting his real story to comment on the tea, the food, the waiter, the other diners, the neighborhood, etc. When he does so, our hero sounds like a 1940s movie stereotype of a bazaar merchant, not a modern, twenty-something Princeton graduate. The tone of the novel has shortcomings but the message of the novel rises above that. Read it.