Wednesday, June 1, 2011

World Party: A one-sided conversation with a reluctant fundamentalist

For May's World Reading Challenge pick (Pakistan), I read Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. This was a quick read, one I quite enjoyed, and one I finished a few weeks ago...yet I've been struggling on how to write about it.

Here's the premise: At a restaurant table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man is conversing with an American stranger who seems visibly uncomfortable. The novel is the narration of this conversation but completely one-sided; we, as the reader, never hear a word the American says. The Pakistani, whose name we learn is Changez, tells the American his story...

Changez grew up in a privileged family in Lahore. He attended college in the US at Princeton and immediately secured a well-paying corporate job in Manhattan right out of college and a love interest, a fellow student and upper-class New Yorker, Erica. Bottom line: America treated Changez well, and he was proud to consider himself a "New Yorker." Then 9/11 happened, and Changez's feelings about his new, adopted city began to get more complicated.

This is where I thought the story really got interesting. The book's synopsis led me to believe that Changez's relationship with the US changed as a result of persons viewing him differently; that was not the case. The change was completely internal, as Changez found himself torn between the traditional values of the society in which he was raised (the East) as opposed to the conflicting values of his new life and home (the West). He began to resent the country that had so warmly opened its arms to him and shown him success because of its contradictions to his native country. The point that struck me the most and that has really stuck with me:

"Four thousand years ago, we, the people of the Indus River basin, had cities that were laid out on grids and boasted underground sewers, while the ancestors of those who would invade and colonize America were illiterate barbarians. Now our cities were largely unplanned, unsanitary affairs, and America had universities with individual endowments greater than our national budget for education. To be reminded of this vast disparity was, for me, to be ashamed (p. 34)."

That's all I'm going to say on this book. I think it's a fabulous choice for book clubs, required reading, etc. There's plenty you could analyze and discuss in much more depth than I am going to go into. The main characters struggles with his own identity and how it relates to family, history, religion, and patriotism, and he holds nothing back. A politically-charged book without feeling like too much 'politics.'

Have you read this one? What did you think of the writing format?


softdrink said...

It's been a few years since I read it, but I do remember loving the book, especially the ending, which I felt was ambiguous enough that it would lead to different interpretations, perhaps depending on the reader's own political views.

Kari said...

At first, the ending frustrated me a bit, just BECAUSE it was so ambiguous. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought it just wouldn't do any other way. With a definite ending, it'd become too much of a statement, I believe; just too much, maybe too powerful, in general (if that makes sense). What I liked most about this book was its subtlety. I felt that the tone throughout reflected a quiet message, as opposed to one that was in-your-face.