The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

This book captures a different perspective than the average American one on life pre- and post- September 11. The story begins as an encounter between a young Pakistani, and an unnamed American stranger in a Lahore café. The American is dressed as a middle-aged business man, but the younger man speculates that he is actually an American agent of some kind. The conversation is related as a monologue; the stranger’s part in the conversation is discerned through Changez’s responses. Changez relates the story of his life in America, how he achieved financial and social success by graduating at the top of his class at Princeton and attaining a good position with a top firm in New York. He met and fell in love with an American woman while on vacation in Greece. He felt at home in New York, where Urdu was spoken by many of the cabdrivers and he was welcomed as an exotic acquaintance by co-workers and clients.
This all changed with the events of September 11. Although he doesn’t understand it, he felt satisfaction that America, so rich and sure of her place in the world, had been so shockingly assaulted. He noticed immediate changes in people’s attitudes towards him and he resented the general ignorance of the international events and history that have led up to the attacks. He came to realize that he no longer wanted the life he had sought so zealously. When his romantic relationship ended with his girlfriend’s nervous breakdown, he had nothing in his life in New York and gradually distanced himself from everything he once valued, eventually returning to his family in Lahore.
The monologue is skillfully and subtly written. It is at turns confiding, gracious and mocking, describing Princeton as raising her skirt for corporate recruiters and “showing them some skin” and describing how the buildings on campus were antiqued to look older. He pretends to soothe the stranger’s uneasiness of the people around while painting him as a timid xenophobe. The reader is left with the question: was this an actual conversation or did the narrator catch sight of the stranger and fantasize goading the stranger with the story of how Changez rejected an America that he had found inferior?  Whatever your conclusion, the beauty of the language and the unusual device of “conversation through monologue” make this a story worth reading.

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