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Book Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

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It seems to me that Americans don't understand how much the rest of the world cares about them. Oh sure there are demonstrations in the streets against them in cities around the world and their soldiers are attacked on a daily basis in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but underneath it all they are really cared for.

Underneath the anger, the accusations, and the fear is the love of a parent for their teenage child who, although he or she mostly means well, seems to have lost their way in figuring out how to carry out their intentions without causing damage. In fact it appears to me that those who care the most for their well being are those who the Americans seem to understand the least.

Even while American soldiers are busy killing their fellows in faith and race, Muslim authors around the world seem to have taken it upon themselves to try and show America how they appear to the rest of the world. Books appear on shelves with titles that could be by lines from any number of war zones American troops have been stationed in the last ten to twenty years, written by authors attempting to enlighten Americans to the consequences of their government's actions.

The flaunting of absolute wealth, of wanton wastefulness when so many lack basic necessities, of indifference to the plight of millions of starving and homeless people, and of the bottom line meaning more than improving the lot of peoples. These are all cited as reasons for how ferment is whipped up against America and people see them as being the reason for all that ails them.

See how you look to our eyes the voices of these authors are saying. Is it any wonder the people of our countries who see no hope of life getting better lash out against you? Please they seem to be saying, open your eyes before we have all gone too far to come back. In his new book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist published by Doubleday Canada Mohsin Hamid chimes in to take another stab at enlightening those who still aren't willing to see what's in front of their faces.
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Hamid's protagonist is not some poor villager whose life has been destroyed by bombs. Changez is an upper middle class Pakistani who is the spring of 2001 has just graduated from Princeton University and been given a job with a starting salary of $80,000 per annum with a valuation firm. At Samson and Underwood they prepare companies for the open market in the manner of a real estate agent appraising property. They even make recommendations on how a company can increase its value through lay-offs and outsourcing.

It even appears that Changez has gained his entry into upper class society through his burgeoning relationship with the beautiful Erica, the daughter of a wealthy New York investment banker. He appears to be well on his way up the ladder of success when the World Trade Centre comes tumbling down.

His reaction to their collapse astounds him; he finds himself curiously elated that someone has had the gumption to strike at the United States. Perhaps it is because he is in Manila at the time on a job for the company and had just been unsettled to find himself being lumped into the category of "American Oppressor" by a Filipino. When thinking about it after he felt like he was faking and that in reality he was much more akin to that Filipino than he was to his co-workers.

Whatever the reason,  he is confused and dismayed by his reactions and realizes he must hide them from his co-workers, who will of course not understand them in the least. As the situation in the world disintegrates, and America bullies Pakistan into being an ally in the war against Afghanistan, he begins to find it harder and harder to do his job.
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Compounding this is the fact that the destruction of the towers has caused Erica to suffer a relapse into a near-catatonic state that she had entered two years earlier upon the death of the love of her life. Just as America wants to live in a world of the past where it is invulnerable and able not to be concerned about anything but its own interests, Erica wants to live in a world where her former beau is still alive.

She retreats inside her head and pushes all other considerations aside, just as her homeland obsesses on trying to restore something that is irrevocably lost, not caring about the expense or what it will cause others to suffer. Although Changez continues to try to work he realizes he is only going through the motions. He can no longer put the blinkers on that prevent him from seeing how many lives his job affects in terms of layoffs, lost pensions, and businesses closed forever.

So all of this sounds fairly typical, doesn't it? What's unusual is the manner in which Mohsin Hamid has chosen to have Changez tell his story. He recounts it over tea and food to a strange American he meets in a market place in his hometown in Pakistan. It's obviously some amount of time after the events he is recounting to his visitor and at first his rationale for doing so isn't clear.

The Changez of today sounds like a far different man to the one he describes as living in New York City for six months. He is far more self-assured and a little bit more mysterious. Why is he continually feel compelled to reassure his companion that he is not in any danger and take great pains to make his guest comfortable? He continually offers examples of the secular nature of Pakistan, pointing out women dressed in jeans, and talking about the women in his family working

If he also makes a few pointed remarks about his guest's cell phone ringing every hour on the hour, or about the bulge under his shoulder, well can you blame him for being cautious? These are troubled times we live in and you can never be too careful.

Mohsin Hamid has written a book that is deceptive in its simplicity and terseness. In taut and succinct language he shows us how we appear through the eyes of another culture. The image that mirror shows us isn't very pleasant and should serve as another piece of our education in how the rest of the world perceives us.

While it is true that perceptions can be coloured, when so many voices are saying the same basic message over and over again, voices which aren't preaching or advocating but simply reporting, don't you think we should be starting to pay attention?

Canadians who are interested in buying The Reluctant Fundamentalist can do so at Random House Canada or other reputable online retailers like Amazon.ca.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.