Carolyn’s CBR Review # 50-The Reluctant Fundamentalist

The janissaries of the Ottoman Empire were captured Christian boys trained to fight against their own people, which they did with singular ferocity. This interesting class of warrior is described during a business lunch to Changez, the young hero of Mohsin Hamid’s second novel, at a moment of crisis over his own identity. Born in Pakistan, educated at Princeton and currently the hottest new employee at a New York firm specializing in ruthless appraisals of ailing companies being targeted for takeover, Changez considers himself an American, more importantly a New Yorker. And yet, a third of the way through “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Changez, tells an American how he first learned of the destruction of the World Trade Center. While on a business trip to Manila, he turned on the television in his hotel room and saw the towers fall. “I stared as one — and then the other — of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”

The recognition prompts a process of inward transformation eventually leading him to sabotage his own high-flying career, to give up his pursuit of the beautiful, troubled Wasp princess Erica and go back to Lahore and live with his parents. There, bearded and generally reacculturated, he meets an American in a restaurant in the Old Anarkali district, and buttonholes him with his life story. The novel is his monologue: a quietly told, cleverly constructed fable of infatuation and disenchantment with America, set on the treacherous fault lines of current east/west relations, and finely tuned to the ironies of mutual – but especially American – prejudice and misrepresentation.

We never learn the American man’s identity, yet Changez regularly interrupts the story to address him. Perhaps, it is suggested, he had been pursuing Changez, who has become a leader of anti-American protests. Hamid’s prose is filled with insight, subtly delivered. Telling of the janissaries, Christian boys captured by Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in the Muslim Army, his Chilean host tells him: “The janissaries were always taken in childhood. It would have been far more difficult to devote themselves to their adopted empire, you see, if they had memories they could not forget.” Changez cannot forget, and Hamid makes the reader understand that–and all that follows. The book is a short yet fascinating read with a deftly and provokingly ambiguous ending.

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