Uv Readers' Group & Online Book Club: The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Discussion Summary

Posted at 02:28am on 30th January 2010

My UV Readers’ Group met last Thursday, 21st January, to discuss The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid and, as always, we had plenty to say! First and foremost that we had found the book an enjoyable and compelling read, with the sinister elements evident from the start and building to a climactic conclusion.

A LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP

The narrative threw up some interesting and topical points and, because one of the aims of the group is to examine life applications for ourselves, we began by looking at the way in which a love/hate relationship might affect each one of us – just as it did the protagonist, Changez.

He has been sucked into a way of life which appears, at first sight, to be infinitely attractive.

  • Money.
  • Sexual and political freedom.
  • The power to make or break the lives of others.
  • The self-confidence and arrogance that accompanies such things.

A CAPITALIST VIEW OF SUCCESS

It has all the trappings of what is, today, defined as ‘success’. It is, of course, the language of capitalism. And it is this, surely, that the author is seeking to portray.

So what, we wondered, brings one to the point of first embracing then rejecting this mark of success? And is this a widely experienced phenomenon?

Changez’ higher education is acquired at a prestigious American University. It would appear that he has much to be thankful for. But early on, we are made aware of his ultimate resentment: a resentment brought about by a mental comparison of his country of origin with that of his country of adoption.

A CULTURE OF ENVY AND RESENTMENT

Four thousand years earlier, Changez recalls, Pakistan had boasted technological and architectural advances which had given its citizens an enviable way of life (P38). Yet now, its people live in poverty. America, meanwhile, once colonised by “illiterate barbarians”, now has skyscrapers which are twice the height of any building in Lahore, and which epitomise the country’s unparalleled growth in might and power.

Initially, however, Changez speaks of his pride in being a part of this establishment. The company which employs him is named Underwood Samson – surely a metaphor for Uncle Sam? The personification of all that is American, Uncle Sam is portrayed on posters as white, male, mature, and dependable.

Changez’ position within the firm gives him the authority to decide upon the future prosperity of people with far less privileged backgrounds than he, himself. He is, in other words, encouraged by his employers to play a part: to play god. Who would not want to be ‘top-dog’: part of an elite which alternately gives and takes, dispensing judgement and largesse in equal measure.

FOCUS ON THE FUNDAMENTALS

It’s easy to see how the ‘gang-culture’ mentality depicted by this imagery might prevail – especially among virile young men. It so easily translates into the mindset of fundamentalist radicalisation. Indeed, “Focus on the Fundamentals” is Underwood Samson’s own motto.

The fundamentals under scrutiny are summed up in the firm’s view of creativity (p41), which is to be used exclusively to the benefit of the creator (the economy) rather than the created, as in Christian belief; and in the metaphor delivered by Jim (Changez’ mentor and boss) that the economy is an animal (p110) in which, like evolution, the tailbone (the workforce of a company) is expendable (by redundancy) in order to inflate the growth of the brain (the economy).

ALLEGORY & METAPHOR

The book, in fact, is riddled with allegory and metaphor. It doesn’t require much discernment to see that Changez’ own name is a symbol of change. Nor that (Am) Erica, his girlfriend, represents America; and his doomed love affair with her the change in his affections for the country.

To begin with his infatuation for both is genuine. We learn, however, that his romance is curtailed because of a rival, Erica’s first love, Chris, who dies before fully reaching maturity. Erica is never quite able to shake off the memory of her lost love, nor to set herself free to love again. We noted, in the group, that it was only when she and Changez indulge in a pretence (that he is Chris) that she is able to let go, and their sexual union is consummated.

Are there parallels to be drawn between this and Changez’ business affairs in America, we wondered? Has he ever really been completely comfortable, completely himself, in embracing and attempting to consummate his involvement in a capitalist economy?

COMMON BELIEFS AMONG DIVERSE FAITHS

And what of Chris, Erica’s first love? We spoke, in the Readers’ Group, of the possibility that he is intended to represent Christ in a nation which came into being through the Pilgrim Fathers. If that is the author’s intention, then is he showing any Christian allegiance as having been snuffed out in its early days, and only clung to as a fond memory: a pretence rather than a reality?

Given the strength of faith in the Bible Belt of America, it’s hard to give credence to this train of thought – except, thought the members of the Readers' Group, for something that has occurred, recently, in real life Britain. First generation Pakistanis, interviewed by the BBC, spoke of their admiration for Western values when first they came to our shores. With a strong work ethic, and a high regard for family stability, and for law and order, they quickly established themselves as hard-working businessmen and women. Fifty years ago, in many parts of the country, the corner shop epitomised immigrant integration.

Those values, rooted in a Christian ethos, are no more. And their demise, said the Pakistani interviewees, is deplorable. Steeped, as we are in the West, in a new culture of ‘anything goes’, who could fail to agree. In calling ourselves Christian countries, are we in Britain, and our allies in America, indulging in the same pretence as Changez in his love affair with Erica?

I shared with the group something I was reminded of: an observation made many years ago by a British businessman.

“First generation work like crazy to build up a family business which will provide their dependents with security and comfort. Second generation work like crazy to consolidate the business and provide their offspring with the best possible education. Third generation shun the family business and values, and turn, instead, to a profession and belief system commensurate with the education provided by their fathers.”

Is this true, I wondered, of nations as well as businesses?

RADICALISATION

It is, of course, 9/11 which brings about the ultimate change in Changez’ perspective. He recalls seeing the event on television whilst alone in an hotel. Initially thinking it was a film, he realised, suddenly, that it was news. “And then I smiled,” he tells his companion.

It is a sentiment which he clearly perceives as shameful. He is no sociopath, he is at pains to explain. It is with a good deal of perplexity that he admits to these feelings.

Shocking as it may be, there is, if we’re honest, a tendency in all human beings to delight in the downfall of another. Isn’t this an emotion we might all fall prey to, we asked ourselves, as a group? Certainly the Chinese, who have a proverb highlighting the pleasure one can take in a friend’s fall from the roof of a house, seem to think so.

“Oh, yes!” said one member of the Readers’ Group. “Especially when your golf partner misses a putt.”

In the aftermath of the atrocity on the World Trade Centre, America’s attitude hardens against terrorism. And as Erica withdraws from Changez, taking respite in a mental institution, so a rift appears in the young man’s passion for his place of work. His heart and resolve harden; he becomes blatant in wearing a beard; it is almost as if he courts the hatred of those who have become his enemy. In a masterpiece of denouement, the reader is left drawing his own conclusions about the outcome.

CONCLUSION

This book was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. Yet the issues it raises remain fresh and contemporary. It certainly gave the readers’ group something to ponder.

Mel’s Online Book Club

Mel's Online Book Club has no ‘membership’ as such. Any visitor to my website is invited – no encouraged - to comment on this Discussion Summary, or, indeed, on the Precis or Questions I posed earlier.

Consequently, I shall, now and in future, be posting UV Readers’ Group Questions and Discussion Summaries on my blog to facilitate this. I do hope readers will take advantage of this opportunity to share together in this Online Book Club.

This Book Club Discussion Summary may be reproduced in printed format or on any non-commercial website or blog on condition that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies runs an Online Book Club and is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at http://www.melmenzies.co.uk/

Your Comments:

Ian
17th February 2010
at 2:32am

I’ve just finished the reluctant fundamentalist, and I
agree it is a thought provoking book. I read your notes and would
add my own:




  1. Changez – the 3rd person plural, and imperative, of the
    French verb to change. i.e change! An order.


  2. Underwood Sampson – a metaphor for “Uncle
    Sam”?


  3. Erica or (Am)Erica – the thing he couldn’t become
    one with emotionally / sexually. Hence Erica was very rich but
    unfulfilled.


  4. Interesting then as Changez prostitutes himself for the company
    against the individual firms he is valuing – underlined for
    those who hadn’t got it in the piece about the trip to Chile.
    I expected there to be a link to prostitution actually, but I think
    the author was using the (Am)Erica sub plot in this fashion
    instead, particularly the Chris / Changez juxtaposition piece, and
    how Changez abused his position of friendship for short term carnal
    gratification, and then regretted it / built it up mentally into a
    full blown relationship with Erica, which I don’t think it
    ever was on her part – also an interesting take on the US/UK
    “special relationship”?


  5. I thought this line of the story became interesting, as
    Erica’s psychosis and ongoing relationship with the dead
    Chris, became replayed by Changez when his sub conscious mental
    relationship with a disappeared Erica turned into marriage. He
    complained earlier of how could he compete with a dead man, and
    realised Erica had severe mental problems as a result? Then
    proceeded to allow himself to canonize Erica’s memory, and do
    the same thing himself – much as he had earlier with his
    relationship with America per se. Nostalgia perhaps for the
    certainties of the past, which are always better than the reality
    of today. Hence the mourning cycle they both succumbed to.


  6. • Not quite sure where the “Jim” homosexual
    innuendo bit was going, other than as a “we are outsiders
    together ” link.


  7. The parts about America’s empire are well written but
    could also have been about Rome, Great Britain or any other empire
    for that matter. What the author was remarking about most, I felt,
    was the initial shame of lost power and position, but then pride in
    previous achievements: This he indicated in his description of his
    father’s house in Lahore. This theme came up repeatedly, on
    both micro and macro scales. Rationalised against the uncouth,
    upstart, blunt application of power from America. A very good piece
    on America’s “tantrum” at being humbled by 9/11,
    rather than the introspection which should have happened to
    ascertain why.


  8. I actually though parts of his analysis were a little blunt.
    Nasty America vs charming, muslim Pakistan was perhaps too
    simplistic.


  9. He is right though about the business model of sticking to the
    fundamentals, and how he used this to fight American interests. We
    do it in the Navy all the time. Find the key weakness of a foe and
    attack it with everything you posses until he falls, whilst
    protecting your own key weakness.



I thoroughly enjoyed it, and thank you for bringing it to my
attention.

alter ego
17th February 2010
at 5:07am

Of course in reality, Changez just a stroppy, Pakistani student
who got the best training we could give him at our best
universities, and then a dream job in a top merger's firm.



He then got in with a weird girl friend, couldn't hack the
pace in a city firm who were paying him stacks, and demanding
effort, became a non-handler as a result and got the sack.



So, he returned home and became a terrorist 'because it was
all America's fault.' Uncle Sam got to hear about it and
sent in the good guys from 'Team America' world police -
who cleaned up the mess from the muslim terrorist and stopped him
indoctrinating other students. Job done!

Mel Menzies
17th February 2010
at 7:01pm

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Ian. I've changed
your bullet points to numbers to facilitate further comments.



My 'real-time' readers' group didn't pick up on
the prostitution angle (your No. 4 point) - i.e. Changez'
prostitution of himself in pursuit of his work being mirrored in
his duplicity in gaining sexual advantage of Erica. Nor the
parallels in Changez' fantasies (about marriage to Erica) with
her fantasy in respect of her dead lover, Chris.



What we saw in this was the West's illusion of Chris (tian)
allegiance when compared with the East's actual strength of
belief. In other words, is the author highlighting the
'fact' that we, in the West, cling to what we call our
Christian values (but which we actually debase when it suits us),
whilst Eastern countries would claim to adhere to a fundamental
belief system which permeates their lives? And is there any truth
in this? Some might say Yes!



We all agree with your point that America was used in the novel
merely as an example of what could be applied to any empire. I once
heard Colin Urquhart speak very eloquently about the pattern to be
found in the rise, plateau and decline of all empires. It seems to
me that they follow much the same trajectory as human life:




  • adolescent arrogance / tantrums / grabbing / immature reasoning
    faculties;


  • affluence and comfortable maturity in the plateau
    position;


  • and senility / stupidity / 'losing it all' in the
    decline.



Yes, the 'nasty America / nice Pakistan' in point 8 was
somewhat facile - but this is a work of fiction!



Thanks again for taking the time to post your comments.

Ian
17th February 2010
at 7:31pm

One other thing - was the story a justification by Changez for
why he is going to kill the American he is talking too? Is he now a
warlord?

Mel Menzies
17th February 2010
at 7:33pm

Are you sure Changez is going to kill th American? Could be the
other way round!

Ian
17th February 2010
at 7:36pm

I thought it was the other way around to start with, but then
why would he tell his story or be allowed to? If you are going to
kill, you either do it quickly and get out, or you wish to justify
your action as a form of court to legitimisation. Changez is
excusing / justifying himself throughout; or is he justifying
himself to God as he has been killed?

borarom
17th February 2010
at 9:44pm

I think this book sucked!!

Susie Greenslade
17th February 2010
at 9:46pm

I really enjoyed the book, although the last quarter dragged a
bit and the ending wasn't as clear as it might have been, and
I'd certainly read more by this author.

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