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