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An American meets a radical Islamist in Pakistan
Question of the Day
On his first full day back in New York, he meets Erica, and she tells him the destruction has brought back repressed thoughts of Chris, and she is beginning to lose the equilibrium she’d fought so hard and long to attain. They become closer than ever, but still not truly close, and she’s beginning to slip away from him, just as his love affair with his adopted country is also deteriorating.
In October, the war in Afghanistan has almost begun, and one night he gets home very late from work and sees, on television, what is described as a daring raid on a Taliban command post by the American forces. He tells the tourist-businessman, “My reaction caught me by surprise; Afghanistan was Pakistan’s neighbor, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the sight of what I took to be the beginning of its invasion by your countrymen caused me to tremble with fury. I had to sit down to calm myself, and I remember polishing off a third of a bottle of whiskey before I was able to fall asleep.”
By this point, it’s evening, and the American is effectively trapped by the loquacious Pakistani. They order dinner, and Changez relates, in detail, not just Erica’s gradual collapse, but also an account of how a stranger in a parking lot cursed him, calling him a “[expletive] Arab.”
He says, “I am not, of course, an Arab. Nor am I, by nature, a gratuitously belligerent chap. But my blood throbbed in my temples, and I called out, ‘Say it to my face, coward, not as you run and hide.’” The man stops, and Changez takes a tire iron out of his car, fully prepared to use it, until the man’s friend, who also glares hatefully at the Pakistani, pulls him away.
In the last third of the novel, Changez tells the American how he lost his personal Twin Towers, Erica and his job. By the time the story is over, so is their meal, and the restaurant and the market in which it’s located are closing. The Pakistani insists on walking the American back to his hotel, assuring him all the while that he is in no danger. But it’s an odd kind of reassurance. “No, it is not far, and although it is dark and parts of our route will at this time be deserted, we should be fine.”
They are within yards of the American’s hotel when it becomes apparent that several men are indeed closing in on them — or is it just on the American? The action accelerates toward the ending, which is wonderfully ambiguous.
Changez’s formal speech and old-fashioned language create a sense of time past that enhances rather than dispels the feeling of danger that becomes downright urgent in the final pages. The reader can almost hear the drums beat louder and louder. When the narrator says, very near the end, that he feels “rather like a Kurtz waiting for his Marlowe,” it’s no surprise.
This is an uncommonly moving novel about the world today, the power of the tale’s obvious symbolism matched by the artistry of its author. “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is the second novel by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani native who also attended Princeton, worked in New York City and went home to Pakistan after September 11. He now lives in London, hardly a safe haven these days. I am anxious, and just a little bit frightened, to see what he will write next.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
By John McAfee
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