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An American meets a radical Islamist in Pakistan

- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 19, 2007

THE RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST

By Mohsin Hamid

Harcourt, $22, 184 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

September 11 did all sorts of things to all sorts of people. And, as too many people know too well, the manifestations often took years to surface. In this short but very powerful novel, Mohsin Hamid, a most promising young writer, tells a tale that is both cautionary and captivating. It's cautionary because of its eerie plausibility, and it's captivating because of the author's storytelling skill.

The narration begins in the time-honored fashion of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which a traveler spins out his life story to a reluctant but fascinated stranger. Then, bit by bit, it turns into a psychological mood piece more like Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

In an outdoor cafe in present-day Lahore, Pakistan, a youthful native approaches an American visitor: "Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance? Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America. I noticed that you were looking for something; more than looking, in fact you seemed to be on a mission, and since I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services."

Were this the opening reel of an old time melodrama, at this point a fair number of the audience would rise in their seats and yell, "Don't listen to him! Get out of there! Run!" In fact the American, who is never given a name or a line of dialogue, is similarly disposed, but Changez, the Pakistani, begins to spin the web of his story around the visitor, and within minutes extrication would be both rude and difficult.

Changez explains that he knows America well, for he lived there for four and a half years, while attending Princeton and then working in New York City as a financial analyst in a highly regarded valuation firm. It soon becomes clear, despite the narrator's natural modesty, that Changez was a rising star, and that at the time he threw it all away to return to Pakistan, he was abandoning a golden futurein American terms.

"You seem worried," he tells the American early on. "Do not be; this burly fellow is merely your waiter, and there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet, as we will pay him later, when we are done." In that ostensibly reassuring statement, Hamid establishes potential danger and the hint of violent response, and foreshadows a dire outcome. Not bad for 39 words.

Changez explains how he got his magnificent job, but then backtracks to Princeton and the difficulty of being a scholarship student, albeit a brilliant one, whose friends were all children of America's affluent class. And he tells his listener about Erica, the lovely young former classmate whom he loved from afar until they met in New York after graduation and began to get serious. But there's a crack in the golden bowl of their budding romance. Just as Changez's life is getting better and better, Erica's is beginning to crumble.

At the end of Erica's junior year at Princeton, Chris, her boyfriend, whom she'd known and loved since childhood, died of cancer. Changez is the first young man in whom she's shown any interest. At first she seems to be coming entirely out of her shell of sorrow, but then she relapses so badly that eventually she has to be hospitalized for severe depression.

Changez doesn't do well at his firm; he does very well. He is sent to Manila to evaluate a music company and performs brilliantly. But one day, while riding in a limo with his colleagues, he notices a Filipino glaring at him. At first he concludes that the man just doesn't like Americans, but later begins to realize that he and the man shared "a sort of Third World sensibility."

Just a few days later, he looks at one of his blond, blue-eyed coworkers and thinks how "foreign" the coworker looks. On his return to New York from Manila, he's detained at customs while his colleagues breeze through unimpeded. And then, just days later, the Twin Towers are destroyed. Recounting the moment he saw it on television, Changez tells his American listener, "And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased."

If the American listener isn't scared to hear that, the reader is.

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.