03/07/2008 2:27 PM ET
The book is a breeze to read. There are only 12 short chapters, which tersely outline the experiences of a gifted college student immigrant from Pakistan who attends Princeton University and then lands a prestigious job at a valuation firm in New York City.
Author Mohsin Hamid, who is himself a Princeton graduate from Pakistan, intrigues us with tone you'd expect from someone speaking his or her memoir and not crafting a fictional account, which may make the story that much more thrilling.
The story is about that Princeton Pakistani, years removed from America, who is now back in his native land. His name is Changez, which may be a play on the author's part, as we will later learn that the Princeton Pakistani undergoes some drastic changes to his mindset.
Changez encounters an American, presumably a tourist on vacation in the Pakistani town of Lahore. Changez sparks a conversation with the American at a small cafe. However, the only voice you ever hear is that of Changez. The book is written as if it were all one long monologue.
The author, however, makes this monologue flow so naturally, as Changez flows naturally back and forth describing his experiences in America with his casual but haunting observations of Pakistani culture as seen through passersby at the cafe.
Nonetheless, the book does not start to get interesting until chapter five when Changez says, "I was the product of an American university; I was earning a lucrative American salary; I was infatuated with an American woman. So why did part of me desire to see America harmed?"
It is then that we are launched into a psychological deconstruction, as we listen to this foreigner slowly go from someone who so embraced and assimilated American culture to someone who gradually comes to resent America and its people.
What author Mohsin Hamid does brilliantly is show through the voice of Changez- and really his voice alone a growing bitterness- in this foreigner's eyes. The origins of this bitterness is never truly explained. We can only guess that it's perhaps jealousy or just a friction within part of him that does believe in the fundamentalist form of Islam and who is a strong nationalist.
Sadly, author Mohsin Hamid gets us to empathize with his main character. He parallels it to a doomed love story as he, in a way, compares this foreigner's love of America to that of a tortured love with a woman unable to love him back due to hurtful circumstances in the past. It's quite an ingenious idea and perfect metaphor.
There are several small things I liked about this book, such as the author's use of movie references to describe things, comparing Changez's girlfriend to Gwyneth Paltrow and his fellow trainee to Val Kilmer from "Top Gun," as well as his equating a writer's manuscript to an oyster's pearl, all very clever in their execution.
RELUCTANT FUNDAMENTALIST is as it is described, "remarkable indeed how we human beings are capable of delighting in the mating call of a flower while we are surrounded by the charred carcasses of our fellow animals." It's a haunting character study from the vantage point of a unique perspective.
Four Stars out of Five.