Do not be frightened by my beard

The reluctant fundamentalistThe Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid

This was the first book I read for my Easter weekend readathon and it was an excellent start. It’s gripping, beautifully written and warmly inviting. In fact literally so, as it directly addresses a second person – a listener to the tale, inviting you right into the heart of the story.

The setting is Lahore, a cafe in one of the city’s squares, where a local man, Changez (the narrator) has approached an American visitor and offered to act as his guide. Over tea and then dinner, Changez tells his story – one that is surprising and seems to be building up to something.

We learn that Changez spent a few years living in the USA, thanks to an Ivy League scholarship and an excellent job on the back of that. But then everything changed – in his words, the city he loved (New York) and the woman he loved there both betrayed him, though it becomes clear that the reality is more complicated.

“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.”

Changez is engaging, sometimes funny, often disarmingly honest. He keeps pausing to reassure his companion that all is well, there is no danger to the American from him or from other men in the vicinity. These reassurances become less convincing towards the end, as it becomes clear that the listener is increasingly worried. But Hamid masterfully maintains the mystery right up to the final line, with an ending that is open to interpretation.

Changez is presumably the reluctant fundamentalist of the title. He certainly changes his mind politically, and the change is reluctant. But is he ever radicalised? Or does Hamid mean something else by the title? Perhaps the fundamental belief in the American Dream, which Changez did for a time buy into and strive towards.

It is quite an achievement for Changez to be such an entertaining, gripping speaker when he is also self-centred and at times a little stupid. But he is, after all, human, despite his Princeton degree and high-finance career. And that helps us to empathise when the first cracks appear in his happy story, the unavoidable differences between himself and his American friends – differences in religion, wealth, class, experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I am glad I have another Hamid novel already on my TBR.

Published 2007 by Hamish Hamilton.

Source: Secondhand from a charity shop.