Monday, September 28, 2009

Mohsin Hamid: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

My husband got this for his birthday, and has been suggesting that I read it for a week or so now, insistently. It's not very long so I did it in one working night. It is the story of an intelligent young Pakistani who, over tea and a meal in a local restaurant, tells an American stranger visiting Lahore about his love affair with America and an American woman, a love affair that has ended with disillusionment and tragedy, respectively. It's a nice story that rings of truth - I've met people like our narrator, and I can understand the complex and diverse sentiments that he feels towards the United States.

I'm not completely mad about it. My initial reaction is that I'll soon forget it, that it's not very memorable. Admittedly it's too soon to tell, but it feels like a trifle to be honest. Well written, not
without poignancy, realism and feeling - but still not all that. I am very distracted by the frame of the novel too. It is written as one continuous monologue, and I've always abhorred that style, the way the narrator tells us what the other person is doing and saying indirectly:

I observe, sir, that there continues to be something about our waiter that puts you ill at ease. […] And if you should sense that he has taken a disliking to you, I would ask you to be so kind as to ignore it; his tribe merely spans both sides of our border with neighboring Afghanistan, and has suffered […} Is he praying, you ask? No, sir, not at all! His recitation - rhythmic, formulaic, from memory, ans so, I will concede, not unlike a prayer - is in actuality an attempt to transmit orally our menu, much as in your country one is told the specials.

Oh how it distracts me. It works on the stage, sometimes. But in a novel it just irritates me and prevents me from becoming immersed. The ending is very open and slightly unfinished, and first I decided that I thought this was good, but then I re-read it on the way home and decided that no, I didn't much care for it. Mostly because, again, the author can indulge - overindulge - in the annoying narrative style, particularly badly suited to an ending that is supposed to be very tense and filled with quiet action. Who is the American stranger? Did he actually come to seek out our narrator, who has made a name for himself as an anti-American? Violence hangs in the air, but one is left unsure as to who is going to perpetrate it. I can't say I don't recommend it, but mostly I suppose to people who have never thought about what motives someone might have for disliking America at all - n.b., not that this book is the best I've read for providing answers and/or cultural insights. I really don't understand the radiant praise this book has received (according to the cover quotes).

Turns out that my husband's quibbles were much the same as mine.

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