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Imagining America:
Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist
Martha Greene Eads
Mohsin

In extolling the literary imagination in his recent Imagination in Place (2010), Wendell Berry might have been writing about Mohsin Hamid’s novel from a few years earlier, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). Berry explains that “­[b]y ‘imagination’,” he does not “mean the ability to make things up or to make a realistic copy,” but instead, “the ability to make real to oneself the life of one’s place or the life of one’s enemy” (30). Berry elaborates by quoting William Carlos Williams on “the ‘single force’ of imagination”:

 “To refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we live alone…” And imagination, in this sense, is not passively holding up a mirror to nature; it is a changing force. It does not produce illusions, or copies of reality, or “plagiarism after nature.” And yet it does not produce artificiality. It does not lead away from reality but towards it. It can be used to show relationships. By it “the old facts of history” are “reunited in present passion.” (31)

In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid has imagined a layered account of love and loss, ambition and nostalgia, that sets his Pakistani protagonist’s romantic and professional quests in the US alongside the purposes of two ally-nations who function at times almost as enemies. Hamid’s “present passion”—a painful ambivalence about both his native Pakistani and adopted American cultures—helps us think about old and not-so-old facts of history in new ways.

Much as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man introduced readers in 1952 to a disaffected yet sympathetic black American while also providing a powerful critique of US culture, Hamid’s novel invites us to consider life here in the twenty-first century from a Pakistani perspective.

Hamid is particularly well situated to offer this instruction. Like Changez, The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s twenty-two-year-old title character, he was born in Pakistan and earned his bachelor’s degree at Princeton before going to work as a management consultant. Changez’s entry into American culture came with his college enrollment; however, Hamid lived in the US as a young child before returning to complete his education. He describes himself as having been “half-American” and “a full-fledged New Yorker” by the time he finished the first draft of The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2001, three months before 9/11 (Reese; “Hamish Hamilton…”). Hamid’s insider-knowledge gives him the kind of familiarity Berry finds lacking among writers who stereotype his neighbors in the rural southern United States—those who “don’t know any country people in particular and are in general afraid of them” (13–14). Hamid knows both Pakistanis and Americans and isn’t afraid of them—or is perhaps equally afraid of them but still unwilling to objectify them.

Although he had done significant work on The Reluctant Fundamentalist before 9/11, Hamid revised the manuscript significantly to focus on Changez’s life in New York City around the terrorist attacks that took place that day. The novel is more allegorical than historical, enough so that some readers may find it heavy-handed. Those who don’t mind a generous dose of symbolism, however, will likely find Changez’s first-person account riveting. Back in Lahore after college and a career crash in the US, the young man reminisces through an afternoon and evening to a mysterious American he meets in a market square about his aborted courtship of Erica, another Princeton grad. Just as their relationship was taking root, Erica had retreated into nostalgic fantasies about her childhood sweetheart, who had died of cancer two years earlier. Simultaneously, Changez’s initially sizzling career fizzled. Although post-9/11 suspicion of Muslims contributed to his professional downfall, Changez’s increasing skepticism about what he comes to see as Western financial imperialism transformed him into a postmodern Bartleby. Having sabotaged his own career, he returns to Pakistan, where he becomes a university lecturer who may or may not be inciting terrorist acts against US interests.

While several reviewers have complained that “Changez” is too obvious a name for a character in this situation, Hamid has pointed out that it doesn’t signify “change” but is instead “the Urdu name for Genghis, as in Genghis Khan.” He elaborates:

It’s the name of a warrior, and the novel plays with the notion of a parallel between war and international finance, which is Changez’ occupation. But at the same time, the name cautions against a particular reading of the novel. Genghis attacked the Arab Muslim civilization of his time, so Changez would be an odd choice of name for a Muslim fundamentalist (“Mohsin Hamid: ‘We Are Already Afraid’”).

Reviewers haven’t commented, however, on the more interesting linking of “Erica” with America. Even when presented with a considerate, highly capable, and attractive new potential partner, Erica keeps looking longingly back in time for her dead love. That he was named “Chris” seems no coincidence either. America, the novel hints, clings in isolation to its own cultural shreds, Christianity among them, instead of entering into genuine cultural, political, and economic exchange.

Although Erica is initially a winsome character, her focus on the past renders her emotionally sterile. After graduation, Erica and Changez establish their connection while vacationing in Greece with mutual friends, among whom they each stand apart. An aspiring novelist, Erica is beautiful and elusive—although appearing less than elusive when she (alone among the women in their group) follows the local custom on a topless beach. A stereotypical Muslim male character would react strongly to such an action, but Changez, a secular Pakistani who has “experienced all the intimacies [American] college students commonly experience,” feels sexually attracted to Erica without attaching any more significance to her removing her bikini top than a secular American might (26). In time, he dreams of taking her back to Lahore as his bride. As their relationship deepens, Changez eventually attempts to make love to her, but she cannot respond until he urges her to pretend that he is Chris (26). Afterward, he says, he felt a confusing mix of emotions:

I felt at once both satiated and ashamed. My satiation was understandable to me; my shame was more confusing. Perhaps, by taking on the persona of another, I had diminished myself in my own eyes; perhaps I was humiliated by the continuing dominance, in the strange romantic triangle of which I was a part, of my dead rival; perhaps I was worried that I had acted selfishly and I sensed, even then, that I had done Erica some terrible harm. (106)

While Changez wonders whether his actions were despicable, the novel nevertheless presents him as highly sympathetic—a would-be gallant in love with a beauty who simply can’t deliver all that she seems to promise. Readers may even ask whether Erica, in fact, has used Changez. As in Ellison’s Invisible Man, love and sex are suggestive of vexed political realities.

Hamid

Even so, Erica is sympathetic, too—a naïve yet tragic figure not unlike the America Changez finds both alluring and impenetrable. More than a tease, Erica, like Changez, is a focus for compassion. Her fascination with islands—one in a treasured sketch Chris drew as a boy and another she makes the setting for her award-winning Princeton creative writing thesis—underscores her isolation. While in some sense she chooses to be alone, she seems in another sense to have no choice.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist’s nuanced treatment of Erica parallels its presentation of America as endlessly attractive and self-absorbed rather than willfully destructive of self or others. Hamid, who has lived in London since August 2001, admits that he was somewhat surprised by the following his novel developed in the US:

I had been bracing myself for a more negative reaction in America. Instead the novel made it onto the bestseller lists and received sympathetic reviews. My intention had been to write a novel that said some difficult things, offered one character’s rather forceful critique of America, but that did so from a standpoint of enormous affection. Changez is in love with America, and with an American woman, after all. Critique that mocks or offends is easily rejected, but critique that comes from a position of shared desire has the potential to start a conversation. (“Mohsin Hamid: ‘We Are Already Afraid’”)

Hamid’s obvious appreciation for both Pakistan and the United States enables him to create characters from both countries whom readers come to care for, despite (or perhaps, to some degree, because of) their deep flaws. His appreciation, cultivated through long acquaintance with both Pakistanis and Americans, enables him to avoid the caricatures Wendell Berry denounces in Imagination in Place. Instead of stereotyping, Hamid keeps his central characters surprising. Despite baring her breasts, Erica remains free of the Girls Gone Wild taint; Changez confesses that he smiled when he saw television coverage of the Twin Towers’ collapses, but his affection for America seems somehow unquestionable.

Although he does have an agenda of sorts, Hamid has said, “I don’t want to be a Michael Moore-style artist, which is not to disparage Michael Moore. But he seems rather unsuccessful at winning people over who don’t already agree with him” (Reese). Hamid would likely identify instead with Ralph Ellison, who writes in the introduction to Invisible Man about his efforts “to avoid writing what might turn out to be nothing more than another novel of racial protest instead of the dramatic study in comparative humanity which I thought any worthwhile novel should be” (xviii). Like Wendell Berry, Ellison grounds his writing in a political understanding of imagination: “[T]he human imagination is integrative—and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process. And while fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of ‘as if,’ therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change. For at its most serious, just as is true of politics at its best, it is a thrust toward a human ideal” (xx). Ellison’s sense of purpose aligns with a laudable literary advocacy Berry describes, one to which Hamid also seems to be aspiring in The Reluctant Fundamentalist:

If… you want to write a whole story about whole people—living souls, not “higher animals”—you must reach for a reality which is inaccessible merely to observation or perception but which in addition requires imagination, for imagination knows more than the eye sees, and also inspiration, which you can only hope and pray for. You will find, I think, that this effort involves even a sort of advocacy. Advocacy, as a lot of people will affirm, is dangerous to art, and you must be aware of the danger, but if you accept the health of the place as a standard, I think, the advocacy is going to be present in your work. Hovering over nearly everything I have written is the question of how a human economy might be conducted with reverence, and therefore with due respect and kindness toward everything involved. This, if it ever happens, will be the maturation of American culture. (Berry 15)

Hamid’s novel demonstrates what can happen to individuals when the health of their place is shot, or, to use Berry’s other image, when their culture does not mature. American culture, as Changez experiences it, isn’t mature; like Erica, the United States he knows remains a selfish adolescent.

Changez’s awakening to his own complicity in American egocentrism comes through an encounter with Juan-Bautista, a Chilean publisher whose business Changez’s high-powered company evaluates for acquisition by another client firm. Having obediently heeded his employers’ directives to “focus on the fundamentals, ...a single-minded attention to financial detail” (98), Changez comes to question those fundamentals after he arrives in Valparaiso:

Yes, I… had previously derived comfort from my firm’s exhortations to focus intensely on work, but now I saw that in this constant striving to realize a financial future, no thought was given to the critical personal and political issues that affect one’s emotional present. In other words, my blinders were coming off, and I was dazzled and rendered immobile by the sudden broadening of my arc of vision. (145)

Juan-Bautista’s questions about Changez’s participation in American economic imperialism hit the young man hard:

“May I ask you a rather personal question?” “Certainly,” I said. “Does it trouble you,” he inquired, “to make your living by disrupting the lives of others?” “We just value,” I replied. “We do not decide whether to buy or to sell, or indeed what happens to a company after we have valued it.” He nodded; he lit a cigarette and took a sip from his glass of wine. Then he asked, “Have you heard of the janissaries?” “No,” I said. “They were Christian boys,” he explained, “captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their civilizations, so they had nothing else to turn to.”

Juan-Bautista’s words plunged me into a deep bout of introspection. I spent that night considering what I had become. There really could be no doubt: I was a modern-day janissary, a servant of the American empire…. (151–52)

The next day, Changez gives notice. He tells his companion in the Lahore market, “All I knew was that my days of focusing on fundamentals were done” (153–54). Like Ellison’s I. M., who, during his own New York City odyssey, finally sees through the blinding rhetoric others have employed in order to make him their puppet, Changez becomes an increasingly reluctant “fundamentalist.”

Also like I. M., Changez moves through confusion to rage. After a last futile attempt to see Erica, he prepares to return to Pakistan:

I would like to claim that my final days in New York passed in a state of enlightened calm; nothing could be further from the truth. I was an incoherent and emotional madman, flying off into rages and sinking into depressions. Sometimes I would lie in bed, thinking in circles, asking the same questions about why and where Erica had gone; sometimes I would find myself walking the streets, flaunting my beard as a provocation, craving conflict with anyone foolhardy enough to antagonize me. Affronts were everywhere; the rhetoric emerging from your country at that moment in history… provided a ready and constant fuel for my anger.

It seemed to me then—and to be honest, sir, seems to me still—that America was engaged only in posturing. As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared pain that united you with those who attacked you. You retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions of your own superiority…. Such an America had to be stopped in the interests not only in the rest of humanity, but also in your own. (167–68)

Like Ellison’s protagonist, who plots to bring down the political Brotherhood he has formerly served, Changez aspires to bring to an end the American Dream he has come to regard a nightmare.

Revealing either the nature of Changez’s efforts to “stop” America or the outcome of his Lahore market encounter would wring The Reluctant Fundamentalist of much of its suspense. Suffice it to say that the conclusion is where the novel parts company with Invisible Man (there, and in its relative brevity). I. M. has gone underground after his flirtation with anarchy but tells readers that he is coming out of hibernation. While his anger still burns, he nevertheless speaks of love’s significance as a counterpart to hatred and hints that he aspires to a mature conception of “social responsibility.” He is daring to consider his kinship with all Americans, both sinned against and sinning. Changez, on the other hand, is not an American, and he has not moved beyond an “us” and “them” perspective. Where he is headed, he won’t need to. Still, he leaves US readers with the experience of having related to someone who mastered certain aspects of our culture but nevertheless remained outside it—someone whose own culture and perspective command our consideration. The haunting quality of Changez’s character and interactions, both personal and political, demonstrate Mohsin Hamid’s shared sense of the challenge Wendell Berry offers: “If imagination is to have a real worth to us, it needs to have a practical, an economic, effect. It needs to establish us in our places with a practical respect for what is there beside ourselves” (33). The Reluctant Fundamentalist invites us both to reconsider our ideas of America and to get to know to our neighbors from places like Pakistan, both far away and living among us.

 

Martha Greene Eads is Professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University.

 

Works Cited

 

Berry, Wendell. Imagination in Place. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Orlando: Harcourt, 2007.

“Hamish Hamilton Interview with Mohsin Hamid on The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” February 2007. <mohsinhamid.com>.

“Mohsin Hamid: ‘We Are Already Afraid’: Mohsin Hamid on Tapping Into the Reader’s Imagination.” <http://www.themanbookerprize.com/perspective/articles/101>.

Reese, Jennifer. “‘Reluctant’ Success.” Entertainment Weekly 13 June 2007. <http.//www.ew.com/ew.article/0, 20042152,00.html>.

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