Monday, June 2, 2008


Fundamentalist. It's one of those words that touches a raw place in the brain, isn't it? Conjures up all kinds of other unpleasant words: extremist. Zealot. Terrorist. (And from there, some leap to Obama, but that's another day and an angry post.)

It was with considerable curiosity, then, that I began to read Mohsin Hamid's short novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Hamid lives in London, and the book was short-listed for the Booker Prize last year. I actually came across it through ads in the Tube when I was in London last month. The book doesn't shy away from its title, either, which is printed on a rectangle of green with five crescent and stars underneath.

And I loved it. It is, as I said, short. It is also painful, alternately wildly articulate and irritatingly obfuscating, and the ending may drive you mad. Changez, the protagonist and narrator, tells the story of his young adult life to an American tourist in Pakistan. His difficult, tentative romance with an upper East Side darling he meets at Princeton spills over into his increasingly fractured identity in the wake of 9/11, as his religion and country are more and more embattled against the country in which, as he says, he has no reason to be other than a high-paying job and a girl.

Perhaps the novel might have benefited considerably if Changez had probed more into the sources of his own discontent -- the alienation and anger he feels at America for its casual use of the rest of the world -- or maybe it would have collapsed utterly into a preachy, wet mess. As it is, it is just an extremely painful tale, almost a parable, with beautiful descriptive writing. A lot is made of the transnational elite from the Indian subcontinent and other areas of the world these days, but here's a look at the failure of transnationalism, and what it might mean for the future of international relations.

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