Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, has a killer hook. Changez, a Pakistani graduated top of his class from Princeton working at a financial firm in Manhattan, slowly becomes radicalized by America's response to the 9/11 attacks. Sitting down at a restaurant in Lahore, Pakistan, with a mysterious man who appears to be an American military operative, Changez tells the story of how he came to renounce the U.S.
The novel, briskly told in 184 pages, neither sensationalizes the subject matter nor uses it to lecture. Hamid tells the story in second person, with Changez as narrator and the reader in the position of the operative. "Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?" it begins. "Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America." As his story unravels, it becomes clear that something terrible is going to happen between Changez and the American, a cat-and-mouse game that's all the more intriguing because it isn't clear who's predator and prey.
Changez' job in Manhattan is to evaluate the financial condition of troubled companies with a ruthless eye towards the bottom line, cutting costs and downsizing workforces to grease the wheels for a buyout. "Focus on the fundamentals," his company drills into his head, putting a different spin on the novel's title than the scowling young Muslim on the cover.
The particulars of the narrator's daily life in New York are secondary, at least in my mind, to his attempt to explain to an American why he renounced the country, returned home and took action against it. Hamid's storytelling is most compelling when Changez wrestles with feelings that would inspire the disgust of his American colleagues:
The bombing of Afghanistan had already been underway for a fortnight, and I had been avoiding the evening news, preferring not to watch the partisan and sports-event-like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their twenty-first-century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below. On those rare occasions when I did find myself confronted by such programming -- in a bar, say, or at the entrance to the cable company's offices -- I was reminded of the film Terminator, but with the roles reversed so the machines were cast as heroes.
Least compelling was his romance with an American woman that's one-sided, charmless and grim.
The war that nearly happened between India and Pakistan after the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, an event I had almost forgotten, figures heavily in the book. Changez returns home as one million troops mass on the border. Hamid describes Lahore, the hometown of Changez and himself, in an unexpected way that demonstrates the glope-sweeping breadth of the Muslim world: "Lahore was the last major city in a contiguous swath of Muslim lands stretching as far west as Morocco and had therefore that quality of understated bravado characteristic of frontier towns."
Wounded national pride figures strongly in Reluctant Fundamentalist, which ratchets up the tension towards a thrilling end. Hamid began the book before 9/11 to tell the story of why a secular Muslim, living large among America's elite, might resent the country. 9/11 changed everything.