Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #38: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Good concept, poorly executed.

September 11th wasn't the beginning of Islamic terrorism, but it was the first time that it stuck in the American conciousness so dramatically. America has a very unique position in the world, and I think we tend to discount the dramatic effect our geography has on our cultural development. You can see this even in our Founding; the great distance and travel time between England and America allowed American Revolutionaries to address their break from England on some very philosophical terms. When you're fighting a controlling power next door, your politics tend to be driven by very solid, "that is my land, this is yours, I want to control the corn, well I want the canals" earthly concerns, but Americans had time to consider and voice their complaints on a different level. These philosophical beginnings have shaped our political and social culture, and even today, our relationship with the world is heavily influenced by the geography of our nation. A large part of why September 11th was so shocking was not necessarily the discovery that someone would want to hurt us, but rather that they did so on our own soil. This is the same reason Pearl Harbor galvanized the United States the way it did. We simply do not have the threat of land wars and close conflict the way other nations do, because we can do the equivalent of a much older and lankier sibling planting a hand on their minor sibling's forehead as he flails away fruitlessly.

This has also spawned a certain relationship with foreigners. We pride ourselves on being "the Melting Pot," where people of all nations can come and assimilate into American culture and pursue that great dream of success. The expectation that new arrivals in the States should assimilate should not be discounted. We've all heard protestations that people should speak English or not behave in a certain way because "this is America." It's worse when these non-English speakers or ethnic actors are outside of our borders and have no interest in joining the great American project. We so easily discount them in any number of ways, discussing well-established and powerful nations as weak, backwards, in some other country's pocket, abusive or any number of unflattering adjectives and descriptions. We're willing to a certain point to accept people who are trying to assimilate as "our foreigners," but it's a tricky relationship predicated on certain social behaviors. We tend not to be interested in strangers unless they're trying to make good with us.

This is important to consider as we have to navigate the world after September 11th. The average American does not know a hell of a lot about Islam itself, much less its radical fringe. Now that several nationally traumatic events have come to pass under a fog of Islamoterrorism, there has been a somewhat disturbing tendency to lump all Muslims in with the radical fringe - the part that has made itself relevant for us. You hear a lot about how they hate our politics and while that's somewhat reassuring ("We can work with them to develop political cooperation!" It's hard to remember what a Western ideal that is.), the simple fact is that many people just do not care that much about politics. I'm probably one of maybe three or four intense political junkies in your circle of friends; if you're a PoliSci major, I'm one of probably ten - the rest of the majors just want to go to law school (amirite?). That's not an American Thing. We have major cultural differences with these Islamoterrorists and our unwillingness to approach not only them but the moderate, everyday Muslims in the context of their own understanding and mindset prevents us from even having a conversation. It's the ultimate Ugly American moment, a hundred times worse than going somewhere without even looking for a passing familiarity for local custom or the local language (Where ever you go, you should know please and thank you. Sorry, you just should.). We don't bother learning where they're coming from or even how their tradition differs from ours...why wouldn't the most moderate, non-violent Muslim feel slighted and offended?

This is a tough concept - harder than it sounds, really - and The Reluctant Fundamentalist makes a game stab at showing-not-telling this unintended offense. The story follows the rise and fall of a Pakistani man who attends Princeton and goes on to a noted business valuation firm, only to have his life derailed by a confluence of events including September 11th. There is a significant love interest, whose decaying mental state puts her out of his reach, and their combined story adds a depth of understanding that would have been difficult to achieve otherwise. The story effectively shows what enormous strain is placed on a man in a foreign country simply by trying to remain true to himself. His love interest cracks under the same stressors, fighting constantly to reconcile her personality with her past and her ongoing emotions. Changez, the narrator, clearly feels beset on all sides by enemies and challenges as society turns against his appearance and his friends grow suspicious of him. It's a well done portrayal of the changes for those who "look Arabic" after September 11th, and it's truly heartbreaking.

The delivery, however, is really not good. The idea is that Changez is talking with an American traveler in Lahore over dinner and the narrator's voice frequently breaks into stilted conversation with this traveler. When it does, it not only is bad dialogue, period (Stuff like, "You find our waiter somewhat threatening? But there is no harm. He is simply bringing a large stick to the oven."), but it also makes no sense in contrast to the tone of the storytelling parts or the story itself. First of all, the rest of the story is told in incisive, descriptive, smooth speech. Are we to believe that Changez got a speechwriter and has this story memorized for best effect? Secondly, he is supposedly a Princeton man who worked with high-level officials in his own company and those he was valuing. I find it extremely unlikely that Changez would have been able to rise as high as he did in the story with awkward, stilted English of this particular stripe. Perhaps more importantly, from the description he gives, we should understand that most of his realtime use of the English language was in academic circles and the world of upper-eschelon finance. To succeed - which in the story he clearly indicates he does - he would have to have a better mastery of his speech to communicate effectively and persuade both professors and clients, particularly the latter. Moreover, if this is the context for his formative English experience, it makes zero sense for him to slip back into a more rudimentary speech pattern when confronted with an English speaker...particularly a businessman. I just found these problems to be extremely jarring and felt they took away from the message of the book.

I think this is an important book on an important topic, but I do think some of the tonal problems are a detriment. Not enough, however, that I would advise you to pass this one up. Anyone interested in politics or sociology should check it out, and frankly anyone should take a little time to complete its brief 208 pages. It is well worth your time and crucial to understanding true Western/Islamic interactions.

208 pages

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