The Reluctant Fundamentalist is written in that engaging monologue style that immediately reminded me of Albert Camus’s The Fall. Like in The Fall, Changez, the main protaganist in The Reluctant Fundamentalist strikes a conversation with a stranger in some kind of establishment. In this case, they are both in a restaurant and the stranger is an american man, presumably someone whose vocation deployed him to Pakistan (or at least that’s what it sounded like to me).
I picked up this book perhaps with my expectations already too high. I heard so much about it, most of it good. It had glowing reviews and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Proper scholarly work has been written on it. Admittedly I am late to the party, writing this review 10 years on. I learned that part of its popularity was due to a movie adaptation.
Of the people who criticised it or gave it low ratings I noticed that they tend to be white folks who were aghast at the audacity of the protagonist to be so ungrateful to the wonderful benefits that the wonderful country, The US, had given to him. How could he! One comment mentioned that this is a privileged guy who went to an Ivy League, making it harder to citizens to enter the school. Some even went so far as to insinuate that he should be grateful he got the opportunity to be in the US instead of the obviously inferior and less developed Pakistan. Someone mentioned that they didn’t understand why the protagonist hated the US since the only incidents of racism he faced were negligible. Because criticism of the book is dominantly in this vein (basically ad hominem attacks against the protagonist which largely accuse him of ingratitude) to criticise this book might risk being seen as someone who endorses the messages these ‘critics’ or to invalidate the pain of the character or the issues the book tries to raise.
But my issue with this book is that its criticisms are too superficial, and does not engage with the issues raised with the critical depth necessary. Liberals would love it, I am sure, because the message you get is basically the rather trite one that tells you not to be prejudicial and to question the first impression that you have of someone. This bearded guy is not a terrorist just because he’s brown, muslim, and has facial hair. The American is not necessarily a bigot who hates Muslims and people of colour.
“It seems an obvious thing to say, but you should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all undercover assassins.”
Of course, judging from the nature of comments that criticise the book, I guess this kind of basic message is sadly still necessary, in which case I will have to concede that the book is important and it does the job. And of course I expect there’s always that contention that the writer doesn’t have to write the book with the kind of critical depth that some readers might want, I guess (I’m not convinced with this reasoning when it’s dealing with a political topic as heavy as this though..).
The book is undisputedly engaging, due in part to its stylistic choice. But it falls short on other fronts. The characters are flat, and almost verge on caricature. It is as if these characters have to be a certain way in order to induce the stereotypical/prejudicial reaction from the reader. The word ‘fundamentalist’ being used is at least a little smart though, if only because it does not end up being a story about a guy becoming a Muslim fundamentalist nor does a hint of something concerning ‘political Islam’ or extremism really come up in relation to Changez. The fact that I sort of expected at least a mention of that at least reveals my own instinctive expectations just because of this word. The word in itself provokes reaction. But other than that the characters and their reactions were almost cheesy.
Perhaps Changez himself understands it too simplistically. Perhaps he was protected for the most part of it because he was privileged enough to study in Princeton and did not live in the US for most of his life. But prejudicial attitudes against Muslims, specifically Muslims who are people of colour, did not start from 9-11 though it did worsened after that.
The book does make an effort to point out American exceptionalism through engaging with the theme of nostalgia. In the one quote that I like from the whole book, it manages the critical depth that is at least necessary:
“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. And you acted out these beliefs on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my family, now facing war thousands of miles away.”
The fact is, however, that the reality of America’s (the state) treatment of those deemed Other and different and therefore suspicious is located not within the individual attitudes of prejudice. Neither is it located just within American exceptionalism which is presented in the book, like in the quote above, to be something that is perpetuated by an arrogant populace. The truth is that this arrogance has been manufactured and then perpetuated through sheer belief. American exceptionalism is only a vehicle/an instrument utilised by the state to continue its long drawn history of how it has always established itself in violent terms against Others, first through genocide of native Americans, then the slavery of black people, the violent annexation of a part of Mexico, placing Japanese people in internment camps, etc. The list goes on.
The issue that is being raised in this book is far more complex and nuanced than can be portrayed with the flat characters. I wish I could find better words to explain why I didn’t enjoy this book in the end & found it disappointing. But mainly it was due to the way it poorly handled the political discussion surrounding the book & how simplistically I felt it was done. It felt good to read if you wanted to virtue-signal & say hey, I read this, I agree that we shouldn’t be prejudicial. I felt that there were so many gaping voids, including the fact that Changez seems to be the only Muslim in the US we engage with in the book. All the others he engages with seem to be basically white America.
Of course maybe I am being demanding to expect the political sophistication 10 years ago when 9-11 was still fresh in the psyche & discussions were still fresh too about Muslims, islamophobia & American foreign policy. Perhaps I am even being too much to expect political sophistication in a literary work. But I don’t think it is unfair to demand that if a work wishes to invoke a political issue, then it has to be properly engaged with so that this issue, a material, violent reality that affects others, isn’t just treated like an empty fodder than ends up making a work of art more interesting. Of course I’m not saying that this is what he does. I am merely trying to explain why I had expected so much from this book. It did not deliver in my opinion, but I am willing to concede that most well-intentioned liberals would love it.