5 reviews

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid

Published: 2008-04-14
Paperback : 191 pages
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Now a major motion picture
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize
A New York Times bestseller
A Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
A New York Times Notable Book

“Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something ...

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Now a major motion picture
Short-listed for the Man Booker Prize
A New York Times bestseller
A Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
A New York Times Notable Book

“Extreme times call for extreme reactions, extreme writing. Hamid has done something extraordinary with this novel.”Washington Post
“One of those achingly assured novels that makes you happy to be a reader.”—Junot Diaz
“Brief, charming, and quietly furious . . . a resounding success.”—Village Voice 

At a café table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful encounter . . .
          Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by an elite valuation firm. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his budding romance with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore. But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his relationship with Erica shifting. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.


Editorial Review

Mohsin Hamid's first novel, Moth Smoke, dealt with the confluence of personal and political themes, and his second, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, revisits that territory in the person of Changez, a young Pakistani. Told in a single monologue, the narrative never flags. Changez is by turns naive, sinister, unctuous, mildly threatening, overbearing, insulting, angry, resentful, and sad. He tells his story to a nameless, mysterious American who sits across from him at a Lahore cafe. Educated at Princeton, employed by a first-rate valuation firm, Changez was living the American dream, earning more money than he thought possible, caught up in the New York social scene and in love with a beautiful, wealthy, damaged girl. The romance is negligible; Erica is emotionally unavailable, endlessly grieving the death of her lifelong friend and boyfriend, Chris.

Changez is in Manila on 9/11 and sees the towers come down on TV. He tells the American, "...I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased... I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees..." When he returns to New York, there is a palpable change in attitudes toward him, starting right at immigration. His name and his face render him suspect.

Ongoing trouble between Pakistan and India urge Changez to return home for a visit, despite his parents' advice to stay where he is. While there, he realizes that he has changed in a way that shames him. "I was struck at first by how shabby our house appeared... I was saddened to find it in such a state... This was where I came from... and it smacked of lowliness." He exorcises that feeling and once again appreciates his home for its "unmistakable personality and idiosyncratic charm." While at home, he lets his beard grow. Advised to shave it, even by his mother, he refuses. It will be his line in the sand, his statement about who he is. His company sends him to Chile for another business valuation; his mind filled with the troubles in Pakistan and the U.S. involvement with India that keeps the pressure on. His work and the money he earns have been overtaken by resentment of the United States and all it stands for.

Hamid's prose is filled with insight, subtly delivered: "I felt my age: an almost childlike twenty-two, rather than that permanent middle-age that attaches itself to the man who lives alone and supports himself by wearing a suit in a city not of his birth." In telling of the janissaries, Christian boys captured by Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in the Muslim Army, his Chilean host tells him: "The janissaries were always taken in childhood. It would have been far more difficult to devote themselves to their adopted empire, you see, if they had memories they could not forget." Changez cannot forget, and Hamid makes the reader understand that--and all that follows. --Valerie Ryan

A Conversation with Mohsin Hamid
Set in modern-day Pakistan, Mohsin Hamid's debut novel, Moth Smoke, went on to win awards and was listed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His bold new novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a daring, fast-paced monologue of a young Pakistani man telling his life story to a mysterious American stranger. It's a controversial look at the dark side of the American Dream, exploring the aftermath of 9/11, international unease, and the dangerous pull of nostalgia. Amazon.com senior editor Brad Thomas Parsons shared an e-mail exchange with Mohsin Hamid to talk about his powerful new book

Read the Amazon.com Interview with Mohsin Hamid


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Discussion Questions

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Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Q: The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a monologue about a Pakistani’s experiences in America at the time of the 9/11 attacks. What made you choose this format, which has the Pakistani narrating the tale to an American whose voice is never actually heard?

A: The form the novel, with the narrator and his audience both acting as characters, allowed me to mirror the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another. The Pakistani narrator wonders: is this just a normal guy or is he a killer out to get me? The American man who is his audience wonders the same. And this allows the novel to inhabit an interior emotional world much like the exterior political world in which it will be read. The form of the novel is an invitation, which if the reader accepts, will in turn implicate the reader, because the reader will be called upon to judge the novel’s outcome and shape its ending.

Q: Your protagonist, Changez, faces both internal and external pressures as a foreigner living in a country that’s shocked into a volatile patriotism. What was your biggest challenge in writing his experience?

A: My biggest challenge lay in not having the delicate architecture of the novel, its plot and characters, be overwhelmed by the enormity of the political events that occurred as I was writing it. The first draft, of a Muslim man working in corporate New York who decides to leave America for Pakistan, was completed in the summer of 2001, before September 11. The catastrophe that followed swamped my story; it was years later that I had something which could be salvaged, and years more still before it took on its current form. The novel was written over seven years and with as many drafts. Then again, so was my first novel, “Moth Smoke,” so it may just be that this is how I write.

Q: Changez’s reaction to the September 11 attacks is likely to surprise some readers. Did you worry that a tale of someone who is, on some level, sympathetic with the attackers would strike a sensitive nerve in some audiences?

A: I did worry about it. I have lived much of my adult life in America and have enormous affection both for the country and my many, many friends there. I didn’t want to write something that was gratuitously offensive or, even worse in today’s environment of government-erected walls, could lead to my being prevented from visiting the United States. I feel I have written from a stance that is both critical of and loving towards America, and I hope that readers will feel my affection and see that my intent is not to gloss over the very real pain of September 11 but rather to reconnect parts of my world – and myself – that have grown increasingly divided.

Q: Personal and public mourning run side-by-side in this story of raw emotions. Changez loses his footing when he is unable to separate the two. Was it difficult to find balance as you simultaneously probed the intimate pains and passions of one man’s loss and explored an entire nation’s tragedy?

A: I believe that the personal and the political are deeply intertwined; certainly in my own life I experience them as such. So I don’t set out to find a balance between the two in my novels. Instead, I try to explore the places where they intersect most powerfully. People and countries tend to blur in my fiction, both serving as symbols of the other. Which is not to say that my characters are chess-pieces: I see my characters as fully human, not as mere motifs. Rather, the countries in my fiction are far from monolithic and are capable of envy, passion, nostalgia; they are, in other words, quite like people, and I try to explore them with that sensibility.

Q: The stunning ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist leaves room for speculation and debate. Have you answered in your own mind the question of what happens in the final scene? Were you deliberately working toward a surprise ending when you first started the novel?

A: I was certainly working towards an ambiguous ending, one which reflects the reader’s own view of the world back at him or her. The reader can see the novel as a thriller or as an encounter between two rather odd gentlemen, depending on what the reader believes about the world in which the novel takes place. But because the emotional journey I was asking readers to undertake is a troubling one, I knew I wanted a strong narrative pull, a mystery that added urgency to their reading, and the ending is I hope the culmination of that.

Q: Both you and Changez grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, attended Princeton, and worked in America for a time. How does setting your stories in familiar locales influence other story elements for you, like plot and characterization?

A: I am not much of a researcher as novelist. I tend to write about what I know. So I have done much of what Changez has done: I have worked in New York and in Lahore; I have spent time in Chile and in the Philippines. His story is not my story, but I certainly have inhabited the geography of his world. I find knowing a milieu intimately very useful as a writer: it frees me from having to prove that I know it and allows me to harness it to the purpose of my story. If I can believe in my characters and in my plot, if I have seen evidence of them in the world and in myself, then I feel a certain power comes to my prose without which it might be insincere.

Q: Changez tells the American visitor that knowing history helps put the present into perspective. In your first novel, Moth Smoke, the 1947 partition of Pakistan and India directly influences contemporary characters and events. How do you hope The Reluctant Fundamentalist might influence readers’ perspectives of the present state of American/Muslim relations?

A: I believe that the core skill of a novelist is empathy: the ability to imagine what someone else might feel. And I believe that the world is suffering from a deficit of empathy at the moment: the political positions of both Osama Bin Laden and George W. Bush are founded on failures of empathy, failures of compassion towards people who seem different. By taking readers inside a man who both loves and is angered by America, and hopefully by allowing readers to feel what that man feels, I hope to show that the world is more complicated than politicians and newspapers usually have time for. We need to stop being so confused by the fear we are fed: a shared humanity unites us with people we are encouraged to think of as our enemies.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
by [email protected] (see profile) 06/18/20

by virk0001 (see profile) 10/29/18

by [email protected] (see profile) 03/09/18

by SusanJow (see profile) 06/14/16

  "Changez's love of his own country was stronger than the love of America"by brightpoweruk (see profile) 07/06/14

Most of our reading group finished the book and we agreed that it was easy to read. We had a discussion on the meaning of the word Fundamentalist in the context of this book and thought that... (read more)

  "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"by Maruja13 (see profile) 03/31/14

There are always two sides to every story. This book takes us along the life of Changez, a Pakistaní, living and thriving in the USA and what happens to his life once 9/11 occurs. It's difficult to put... (read more)

  "the reluctant fundamentalist"by christineflee (see profile) 02/08/14

Didn't really hit for me. The narration should keep you interested to the end though. The conversation format was somewhat interesting.

I guess I didn't like the main character but I d

... (read more)

  "The Reluctant Fundamentalist"by janeswall (see profile) 11/28/11

interesting read - short and intense; creatively examining the human aspect of criss-crossing cultural, political and religious boundaries, good at stimulating book club discussion!

  "A Story Within a Story"by ebach (see profile) 09/01/11

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story within a story. One is the clever telling of the other.

At a café in Pakistan, a Pakistani man tells his story to an American ma

... (read more)

  "well written book prompting an introspective view of one's life choices and allegiances"by bookmarianne (see profile) 08/04/08

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