I picked up The Reluctant Fundamentalist at the airport, afraid that I hadn’t enough reading matter now that my activity based travels had (at least for now) turned into a beach sitting/restaurant sitting/coffee shop sitting sojourn. When I picked it up, I had in mind that I wanted an ‘American Book’; an irony I was to understand later.
Perhaps it was apt that I read it beneath the shadow of the Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur, because it is the destruction if The World Trade Centre in New York that provides the pivot for the story and the depth and strength of Nations’ response, it’s drama. And, sadly, it may be relevant that I sit to consider it under another shadow; that cast by the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich and the response of nations having only just begun.
The book has been labelled ‘a thriller’, emphasised by the protagonists of the recent film adaptation depicted on the front cover; their expressions urgent, dramatic. The threat of violence is set as the as the tone in the very first paragraph, as protagonist, Changez, addressing an unknown man, in a market in Lahore proclaims, ‘Ah, I see I have alarmed you. Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America.’
Identity is the theme and the space from where threat emerges, in this spare novella. Changez’s identity, once Princeton scholar and trainee business analyst, what has it become? And who is the man across the table from him, with whom he shares his story? The burly waiter, is he more than just that? Then the bereft Erica, Changez’s love – all American girl and aspiring novelist – unable to maintain am identity beyond sorrow. And finally, what of ‘the fundamentals’ he is asked to believe in, the laws of business or those of his own culture?
The afternoon grows old and turns black. During this time Changez shares his story with us and the stranger in his dangerously civilised prose.
Precise and shocking in its delivery, the book presents some persuasive questions, about the nature of threat and identity in the aftermath of 9/11. Because it is not entirely of his own volition that Changez turns his back on American society. In many ways, the epitome of American aspiration, in the wake of 9/11 he is treated with suspicion and diminished respect.
While the thinly veiled threat throughout the novel is, what has Changez become? by the final chapter threat lingers still more menacingly. Does the threat come from Changez at all? Or, is it elsewhere, the unknown American? The jury is still out.