The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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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.

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Reflections

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Shortly after arriving in Reberty I picked up a book of short stories from the ‘chalet library’ (also known as the kindling store as far as the poorer titles are concerned). Ray Bradbury, the author, has always fascinated me (ever since The Stephen King Days) due to his forking up of the weird and disturbing out of the human interior. The book was The October Country and the front cover featured skeletons floating in misty darkness set against a glowing full moon…just to set the scene.

The first story I read (and also the only one to date) was about a dwarf and aptly entitled ‘The Dwarf’. Unsurprisingly, The Dwarf has a problem with his size. The reader only sees him through the eyes of Aimee and Ralph, discontented fairground attendants, who watch as he enters their hall of mirrors each night. One night Ralph invites Aimee to peek inside the hall and watch how the dwarf preened, danced and bowed in front of his larger self, stretched to a tall, long limbed man by the magic mirror.

Aimee wants to help him, especially after Ralph tells her that what the dwarf really wants is his own mirror. But Ralph wants to thwart him because he is jealous.

In the final scene, haunted by the grotesque, mutated reflections of all three characters making their way through the hall of mirrors, Ralph has switched the dwarf’s beloved mirror. In its place is one that makes him much, much smaller and for a tiny man you can imagine that he just might seem so small that he barely exists at all. The dwarf leaves the fairground, seen brandishing a shotgun snatched from the shooting gallery.

The story disturbed me but I couldn’t immediately say why and ski resort life went on. Then it prodded my consciousness again as I tried to write about the people here. Because if a ski season is about anything other than snow and waxed up planks it is about human beings; colleagues, competitors, guests and the French Furniture – the locals who tolerate and make money from you and fill the physical blanks in resort. Like a special hall of mirrors these people give back reflections of you; sometimes flattering, sometimes grotesque.

Before I began my job as Chalet Host I would not have told you (unless you were interviewing me for a job) that I was cut out for the hospitality industry. I care about customers being satisfied but I do resent the petty wanting and needing (pillows, HP, a jug, a smaller portion of this, a double portion of that) and I am sensitive to friction, I take it personally and that said I perpetuate it. They show me humour, I show it back; they show me mealy mouthed dissatisfaction, ditto. Guests have come, gone and been forgotten and those uncomfortable hugging moments at the bus stop been avoided where possible, but there have been those that have given back reflections that have stayed with me.

‘The Johns’, both pensionable; one who slept with a lion’s head hand puppet and who wore the furriest bear trapper hat in the western world; the other adorned with beads, stubble and who coined the phrase ‘Christian has done for snowboarding what Mary Poppins did for deep throat’. They loved life and laughter and I was more than happy to give it back to them.

But while guests leave, recycled after a week, your colleagues stay with you. You live with them, work with them, go to the one pub (did I mention that?) with them. They may even become your real friends – the fact that they are labelled as such on Facebook counts for nothing (in my opinion, that is – does that show my age?). And throughout these intense relationships i have come up against myself as much as anybody else; my resentful response to the reproach of a chef struggling with her job and looking for someone to blame; my antagonism after the poisonous sentence posted on that same social networking site about my ability to ruin a day (a compliment if anything); my agitation and distress at the red eyes and the mouth that won’t speak to me in the mornings. And in my response to these things is my grotesque reflection; angry, resentful, childish. But there are other reflections; smiles and gushes of giggles at the terrible crude humour of Jamie, the chef; gratitude to Sioned, the Ski Host with the most mispronounced name (it’s Welsh) in resort; and toe-tapping happiness at the musical taste of Alix, the brave Chalet Host. In these moments I am tall and wide and smiling.

Like the dwarf I came away to see myself and be myself and perhaps what I expected was unrealistic. What I get is what I really am and like the images of Aimee and Ralph it is sometimes grotesque, but sometimes it is tall and good; just fleetingly, just for a moment that is never mine to keep.

After writing this I finished the first short story in Haruki Murakami, Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow (a la the updated chalet library), it was long and I looked for a shorter story to follow. I chose ‘The Mirror’; inevitably influenced by the title as much as by the five pages over which the story stretched. What’s in a title? It’s only a sign post. But when the main protagonist stated in the penultimate paragraph ‘the most frightening thing in the world is our own self’ I would be inclined to say, ‘a lot’; to paraphrase Meatloaf (badly) he took the words right out of my head.