The Reluctant Fundamentalist is book of the month at NRK Bok, and since it’s a short book and available for the Kindle I thought I might as well play along. And I’m glad I did.
The novel is a monologue by the young Pakistani Changez, told to an unnamed American visiting Lahore. Changez relates how he was educated at Princeton on a scholarship, was a star student and got a job with the prestigious firm Underwood Samson, who specialize in valueing businesses, and whose motto is “focus on fundamentals”.
Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson’s guiding principle, drilled into us since the first day at work. It mandated single-minded attention to financial detail, teasing out the true nature of those drivers that determine an asset’s value.
He starts his work with them shortly before 9/11, and the narrative relates how things changed with the terrorist attacks. So does his relationship with a girl named Erica, who has been mentally ill after losing her “soulmate”, Chris, to cancer and who slowly slips back into illness after the attacks, retreating to an internal, nostalgic world.
The story is a powerful illustration of how the 9/11 attacks forced a lot of people to chose sides in an argument not of their making. The narrative structure is cleverly constructed, the silent American somehow plays an active part in the monologue, and it draws you in, making it a difficult book to put down. The ending is very open, which is undoubtedly one of the novel’s strengths.
Wasim Zahid suggests in the comments at Bokbloggen that “Erica” is a symbol of “AmErica”. I hadn’t noticed the suggestive name, but I had already concluded the same thing. Changez falls in love with Erica in the same way he falls in love with the States, but just as his relationhip with the country deteriorates after 9/11, so does his relationship with Erica. It is hard to avoid the symbolism in that the only time Changez and Erica make love is when Changez asks her to pretend he is Chris, just as he is only accepted the American society when he pretends to be “like them” – after having been to Lahore for Christmas (ironically?) he lets his beard grow, which is commented upon by his peers (and superiors). His answer that a beard is quite common where he comes from does not improve the situation.
And just as Erica retreats into nostalgia, so does the United States:
it seemed to me that America, too, was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward; for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.
If Erica’s name is symbolic, surely Changez’ is no less so. Wikipedia tells me it is the Urdu version of “Genghis”, which could probably be analyzed, but I cannot imagine that it’s similarity to the English word “Changes” is coincidental.