As someone who has studied a lot of history, in my spare time I enjoy reading about the micro histories of big world events. That is, the stories of people who lived through event such as The Two World Wars, The Cold War, Weimar Germany and many more. Lately, I have been reading a lot of interesting fiction written post September 11 about the causes and effects of this world-changing episode in American and global history.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told from the perspective of a man (Changez) having a conversation with another man at a cafe in Pakistan. The identity of the man at the table is not known but slowly and ever so delicately the developing history of the narrator is revealed. The novel is told in its entirety from this perspective and the location of the cafe is the centre point. The focalisation of this narrative makes the reader feel (at times) as though it is he or she to whom Changez is speaking. This style of prose certainly captivates and envelopes the reader to ensure that the centre of attention is always on Changez. Running concurrently is an unshakable feeling of trying to discover the identity of this dinner guest – who is he, why is he in Pakistan, why is he listening to Chengez?
The title of the novel gives part of the plot away. The fact that the tale is being told from Lahore rather than New York is also quite revealing. But it’s the journey Changez takes from exceptional student at Princeton to his first professional role at an elite valuation firm where he excels and is taken under the wing of his eccentric and brilliant boss. Eventually world events rather than that personal relationships and intimacies direct his motivation and attention.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist seeks to challenge our notions of terror, terrorism and the terrorist in a post 9/11 world. It challenges concepts of power and sovereignty. I don’t always feel empathy for Changez and feel that part of his departure from the United States is led by his own belligerence and self-imposed confusion. It seems Chengez refuses to accept himself as anything more than an outsider and that notion seems to direct many of her personal encounters. However one of the most endearing relationships Changez forms is with that of a young woman Erica. Erica lost her great love Chris to cancer and indeed lost a part of herself at that time. She drifts in and out of Chengez’s life – her ebbs and flow entirely dependent on the depression she cannot manage. She is a beautiful and aspiring writer who never quote reaches her full potential. That too can be said of Chengez’s relationship with her as total and encompassing love is can be felt but is always out of reach. Erica is out of reach and so Chengez begins to feel that so too is his western life in the United States.
This is a little novel with many big themes including American hegemony in a globalised world, race and racism and the essential human need to belong. Thought-provoking and well worth the journey.