The Reluctant Fundamentalist / Mohsin Hamid. 2008 (184 pgs softcvr, 224 pgs hardcvr)
First Ten Pages = 18.4% of total book
First Sentence: “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”
Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person, present tense, monologue. Oddly, the reader only hears the narrator’s side of the conversation as if the reader is eavesdropping on one side of a telephone conversation.
What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The first paragraph, particularly the first few sentences, informs the reader that the story is taking place right now and in a foreign place – possibly India or the Middle East. The narrator and main character (the only character we hear from) seems to be pestering a foreigner who is American. The narrator – Changez – attempts to allay the American’s suspicions by admitting he is “…a lover of America,” saying “I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.” Changez indentifies the man as American by his “bearing” not by his skin color, clothing, or military appearance. By the end of paragraph three Changez has convinced the American to join him in a cup of tea, something the neighborhood is famous for.
What the reader learns in the first ten pages: I have to admit I have used all of chapter one – 15 pages – for the purpose of this paper. The print is large, there is lots of “air” between the lines and so these 15 pages would be approximately 5 pages of a Twilight book, Ragtime, or any Jane Austin. In these opening pages the American and thereby the reader is given a few reminiscences of Changez time in America as a Suma Cum Laude graduate of Princeton, a successful job interview with an extraordinarily prestigious valuation company, and an introduction to a man who will (doubtless) become a guide or mentor. Changez’s telling of these stories is focused, calm and dispassionate. He is not boasting. He is telling. More importantly, the reader must, in very few pages, reevaluate any assumptions or first impressions they have had of Changez even if the reader is unsure of his motives. By the end of chapter one, Changez is pouring their second cup of tea.
Language: At first the narrative style is jarring. It is awkward to hear only one side of a conversation and awkward that the narrator appears so aggressively persistent. The story is told in monologue. Even so the reader receives a satisfactory amount of information about the American, other characters who appear only in reminiscences, the setting, and Changez’s worldview. Changez responds to questions and comments from the American and occasionally the waiter, but we learn their content only from Changez’s responses. Changez appears to pause for the other speakers, but the printed monologue is continuous. The effect is that time is stilted. Real time becomes one-sided time.
Setting: The narrator gives enough descriptive information and historical context of the café, the neighborhood, and eventually Lahore, and Pakistan for the reader to feel they are in real locations. It seems expository at first, but as Changez is answering questions from the American and introducing his guest to the homeland he is proud of, it becomes comfortably second nature. Through Changez’s recollections the setting easily shifts to and from America and the café as well as other places he has been over the past five years.
Character: The reader learns key elements of Changez’s character during an intense job interview with Jim, his future employer. Jim accurately pegs him as an outsider who works hard to play the part of a princely and sophisticated foreigner who comfortably blends into an elite American collegiate society, when in truth his family can’t afford to send him to Princeton without significant financial aid. Jim’s unveiling Changez’s duplicity makes a deep impression and will obviously influence future events. Metaphorically, Changez has been forged in Pakistan and polished in the states. He cannot achieve in his homeland what he can possess in the United States. He has been seduced by status. Recounting his story to the American in a café in Pakistan implies that he will or has undergone a character change and presumably a status change that the reader will learn about as the story unfolds.
Structure (Rhythm, Tension): Some creative writing teachers advocate for their students to “show don’t tell.” Mohsin Hamid’s story is all telling. It’s an excellent example of successful exposition via narration. The story is narrative from page one to page 184. Why? (Now I will admit that I’ve read the entire story – an excellent 2.5 hour read.) The author has given Changez a distinctive voice, a distinctive foreign voice, a voice that remains consistent as the reader’s perception of the narrator shifts. When Changez speaks to the American, the lilt of his phrasing is Pakistani and “foreign.” As he narrates events from his past, such as his time at Princeton or the job interview with Jim, his lilt becomes more subdued. This effect is mirrored in the way stories that take place in the USA appear to be calm and attractive in the way that a film can depict commonplace events in settings that are uncharacteristically luxurious. He refers to locations from his past similarly to the way a tourist refers to visiting a famous church or a restaurant with an excellent soup. When the focus returns to his guest at the café the monologue becomes choppy and the sentences abbreviated in a way that is decidedly expository and unfamiliar to a “Western” ear.
Intention: This is the big mystery of the first chapter. What does the narrator want from the American? What is the author trying to convey to the reader? The book title implies both reluctance and fundamentalism, two concepts that in contemporary times – especially since 9/11 –take on larger meanings. Will there be an event? Is the American safe? Does fundamentalist mean terrorist? The narration starts the reader on a story – a seemingly harmless and simple one in this first chapter. While it is clear that Changez will be the only speaker from beginning to end, where the story will take the reader and the American is a complete mystery.
Thematic Preamble: None. The action starts with the first sentence and moves forward in time utilizing occasional flashbacks.
Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond chapter one: From these first pages, I expect something ominous to occur. I suspect that the story, written by a Princeton and Harvard educated Pakistani ex-pat, is designed with a targeted effect on a Western reader. Although the narrative voice is a Pakistani’s and that he is inviting, articulate and intelligent I suspect the author relies on a post 9/11 Westerner’s bias of anything middle-eastern to inform a reader’s point of view. If the reader was on the other side of the middle-eastern fence I am confident they would also perceive upcoming events as ominous, but from a very different point of view.
(FYI: regardless of whether or not I read beyond the first ten pages, I always pause at the end of “page 10” to consider what I will write in these critiques and my imagination of the story’s outcome.)
Random Comments: Hamid’s narrator is a devoted Pakistani citizen with a non-partisan relationship to his formerly adopted country – the potential land of milk and honey. (An odd comparison, I know, since Pakistan is much closer to the river Jordan than is the USA.) Changez believes in the good of men, but becomes disillusioned toward his adopted homeland when the good of men factors a high percentage of self-good. At the end of the day, and this may be a gross oversimplification, Changez’ monologue reflects, without actually saying it, that there is no place like home… even when one must create a new home by returning home.