Keren Shlezinger’s study guide to The Reluctant Fundamentalist is either extremely timid or sadly naive. She notes “the final scene is left open-ended”, which is true, but she adds “the reader cannot know whether the American is a secret agent who will assassinate Changez; whether Changez himself is the threat; or whether it was indeed a chance meeting between an innocent Pakistani and an American tourist (p.3).” Neither character is nearly as innocent as the critical reviewer here…
Keren gets closer to the mark when she discusses Changez’ “sinister” use of irony “in order to unsettle, patronize or taunt the American (p.13).” She correctly recognises that Changez’ comments “are outwardly polite but have an alternate, perhaps rude or offensive, meaning (p.13).” As these observations accurately note, to understand the true identity of both characters is challenging for two reasons: firstly because the reader can only enjoy the position of the narrator, and any narration may be untrustworthy, such that even the claim of “You can trust me. I am not in the habit of inventing untruths! (p.172”) is unreliable; secondly because the writer actively wants the reader to suffer a state of suspicion in order to challenge preconceptions about the existing and ongoing historical conflict between combatants in the so-called “War on Terror”. Nevertheless, such doubts, deliberately created in the reader’s mind, serve a function and a purpose that does not prevent the audience from determining the reality of these fictional events.
Consider the observations made by Changez with respect to the American. He says almost immediately that he identifies his guest to be “a certain type of American (p.2)”: with his “short-cropped hair” and “expansive chest” the man well matches the castes of “sportsmen or soldiers (p.2)”. Changez also describes the American’s “unusual mobile phone”, noting that it may be capable “of communicating via satellite when no ground coverage is available (p.34)”. This phone sounds with “precision” on the hour, inviting Changez to comment surreptitiously “Perhaps the company is checking up on you? (p.131)” There is also the “bulge” in the man’s jacket “where the undercover security agents… tend to favour wearing an armpit holster for their sidearm (p.159),” and Changez frequently describes occasions where the “startled” American reaches for this “travel wallet”. The descriptions of the American’s appearance, thus presented, suggest to Keren that he is an innocent tourist sporting an extremely sophisticated mobile phone and a large travel wallet, even though Changez clearly names him in the same breath(s) to be an armed CIA operative on assignment.
We might question Changez ability to judge the character of another – to do so would be patently ridiculous. A reader might wonder if the warnings by his comrades that “an emissary [might be sent] to intimidate me or worse” have resulted in an unwarranted “plague [of] paranoia (p.208).” Perhaps in his heightened state of wariness the Pakistani has mistaken the American for such an emissary, and inaccurately attributed to the man the trappings of an assassin. The reader might well be inclined to assume such an interpretation because it would, after having considered Changez’ history, appear totally unfair and unjust that a hospitable, intelligent, talented and seemingly peaceful man be executed by the country he has offended. This is one of the interpretations that Mohsin Hamid wishes for the reader to consider – it is not his intention for us to accept this “just” perspective on historical world events, and he only offers this interpretation to the meekest and most naive of readers. Instead, we have to remember that Changez is not some deluded fool, but a Princeton graduate summa cum laude who is immediately employed and trained by the country’s top valuation firm. Changez tells the American “my sense of another’s character is generally very good. I can usually tell, for example, who in a crowd is most likely to provoke violence (p.205).” His message to the American here – his accusation – is, as always, subtly delivered. Apparently, the exile knows America better than it knows itself.
Matching his appearance, the American’s behaviour and attitude is equally militaristic, and Changez immediately states “it was your bearing that allowed me to identify you (p.2).” The man sits with his back to the wall, observing his surroundings with “a steady tick-tick-tick (p.35)” in the fashion of a soldier taking a defensive position and watching carefully for targets. When Changez describes his grounding at Underwood Samson – “a kind of mental judo for business (p.41)” – it strikes a chord within the American who appears “impressed with the thoroughness of our training… the systematic pragmatism – call it professionalism – that underpins your country’s success in so many fields (p.41).” Later Changez discusses how he resents this “outcome” driven mindset that equips one with an “armour of denial (p.108)”, the ultimate expression of which is one in which the lives of innocent bystanders are considered no more than “collateral damage (p.203).” Changez regrets his own actions as a “jannisary”, and speaks describe these professionals as “killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers (p.202).” Interestingly, even if the American’s behaviour reveals his training and professionalism he never speaks deliberately or directly of himself. Changez repeatedly expresses a hope that the American will reveal “the nature of your business (p.73)”, for the man’s “demeanour all but precludes the possibility that you are a tourist wandering aimlessly through this part of the world (p.88),” but the American determinedly remains tight-lipped about his “mission (p.1)”. Given such unswerving stoicism, I would like to guess that the man is particularly unimaginative and say that we are lucky to instead hear the story from Changez!
The silence of the man throughout the day is also indicative of the context of the meeting. One must wonder if a simple tourist (Changez has already precluded this possibility) would actually tolerate this history of “the most terrible boor (p.105)”. The story within the story probably would not be enthralling enough on its own to sustain the interest of the listener for so long unless the American actually desired to understand or hear the speaker’s tale. Indeed, Changez asserts that “we have not met before, and yet you seem to know at least something about me (p.86)”. The content of Changez’ narration would suggest that the American is not so interested in being treated to food and drink and entertainment, but more in learning about the narrator. Further, even if the story within the story is merely mundane, the interaction between the two characters is not, and would not incline an innocent listener to remain attentive. The man is repeatedly told: that he is “frightened”, “suspicious”, “alarmed” and “afraid”; that he has no cause to fear “poisoned” tea or food; that he is “an animal that has ventured too far from its lair (p.35)”; that he can ignore the “intimidating” waiter even if “you should sense that he has taken a disliking to you (p.123)”; the list of veiled threats are extensive. The frequency with which Changez insinuates and challenges the American’s supposed purpose and security in their meeting would be enough to either offend or terrify anyone who did not have innocent intentions, and incline them to leave the scene long before Changez reveals his criminal associations.
As already noted, Changez is not exactly a clearly coherent and reliable narrator, and many commentators recognise the story as “multilayered”, “deceptively simple” and “deeply ambiguous”. Although he does not “invent untruths”, our narrator, when addressing the American, always mixes existing uncertainties with certain truths, such that his double-speak can be interpreted to accommodate a position that best suits his audience. Our host never openly confronts his listener, but always provides him the benefit of an innocent explanation, even if both characters are well aware of the reality of their meeting. Yet I’m surprised that a capable critical analyst such as Keren should choose to ignore Changez’ duplicity, particularly since she fully appreciates his “passive-aggressive” manner.
Unfortunately she also misses the highly allegorical importance of the descriptions Changez presents at the beginning of each chapter. Our narrator begins the first chapter in which he describes his association and infatuation with America with the definition of Old Anarkali – the “courtesan immured for loving a prince (p.2).” The following chapter is presaged with the event in which a particularly beautiful girl “has caught your eye (p.18),” and so Changez relates his attraction to Erica. The “soothing sun” of Lahore fails to put at ease “the foreigner’s sense of being watched (p.35)” in Chapter 3 as Changez describes the vast disparity between the two cultures he knows, even whilst on holiday with others; the descriptions of animals that belonged “to a dreamier world incompatible with the pollution and congestion of a modern metropolis (p.71)” introduce a chapter in which Changez reveals himself with a smile at the fall of the towers at Ground Zero; the contrast of “the delicacy of [jasmine’s] perfume against the robust smell of roasting meat (p.88)” foreshadow the telling of the grief he experiences trying to compete with the memory of Chris for Erica’s affections. Later chapters allegorically begin and then pursue through narration ideas of being “ill at ease”, finding “satisfaction” in Pakistani culture, enjoying the pleasant “solitude” of exile in a desert, and finally being “dragged against one’s will, forever to disappear” amongst the advances of the modern era. This clear structural device enables the author to establish the tone and atmosphere for each chapter, but also provides strong insights to the intended meaning of each. The device also enables the narrator to introduce the tone of each episode, and thus position his listener to reflect upon the meaning of his story by way of analogy. Often his message is far more insidious than might first appear, such that he can effectively communicate ideas of betrayal and hatred under the guise of revelation and disillusionment. Keren’s demonstrated ignorance of the role of these repeated and systemic allegorical devices conclusively display her failure to recognise the highly metaphorical and deceptive nature of Changez’ narrative.
In summary, it is apparent that the American is an agent that Changez has deliberately chosen to confront. It is not clear that the American’s mission is in fact to assassinate the speaker, but this clearly is not a chance meeting between innocents. The writer definitely wants us to identify and understand his protagonist, and to learn about the struggle for identity he (both) experienced. Mohsin Hamid did become immersed in American culture, chose to return to his homeland, and has continued to write with distinction about cultural matters between the two countries. Unfortunately the events of September 11 irreparably changed the context for the story he had wished to share, as his audience was unable to forget such life and world changing events. The issue of American imperialism became overshadowed by that of religious fundamentalism because a culture of fear elicited an angry backlash to any opposing viewpoint, and so the author chose to play upon the prejudices of his readers with his redrafted narrative. It is deliberate then that the American – America – is silent throughout the narration, and that the narrator is introduced as “a lover of America (p.1)” despite later revealing a determination to stop “such an America… in the interests not only of the rest of humanity, but also in your own (p.190)”. The hidden identity of the American is a deliberate ploy by which the author can challenge the reader to ask who the aggressor actually is.
Conversely, however, there is another concern that Keren presents: is Changez “the threat”? If America has in fact sent an agent on any mission targeting Changez, then how should we view the purpose of the narrator and his story? Changez himself is only too pleased to engage in a cat-and-mouse game with a man he believes has been sent to kill him. As already noted, he threatens the American constantly, and elucidates the man’s fear of being “uncertain whether [he] is the predator or the prey! (p.35)” With such high stakes placed upon this meeting between national enemies, and with Changez himself repeatedly referring to this being “a night of some importance (p.105),” one must wonder his aim might be. Indeed, as always, when Changez speaks of “sugaring your tongue before undertaking even the bloodiest of tasks (p.157)” we must realise that he is not choosing his words innocently.
Mohsin Hamid has created an important novel in The Reluctant Fundamentalist that, towards its conclusion, presents the story of a man who has become an enemy of America. Eleven of the twelve chapters concern themselves with the man’s self-known and self-sacrificing role as a “janissary”, his inner conflict between his sense of loyalty to his American employer and his Pakistani heritage, and his eventual decision to abandon his post as “the reluctant fundamentalist”. The last chapter, however, presents a description of a man who has “made it my mission on campus to advocate a disengagement from your country by mine (p.203)”, whose “activities get out of hand (p.205)” such that he receives “several official warnings (p.205)”. Perhaps Changez is considered a threat, not simply because of his activism, but because of the knowledge, insight and experience gained in his former role in service of the American empire. Perhaps his “betrayal” of his former masters marks him a danger as much as his subsequent actions. The purpose of the writer is to provoke the reader to question their understandings of the origins of the threat to America, and the justice of actions since September 11. The purpose of this essay is to prove, unlike the position of the reviewer of the study guide, that the world of The Reluctant Fundamentalist is in fact as dangerous as Mohsin Hamid would have us believe.