‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ is a cleverly constructed novel, written as one part of a dialogue between two men in a Pakistan marketplace. This intimate and innovative style quickly draws the reader into a dual storyline: the history of the narrator’s life, discussed as a past narrative and the story unfolding in the narrator’s present, which the reader learns about through commentary and innuendo from a single perspective. There is a constant question as to the identity of the narrator and the other participant in the conversation. It is an effective stylistic device. The reader becomes an integral part of the fiction as the narrator addresses a nameless, faceless Western individual. It places the reader themselves in that position, a clever narrative device to bring the story to life in the mind of the reader.
Hamid is a master of characterisation in an unconventional format. The reader becomes more and more curious regarding the audience of the personal history being recounted, as small tidbits of information are dropped into the conversation. It is interesting how Hamid builds a degree of character for the unseen individual, fascinating how your opinion of character can be formed purely through a third party’s reactions to that person. On a wider scale, it raises the question of how far our perceptions of nations or nationalities unfamiliar to us are affected by the reaction of others towards them.
The dual thread of the narrative allows Hamid to give an interesting, intelligent portrayal of post 9/11 America. There is an wonderful analysis, at one point, of the traditional empire that America resembles within its own borders. He also paints a portrait of the development of fundamentalism more complex than any we are usually given – a combination of internal and external triggers, personal and political reasons, as much an echo of a man’s dissatisfaction with himself and his own perspective on his heritage as a reaction to the political climate of the day. It makes the creation of a fundamentalist mindset seem frighteningly plausible, even possibly understandable. It is born of reasoned argument that it is impossible not to indentify with at some level. It serves as an antidote to the common portrayal of the fundamentalist mindset being born of low intellect and high susceptibility to influence or of purely religious fanaticism.
It is a remarkably well-realised novel, with mounting suspense that brings the reader towards the conclusion with ever-increasing eagerness to discover who the individuals really are and what that narrator’s true story is. The image of suicide, always hanging in the background, symbolises perhaps a nation’s unacknowledged fears. As the two men converse, with a constantly changing backdrop of the local marketplace, it seems more than purely an atmospheric description of their surroundings. It is more analogous to the constantly changing world around us. The image of the changing character of the market as it empties mirroring the image of our solitude as our society lives more and more empty of faith.
This was a real ‘impossible to put down’ book, an incredibly fast read but one that leaves you thinking and broadens your view of a contemporary issue, taking it in interesting directions. Well worth the investment of time and money.