Discussion: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

vickitgJanuary 16, 2008

I was going to get this discussion started tonight, but I just realized that I gave my copy of the book away at my book discussion group's annual book exchange last month. The group meets tomorrow to decide which books we will read for the next few months. If we opt not to read The RF, I will "borrow" my copy back and start this discussion. If we do opt to read it, I will go purchase another copy and start the discussion then.

Sorry for the further delay.

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I'm finally getting this discussion started. I'm anxious to hear what you all have to say about this book, since we will be discussing it in my RL book club later this year. Anyway, I cheated and borrowed some examples from a Reader's Guide online. Although, I did adapt them somewhat.

I've also included the link for an interesting review in The Guardian. The reviewer brings up a very interesting point about the story as allegory. Would you agree with his assessment?

Here are the first few questions for discussion.

1. Early on, Changez says that his café companionÂs "bearing" gives him away as an American. What does Changez mean by this? What are his deeper implications?

2. In chapter 1, Changez explains that his family belonged to the old aristocracy in PakistanÂthough they are no longer wealthy, they still retain their social status. How important is it to Changez to regain what his family has lost? How does he hope to do that?

3. What do we learn about the American who sits across the table from Changez for most of the novel? And what do we never learn about this person? How does Hamid convey this information?

4. Who is Jim, and why does he take such a liking to Changez? What do they have in common? What are JimÂs motives in befriending Changez?

5. Changez announces in chapter 3, "I was . . . never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker." Explain this. How is ChangezÂs sense of identity altered over the course of the novel?

6. In chapter 5, Changez is in a hotel in Manila, packing his suitcase and watching television, when he sees the World Trade Center collapse. "And then I smiled," he confesses. Explore this scene as the turning point of the novelÂin terms of plot, character, scope, and tone.

Here is a link that might be useful: Guardian review

    Bookmark   January 19, 2008 at 1:13PM
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Bringing this up so people realize I've actually started the discussion

    Bookmark   January 19, 2008 at 7:26PM
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Sarah, I have not forgotten you. I'm trying to organize my thoughts for the discussion, which is easier said than done.

    Bookmark   January 20, 2008 at 7:44PM
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Thanks, colorme. I was beginning to think everyone had given up on this discussion. I look forward to hearing your thoughts. I will also be posting my ideas about the topics.

    Bookmark   January 21, 2008 at 2:34AM
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Better not let this drop too much further.

And just to remind people - SPOILERS ABOUND in these discussions. I'm about to mention a huge one here.

Forgive me, but I'm having trouble with the questions - they feel, to me, too much like exam questions or essay titles. Maybe it's just me, but I'm finding it difficult to respond to these in a positive way - I really didn't enjoy English at school...

So I'd like to leap straight in with a few observations, and one straight factual question.

To start with (and this is embarrassing) it wasn't until I read the review in the Guardian posted above that I had realized the ambiguity in the title of the book. I'd just gone on with Changez (an almost Dickensian name!) being a reluctant Muslim fundamentalist. I'd completely forgotten the repeated statements in the book from his workmates (and particularly from Jim) - "Focus on the fundamentals." Thinking about that has really quite changed my view on the book; it feels like a much more ambiguous story now.

Which leads onto my question. Talking of ambiguity - what exactly is going on at the end of the book? Is Changez about to kill the American (do we ever find out his name?) with the aid of his friends - or, in fact, are the people (the waiter and others) actually undercover Americans who are going to polish off Changez before he becomes too much of a threat? I know there's no right answer - I'm just curious which way people looked at the book.

I thought the style was very interesting - we seem to learn quite a lot about the American, though he doesn't actually say every much, and what he says is not even indirectly reported - merely deduced by inference. But I have a clear mental picture of him.

A fascinating book. I'm very curious to see how others reacted to it.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2008 at 5:28AM
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I've been feeling guilty about not posting but it is always hard for me to put my thoughts together after the book leaves my hands. I read this novel in one sitting and I have spent more time thinking about it than I did reading it. The author brings up many issues that are difficult for an American to think about. Yet - we need to think about it.

Both the title and the character's name provide great irony and implications. I do not know enough about Pakistani names to know what the name means, or if it is common, but I don't need to explain what the name implies in English. I wonder if that is why the author chose it?

I enjoyed the ambiguity throughout the book. The American's role is never explained, and one imagines different things throughout the book. I wondered why an American who was clearly so ill at ease would linger in an increasingly deserted cafe after dark. I also wonder the same thing about Changez.

I will think on this a bit more and add whatever I come up with.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2008 at 1:02PM
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Martin - Maybe the questions are what's keeping people away from this discussion. :( My degree is in English/American Lit, so I forget that not everyone likes to analyze books in such a structured way.

That article in The Guardian did bring up some very interesting points, not the least of which was the whole "fundamentalist" definition. ThatÂs what I love about reading reviews and discussing books; I usually come away looking at the book differently than I did before the discussion. For example, I hadnÂt really picked up on the idea of the story as an allegory, as suggested below.

"It dawns on you that Erica is America (Am-Erica) and that Chris's name has been chosen to represent the nation's fraught relationship with its moment of European discovery and conquest, while the narrator himself stands for the country's consequent inability to accept, uh, changez."

The articleÂs author brought up another good point that I had felt but hadnÂt put into words: the book felt almost like an essay rather than a story. The romantic plot line in particular didnÂt seem quite weighty enough for a novel.

Regarding the ending, I wasnÂt sure what to think. After pondering it for awhile, I decided what might happen is that the American would think he was in danger and would pull out a gun and kill Changez, and maybe the others, only to learn that the waiter was, in fact, returning something to him that was left on the table. More evidence of the damage that mistrust between the two cultures can cause. Just a thought.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2008 at 1:50PM
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Well, this isn't going anywhere. Am I a total failure as a discussion leader, or did I just wait to long to get this started?

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 2:01AM
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Sarah, my apologies for not posting sooner. I have only had the chance to pop in for a few minutes at a time and haven't had time to write a coherent post. And no! You are not a total failure! I really think that this book is a difficult but excellent choice for a discussion, but I suppose that it's not to everyone's taste. I appreciate your willingness to lead the discussion.

First, I will say that I was glad to read the Guardian article because I did think that the title referred to the company's motto and not to Changez becoming a religious fundamentalist. I thought that I might have been wrong, though, so I was relieved in a way to find that the author of the article agreed.

I do find it interesting that the article's author suggests that the story is an allegorical one, and I think that he is most likely right. The biggest concept to me to support that argument is the relationship between Changez and Erica. Over and over, he seeks to win her affection by becoming something or someone he is not. Not only does he try to mold himself into something else, but in my opinion, he actually humiliates himself by telling her to pretend that he is someone else. Before I thought of the novel as an allegory, the entire relationship between Erica and Changez simply didn't ring true. Looking back on it now, however, it works perfectly in an allegorical sense.

After I finished this book, I read through some of the reader reviews on Amazon. I was surprised at the number of reviewers who vociferously condemned it as being written by someone who wanted to take advantage of what the United States has to offer in order to better himself but rejoiced on September 11 at seeing the U.S. brought to its knees. I can't help but feel that they missed the whole point.

As far as the ending goes, I'm still up in the air about it. I do like your take on it, Sarah, in that uneasiness and suspicion on the American's part due to cultural differences may have caused him to overreact to what he perceives as danger. Perhaps he was there all along to eliminate Changez, or maybe Changez was in league with the waiter and was there to lure the American into a trap in order to eliminate him. I like the ambiguity of the ending because any one of those endings could be a logical conclusion.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2008 at 9:41PM
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I apologize for not having more to say about this fascinating book. I will admit I was afraid to say too much for fear of being branded anti-American or unpatriotic. An ambiguous novel about an ambiguous subject. I really must request it from the library and read it again.

The relationship between Changez and Erica, in fact Erica herself seemed quite strange to me. At the risk of sounding cold and judgemental, I couldn't believe Erica was so undone by the cancer death of her childhood sweetheart. Is the human psyche so fragile? People suffer terrible loss and pick themselves up to go on with their lives all the time. Was Erica damaged emotionally before Chris's death? Is she representative of something bigger or more dysfuntional?

I hope to read another work by this author. This one intrigued me.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2008 at 8:55PM
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Siobhan - It's unfortunate that one has to fear being branded "anti-American" or unpatriotic when trying to express an opinion. I think that after 9/11, several American voices attempted to start an introspective conversation about why this attack happened and whether we as a country/government/society might do a little soul searching about how we treat/relate to the rest of the world. Maybe it was still too raw and painful to have this discussion, but I felt those voices were stifled by more strident calls for revenge(?). I would hate to think anyone would excuse what the terrorists did -- and still do -- but it never hurts to take an honest look at ourselves now and then.

I think books like "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" give us a chance to do just that. I think it was a pretty brave act on the author's part to write this book. I'd hate to see a controversy start here at RP, but it's a shame we can't hear your views on the book.

Thanks for being honest.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2008 at 8:27PM
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Thanks for bringing this up. Sorry I missed the discussion but the book was not available to me before this week. I am afraid I don't have much to add. I loved the ambiguity and wondered myself about how the author really intended the abrupt ending to play out. I think it could have gone in either direction, but clearly the theme is paranoia and the mutual misunderstanding of cultures, East vs. West.

The book took a real act of courage to raise these issues. Like Siobhan, I feel intimidated about being "labeled," in terms of my views.

I felt (although I cannot say just why) that Erica was emotionally damaged long before Chris' death. Her family seemed overly protective of her from the very beginning, but perhaps there was more in her upbringing that was dysfunctional.

I found the characterization of Changez fascinating. At times, he struck me as rather a "chameleon", trying to blend into the various backgrounds, without revealing his true feelings, hiding under a cover of extreme politeness.

I did get the double entendre of "fundamentalist". I thought the organization Changez worked for was a bit symbolic of the military/industrial complex. Maybe it was the Western counterpart to the training camps in Pakistan or Afghanistan, from the author's point of view?

I will never forget this novel; it's brilliant.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2008 at 10:57AM
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Just finished this book and really related to it as an allegory. I think that nostalgia played an interesting role in the novel. Perhaps Erica's nostalgia for her relationship with Chris could be likened to America's nostalgic preoccupation with the past when we were perceived as the "good guys." If we follow Erica's story arc, such an insular idea of ourselves only leads to our destruction. Just a thought.

Interesting book.

    Bookmark   April 28, 2008 at 11:30PM
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Oh. Just read the Guardian article. Call me Captain Obvious!

    Bookmark   April 28, 2008 at 11:49PM
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I read this book in one sitting and hugely enjoyed it. The use of names in it is deeply interesting Changez is Urdu for Genghis, the name of a warrior and yet Changez himself is involved in international finance. This plays with the whole idea of the parallels between these two issues. Also the name of the Chilean Juan-Bautista is hugely significant, it translates as John Baptist, someone who annointed and cleansed people, bringing them fully into the world. If you look as well at The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, one of Hamid's favorite Booker prize winning books, you will see parallels between the two novels. A point raised earlier in the discussion about Chris's name being chosen "to represent the nation's fraught relationship with its moment of European discovery and conquest" escapes me however, would someone be as good as to explain it?

This book is truly a great read.

Here is a link that might be useful: An interview with Mosin Hamid

    Bookmark   April 20, 2009 at 10:57AM
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Thanks for posting the article. I have read "The English Patient" but I did not get the parallels. Will now have to re-read both novels!

    Bookmark   April 20, 2009 at 11:07AM
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I think it is a reference to Christopher Columbus. In the classrooms of my childhood he was something of a hero, but is now often regarded with a bit of harshness. Or sometimes a lot of harshness, as in this book.

I really should re-read this work, it is so thought-provoking and complex.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2009 at 7:30PM
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I was wondering what everyone felt was the significance of the themes of mourning, melancholy and empire in the book?

    Bookmark   May 12, 2009 at 11:50PM
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Coming up, for reader-in-transit. As you can see, we discussed this 2 years ago.

    Bookmark   April 9, 2010 at 10:50AM
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Thank you for bringing this thread up. Both The Guardian review and your insights were food for thought, and added to my contribution at the book club.

    Bookmark   May 5, 2010 at 3:34PM
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Did anyone think about this book after hearing about the young man accused in the attempted bombing at Times Square? I thought there were some interesting similarities to the narrator in the book.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 9:12PM
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Right after posting this I did an online search on this topic, and it seems I'm far from the only person that made this connection.

I attached a link to an NPR story on the subject.

Here is a link that might be useful: NPR Story

    Bookmark   May 17, 2010 at 9:24PM
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Just noticed that this book has been filmed. Interesting...I think i might go and see this one.

Here is a link that might be useful: Guardian film review

    Bookmark   September 1, 2012 at 4:35AM
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This is a book that has stayed with me. I hope the film comes to my part of the world.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2012 at 7:53PM
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I wonder how they managed to put this book into a film. The menacing atmosphere of the cafe and the ambiguousness of the ending would, I think, be difficult to capture in a movie. I hope it's good; this was a memorable book to me.

    Bookmark   September 1, 2012 at 10:52PM
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