By Mohsin Hamid
Boston: A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007
ISBN # 978-0-15-603402-9
184 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September 2011

The narrator, Jenaab Changez, meets a man in Lahore, Pakistan, wandering around the bizarre and takes him to a nice tea-house. Calming the nervous American all the time, he lays out his story of having gone to Princeton, becoming a hot shot with an American big-money firm, falling madly in love with a beautiful American girl, but in the early weeks of his first prestigious job, 9/11 occurs turning his life upside down.

What follows is an astonishing magnificent tale, told totally in first person narration. At one level it is simply the story of Changez’s life, from about age 18 to the current time, when he is 25.

However, there is another very subtle and vaguer story. The tale of the interrelationship between Changez and his unnamed American guest. The guest never speaks, but something is going on. Changez seems to hint he suspects the “guest” to be some sort of U.S. agent, and the guest seems to ne slightly fearing Changez, or, if not him, then the waiter at the restaurant. Thus the second tale runs parallel to the main story of Changez’s life and change of life.

What really moved Changez to change from the highly motivated worker within U.S. capitalism to one who left his plush job, moved back to Lahore and became a relatively lowly paid lecture at the university there? Certainly the dominant factor was 9/11 and how others in the U.S. suddenly looked at him. But that was not enough.

His second job, just weeks after beginning with his firm takes him to Valparaiso, Chili to assess a printing firm there. The owner, an old and wise man, challenges him as to what he is doing with his life, and breaks through Changez’s unthinking acceptance of his place in the world. He comes to realize:

… I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East, and now Afghanistan . . .

The old man at the printing firm tells him of the janissaries of ancient history who worked for their enemies, and even though they were personally reviled, their work was accepted. This is a moment of enlightenment for Changez and he breaks the ice of his mindless acceptance of U.S. capitalism. Then he becomes an “ex-janissary.”

I resolved to look about me with an ex-janissary's gaze with, that is to say, the analytical eyes of a product of Princeton and Underwood Samson, but unconstrained by the academic's and the professional's various compulsions to focus primarily on parts, and free therefore to consider also the whole of your society - upon my return to New York. Seen in this fashion I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry; being of a suspect race I was quarantined and subjected to additional inspection; once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the requisite permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer. Thank you, Juan-Bautista, I thought as I lay myself down in my bed, for helping me to push back the veil behind which all this had been concealed!

He is soon sacked by the U.S. firm and returns home. It is there in Lahore that he meets the American stranger, and tells him his story.

This is an exceptionally challenging and incredible novel to read. The story of Changez’s “career” of only five years – four in college and one at work, the impact of both 9/11 and the advice of the old man in Chili, are all so well managed.

Then there is a tragic love affair (one-way though it was) with an American girl which sort of mirror’s his love affair with the U.S. Finally, there is the sort of very subtle and subdued hint of a sort of encounter of . . . of what, a radical Pakistani and an American tourist? An encounter of an American intelligence officer and a suspected Pakistani radical? Both of the above? Neither of them? Fascinating and very well done.

The writing is simply exceptional. I was startled at first that it was to be a novel in first person narration, but soon fell into the pattern and loved that mode. The novel was thoughtful and subtle, an incredibly strong case to criticize the current role in the world scene which the U.S. has assumed since WWII (at least).

I would highly recommend the novel to all. It is rewarding, challenging and fascinating.




For those who have already read the novel I do want to comment on the sort of spy-novel plot that builds like a crescendo in a musical piece. Who really is Changez? Who is his guest? Mohsin Hamid is brilliant in not revealing the answer. We see all the reasons why Changez might ally himself with the Pakistani radicals. Yet he is not religious and thus the title itself is very misleading, perhaps purposely so. He is in no way a fundamentalist. He’s open to the world of evidence, not particularly religious at all, and appears to be gentle, sophisticated, relatively kind and sensitive. Yet, he experiences an enormous injustice being perpetrated upon the world by the U.S.

His “guest,” of course never utters a word, yet Changez tells us what he sees as some of the guests gestures or words (which we don’t hear), and these suggest strongly that the guest may well be an agent from the U.S., and that he is likely armed.

Who is the waiter? We just don’t know. The guest is obviously very wary of him, and Changez consistently, until the last few sentences of the novel, downplays the possibility that he may be anything other than a waiter.

And, the novel, brilliantly I think, ends with this quandary not resolved. I found that extremely satisfying, almost like a quiet joke Hamid has played on us and appreciated it.

My sole discontent with the entire novel is the title. I don’t think it quite works. There isn’t any sense I know of in which Changez is a “fundamentalist.”

Bob Corbett


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