Mohsin Hamid’s new novel comes with a ringing endorsement on its back cover from Jay McInerney, a writer one doesn’t readily associate with subcontinental fictions about escaping poverty. But McInerney can speak with authority on second-person narration, having written “Bright Lights, Big City,” one of the more successful examples of this rare literary undertaking.
HOW TO GET FILTHY RICH IN RISING ASIA, by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead, 2013, 228 pp., $26.95 (hardcover)
With “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” Hamid produced a thoroughly gripping and unsettling piece of “voice” writing in the first person, but the second person is a much trickier perspective to master. There’s something accusatory about the narrational “you” that can sound wearyingly declarative, as though the writer were issuing a stream of instructions.
But Hamid is too deft a craftsman simply to bully the reader. Instead, he seeks to create a more collusive enticement in “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” made explicit with the conceit of a self-help guide. It’s a clever idea that soon falls victim to Hamid’s cleverness, as he can’t seem to make up his mind if he wants to parody the genre or use it as a springboard for quasi-philosophical digressions on the “self.”
The self, or the directly addressed “you” at the center of the story, is a peasant male in some unspecified corner of Asia — although it doesn’t take a lot of guesswork to identify Hamid’s native Pakistan as the inspiration — whom we follow from impoverished birth through to a more comfortable death.
Given the advantage over his siblings of some basic education, he migrates to a slum in a sprawling megacity. Hamid is particularly good on the stomach-churning depths of squalor — placing the reader right inside the dank confines of the poor — and the stagnant ironies of developing nations, where teachers dream of being electricity meter readers.
With admirable determination our hero uses his street cunning and entrepreneurial instincts to work his way out of grinding destitution. He sells food with false expiration dates and then creates his own business boiling water, bottling it in used containers and relabelling it as mineral water.
If he’s a rogue trader, he’s operating in a vast gallery of rogues — business competitors, police, bureaucrats, politicians — and in his case, at least, he’s a lovable rogue. We warm to his pluck and his latent sense of romance as well his absence of self-pity.
There’s a tremendous energy about the novel, reflected in the protagonist’s unstoppable drive, but sometimes one wishes it didn’t move quite so fast. Whole stages of life pass by in a few pages and given Hamid’s rich descriptive skills, it’s tempting to imagine a larger novel which burrowed deeper into the specificities of the central figure’s struggle and environment.
That of course would be to transgress the generic aims of this work with its unnamed cities and unnamed characters. The idea is that this is what it’s like for huge swaths of humanity, and here’s the opportunity for the privileged reader — literacy in these circumstances is a privilege — to grasp something of the ordeal in being this anonymous “you.”
But like unhappy families, all poverty is different. The corruption and religious intolerance that Hamid invokes have distinctive qualities and particular implications. It’s interesting in this respect to note the debate that has recently flared concerning wholesale tax evasion among Pakistan’s elite and its middle classes.
There are historical and political reasons why Pakistan is what one writer has called a “procrustean hell.” And I for one would like to see Hamid bring his considerable talents to the task of examining those causes in greater detail. But perhaps that’s for another time.
In this one he essays a touching love story between the protagonist and a beautiful village girl who uses her physical attributes to build her own wealth. But love is a luxury in conditions of economic struggle. The pair remain tantalizingly estranged for much of the book, only finding each other when — tellingly — they abandon their material ambitions.
If Hamid set out to write a satire on the globalized dream of consumer-driven economic development, he ends up being undermined by the strength of his characters. You can’t help but root for them in their perilous climb out of the mire of penury, while all the time being relieved that you are not really “you.”
While South Asian fiction in English has been in vogue for over two decades now, and India has been placed firmly (even centrally) on the map of world literatures, India’s northern neighbour, Pakistan, has remained largely off limits.
When novels such as Salman Rushdie’s Shame have dealt with the region it has tended to appear as a site of the archaic and the enclosed, shut off from the rest of the continent and from the contemporary world beyond it. The work of Mohsin Hamid represents a refreshing departure from this (admittedly recent) tradition. Infused with elements of Scott Fitzgerald and the stark, compelling prose of American contemporaries such as Brett Easton Ellis, Hamid abandons the baroque in favour of minimalist brevity. Asked about this in interview, Hamid simply responded: 'I’d rather people read my book twice than only half-way through.' More than this though, his self-consciously ‘modern’ writing style offers a vision of Pakistani modernity which breaks with the stereotype (that has prevailed since 9/11) of the region as fundamentally traditional, backward looking, essentially anti-modern.
His first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), takes place in Lahore during the summer of 1998 as tensions between India and Pakistan spiral. The novel’s anti-hero is Daru Shezad, a young banker who has been fired from his job and who subsequently drifts into a world of drug addiction, poverty, and criminality. Daru kills moths when he’s bored. The bitter jealousies that develop between Daru and his former friend Ozi (recently returned from study abroad, and now a wealthy businessman), and that culminate in revenge, carry an allegorical weight within the context of the broader nuclear rivalries between India and Pakistan. The extremes of wealth and poverty we encounter in the abrupt shifts between Daru’s unlit room and the jet set society which he flutters around, echoes Pakistan’s divided social state as its economy begins to crumble.The central image of the novel is of a moth spiralling around a candle before bursting into flame. The fatal image of seduction echoes Daru’s own dangerous obsessions and desires: with drugs, with wealth, with Ozi’s wife.
With its numerous narrators, each of which signal the limits and provisional status of the others, Moth Smoke appears very differently to the monologic discourse of Hamid’s second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). However, the effect is ultimately the same: the very constriction of perspective and point of view in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) invites us to question the narrative voice we are offered.
The carefully contained plot of The Reluctant Fundamentalist unfolds over the space of just a few hours following a chance (or is it chance?) encounter in Lahore between returned Pakistani migrant, Changez, and an unnamed American visitor. The two men take tea together in the market place of Old Anarkali, then share a meal, before walking back through the darkness to the American’s hotel. Hamid fastidiously withholds information from his readers and we are left wondering about the superficially innocent relationship between these new acquaintances. Is Changez seeking to ensnare the American? Or is the American seeking to ensnare Changez? Or are these two possibilities merely fantasies/fears within the mind of a delusional Changez?
We have no way of knowing because the novel ends as abruptly and inexplicably as it begins. Moreover, the potentially dialogic encounter between these two men is rendered as a dramatic monologue. It’s not just that the unnamed American is a quiet American, but that Changez speaks for him so he can only be heard in the responses of Changez: 'How did I know you were American?', 'What did I think of Princeton?'. If this narrative device feels slightly contrived it also serves to defamiliarise, or render strange and suspect their exchange. It also heightens the reader’s sense of uncertainty about the power relations between the two men. Changez, like Conrad’s Marlow, the ancient mariner, or Scherezade, seems to exert a mystical, mesmerising power over the American who is twitchy and helpless in Changez’ presence. At the same time there is the nagging feeling that the American’s silence is the ruse of a CIA agent biding his time as the innocent and expansive Changez divulges the intimate details of his past. As Hamid has said of the form of the novel: 'the narrator and his audience both acting as characters allowed me to mirror the mutual suspicion with which America and Pakistan (or the Muslim world) look at one another.'
Changez’ past forms the main body of the novel. Keen to reassure the American he is a harmless stranger (is he protesting too much?), Changez embarks on the story of his student days at Princeton, his growing love for Erica, and his meteoric rise to number one in a US valuation firm, Underwood Samson. Then 9/11 happens. Watching the footage alone on television Changez smiles, a reaction that subsequently unsettles him. In the months that follow, Erica’s mental deterioration and the collapse of their companionship is echoed in Changez’ growing estrangement from America, not to mention his growing a beard. Increasingly disillusioned by the US response to 9/11, Changez loses his drive, and then his job, returning to Pakistan he becomes a lecturer and activist campaigning against American foreign policy. Here then is the reluctant fundamentalist of the title. But not quite, because fundamentalism is above all associated in the novel with American capitalism: 'Focus on the fundamentals. This was Underwood Samson’s guiding principle, drilled into us since our first day at work. It mandated a single-minded attention to financial detail …' As James Lasdun put in The Guardian review: 'The subverted expectation very efficiently forces one to reconsider one's preconceptions about such words and their meanings, and a point is duly scored for relativism.'
Dr James Procter, 2009