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By Ila Iverson
(UBC Arts One, Dr. Sylvia Berryman seminar)
Mohsin Hamid’s casual yet powerful writing style communicates the biographical story of a Pakistani Muslim’s enchantment and disenchantment with America while maintaining a degree of uncertainty regarding the character and intention of the narrator and protagonist, Changez. The Reluctant Fundamentalist intrigues and involves the reader with unique stylistic decisions. Presented as a one-sided conversation, or as a monologue, the text brims with realism and ambiguity. This novel is written without a third person voice. Therefore, all the information that we are presented with is filtered by, and through, Changez—an innately and inherently biased source. Seeing and telling from one’s own phenomenological perspective cannot be bias free, and there is a natural tendency to frame oneself in a more favorable light. Changez’s inherently biased prose facilitates the effective communication of his history while simultaneously conveying more obscure issues of race and prejudice that resonate with relevance.
Through Changez, we, as readers, experience the mindset of a Pakistani Muslim living and working in America before and after the fall of the Twin Towers. There is a double audience to which the novel, his monologue, is directed: the American listener with whom he dines and us as the readers. The striking, stark, and ambiguous conclusion of this novel leaves the audience with the question of whether Changez is the victim of a contracted assassination by the American listener, or whether he is a radicalIslamic terrorist. The end is purposefully left uncertain. As a reader, we must determine how much trust we have in Changez and in the monologue that he confesses to his silent American dinner companion. A massive degree of co-creation is required on the part of the reader due to the unconventional, one-sided, monologue style of this novel. Hamid writes Changez’s story during a time when racial profiling and other discriminatory measures were, as they still are, present within American and Western society. Hamid demonstrates how culturally imposed feelings regarding Muslim men that are present within readers color their interpretation of the text. A greater appreciation of this text requires readers to disabuse themselves from these biases. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a faux confessional narrative designed to reveal, reflect, and project our own preconceived beliefs and prejudices onto Changez. As such, interpreting the narrative, and the final scene, illuminates and implicates the perspectives and beliefs of the reader, not those of Changez.
“An obsequious tone prevalent in many former Asian North American novels is replaced in The Reluctant Fundamentalist by an elegantly threatening one” (Chui 123). This discrepancy in tone is something that distinguishes The Reluctant Fundamentalist and has made it so compelling to its readers. Hamid, through Changez’s confessional monologue, communicates an autobiographical story of an immigrant who through elite education and career opportunities achieves the quintessential “American Dream,” and yet remains dissatisfied with America as a nation that cannot and will not fully accept him. With his candor and openness, Changez maintains my trust through laying bare his life and his emotions.Yet, at times, he challenges my trust as he coyly dances the reader around the question of whether he is ultimately the predator or the prey during his evening with the American listener. The monologue style of this novel provides a personal and a nuanced feeling, and it contributes to the varied interpretations of its stark and ambiguous conclusion.
The end of the novel is intentionally enigmatic. “There is no firm accusation, no second witness nor any concrete evidence that can tie the protagonist to a tangible offence” (Clements 71). There are, however, references to his intimidation of his company, and to how he put the American listener “ill at ease” (Hamid 123). It is unclear whether Changez has been killed by the American listener or whether it was he who posed the threat. Without explicit evidence, readers’ conclusions rely on the trust, or lack thereof, that they have in Changez’s narrative. Readers must draw their own conclusions as to which of the characters was the victim and who was misled or misread. Therefore, when the reader makes a judgement at the end of the novel it will not be one made from weighing the “evidence” presented within this text; rather, it will be a reflection of their beliefs, fears, prejudices, and preconceived judgements about Changez and the people that he represents. Readers will find in Changez’s autobiographical account the confessions that they wish or need to see, whether it be his sinister embracement of Islamic terror or his relationship, respect, and love for both his country of origin and for America.
Hamid purposefully writes Changez as a somewhat “untrustworthy” narrator. The first half of the novel builds sympathy for Changez as an immigrant in search of the American Dream, but the second positions him and the American listener as threats to one another when more about his character is revealed. It becomes clear that because of the deceit that a narrator is capable of in a novel with first-person prose, Changez may be taking liberties in his telling of his story. To this point, Changez states, “I can assure you that everything I have told you thus far happened, for all intents and purposes, more or less as I have described” (Hamid 118). He cannot affirm to the American listener, or to us as readers, that his narrative has been entirely accurate, only that his story has occurred “more or less as [he has] described” (Hamid 118). We must be content with his narrative being as factual and as true as he can make it given the bias that an autobiographical monologue inherently must have. His acknowledgement, I feel, speaks to the fact that he does not desire to deceive the American listener or us as readers. However, this admission can also be interpreted as an indication that he is not the trustworthy narrator that he initially appears to be.
In the beginning of the novel, Changez introduces himself to the American listener, and to us as readers, as a “lover of America” (Hamid 1). However, the reader begins to question his allegiance to this nation when he admits his feelings about 9/11. “And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased” (Hamid 70). Changez finds pleasure, at least momentary pleasure, in the falling of the Twin Towers. This attitude seems antithetical and unfathomable for any man who claims to be a “lover of America” (Hamid 1). It is a position reserved for terrorists; and his admission of these feelings, for numerous readers, solidifies his spot amongst such people. However, his admission was not entirely unexpected nor surprising to the American listener or to many readers. He remarks, “I can see that I have offended you, angered you even. But I have not, I suspect, entirely surprised you” (Hamid 75). We expect to see the bearded Pakistani Muslim man as our enemy.
Many readers believe, want to believe, or, in fact, need to believe that Changez is a radical Islamic terrorist. They cannot allow themselves to be persuaded otherwise, because such would be deeply unsettling and would challenge a belief system that has been woven generationally into their DNA—a belief system that is reinforced by partisan, political, dogmatic fundamentalism that pervades American politics. These readers view Changez as untrustworthy and threatening, believing that “His gracious demeanor might conceal a more sinister side” (Chiu 112). They believe that the anglicized tone and cadence to his words provide a sophisticated, and disquieting, undertone to his terrorist mindset. To support this position, readers highlight the fact that the “frequent and purposefulness with which [The American listener] glance[s] about…brings to mind the behavior of an animal that has ventured too far from its lair and is now, in unfamiliar surroundings, uncertain whether it is predator or prey” (Hamid 31). The American seems anxious in a way that a contracted assassin would not be. There is considerable insinuation regarding his ties to the military and his daunting American bearing (Hamid 2), indicating that he should be regarded as the larger threat in this situation. However, it appears that it is Changez who is in control here, and who is dictating the course of the action—especially in the final scenes of the novel. Following a dinner together—that Changez instigates and during which he dominates the conversation—he escorts the American home. On this walk he alludes to his terrorist affiliations and repeatedly mentions the anxiety that he sees rising within his companion, who has noticed that he and Changez are being trailed by other Pakistani men (Hamid 176). There is no indication as to whether Changez attacks or harms the American listener, but there is an ominous tone that causes readers to be wary of his intentions and radical affiliations. However, our expectation of this conclusion need not color our reading of this text.
I found Changez to be a trustworthy narrator, and I did not view him to be a radical terrorist or to be a threat to the American listener in the final scene. I hold that Changez knew, or suspected, that he would die at the end of his evening with the American listener. He repeatedly comments on the American listener’s behavioral tells, such as his predatory gaze, his abrasive, secretive mannerisms, and the gun that appears to be holstered in his jacket (Hamid 5, 6, 22, 30, 31). Changez is not naïve; he is observant and aware. He engaged the American listener in conversation, and repeatedly both acknowledged and ignored the man’s behavioral oddities—not from naivety, but from being resigned to his fate and wishing to convey his story. Near the end of the evening, Changez says that in recent weeks he tried varying his routines and that he had been “plagued by paranoia” following the televised anti-American sentiments he had made (Hamid 183). However, realizing the futility of this he states, “I must meet my fate when it confronts me, and in the meantime I must conduct myself without panic” (Hamid 183). There is no panic in the narrative that Changez tells his American listener in the hours leading up to his death. There is also no doubt that he suspects the identity of this man. He says, “You should not imagine that we Pakistanis are all potential terrorists, just as we should not imagine that you Americans are all under-cover assassins” (Hamid 183). Through this, he conveys that he knows that the American was there to kill him. In the final scene of the novel, he states that he hopes that the American listener is simply reaching for his business card, not the gun that he had previously alluded to, when he refuses to shake Changez’s hand (Hamid 184). This leaves the reader with a sense of uncertainty as to whether Changez dies. I believe this stark ending reveals that the American listener did, in fact, kill Changez—transforming his story from a monologue to a deathbed confessional.
Changez has no motivation to lie, knowing, as he does, that his life will end at the close of his narrative. He says, “Allow me to assure you that I do not always speak this openly; indeed, I almost never do. But tonight, as I think we both understand, is a night of some importance” (Hamid 92). There is much left unsaid in these words. The implications of the importance of this night can be interpreted as an acknowledgement by Changez that this is his final night. He is not always this open, but during his last night, dining with his assassin, Changez does not mince his words. His prose is raw, unapologetic, and authentic. However, deceit is possible, if not expected, in the first-person prose of this novel. “To be honest, I cannot now recall many of the details of the events I have been relating to you” (Hamid 118), Changez admits. It would be dishonest to claim that one can perfectly recollect events that have occurred years in the past. Changez is clear that he does not have the capacity to remember all the details of the story that he is recounting; rather it is the gist of it that matters (Hamid 118). This unintentional deceit, I believe, should not negate the trust that we have in Changez as a narrator.
Changez is not concerned with whether the listener believes his story. He says, “I see from your expression that you do not believe me. No matter, I am confident of the truth of my words” (Hamid 181). This night, his last night, was for himself. He sought to work through his life: his struggles, his thoughts, his character, all that encompassed the person that he had become and where it had led him. It should not be questioned whether Changez is a reliable narrator because, inherently, he cannot be. But there is a question of whether we should trust him. To me, the answer is obvious. Throughout the novel he demonstrates, time and time again, that he can be trusted. The intimacy within his story, and his understanding of the events that will transpire at the end of the night supports the truth of his words and affirms the trust that we should have in him as a reader (Hamid 183-4). There is little need to lie in his final words, because the consequences of the truth cannot outweigh, or change, the fate that awaits him.
My interpretation is not one that all, or even most, people—especially Western readers—would agree with after reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In fact, this novel has been interpreted as an attempt to offer an “authentic window into a terrorist’s mindset” (Chiu 68). The opposing position to my interpretation suggests that Changez is an Islamic terrorist, and that it is the American listener who is the victim rather than the threat. Hamid writes this novel, which is catered towards a predominately Western audience, exclusively from a Pakistani perspective. He reinforces and illuminates the innate bias that is present within readers through the format of this book. Because of the monologue style, we, as the audience, are required to supply the missing half of the conversation and to interpret the intentionally vague evidence that indicates who it is that we should be wary of—Changez or the American listener.
Hamid compels readers to question their beliefs and entangles their beliefs and prejudices into their conclusions. Hamid never discloses the events that transpire at the end of the night. He merely proposes the potential affiliation that Changez may have with Islamic terror and sets Changez up as a somewhat “shifty” character. As a result, some readers will only see the transnational Pakistani Muslim that they anticipated, wanted, and needed to see. There is no firm evidence regarding the depth of his radical Islamic beliefs; so readers’ interpretations of his words are influenced by and reflect, at least in part, their own preconceptions and prejudices—causing readers to fall into the same trap that was set out for the American listener. Changez, then, must be a radical terrorist, just as they would expect a bearded Muslim man to be. “How far to trust Changez becomes a question of the reader’s acuity and objectivity” (Chiu 113). The reader must self-reflect while scrutinizing Changez. One scholar asks, “With whom is the narrate to identify: America or Changez?” (Chiu 120). But to pose this question necessitates the inherent assumption that Changez opposes America. Instead, we as readers, and as people, must question ourselves in our capacity to transcend our biases and prejudices in our judgement of him.
The seeds of mistrust are driven by fear and righteous fundamentalism. For centuries our discriminatory beliefs have been reinforced, not just by the events that we abhor but by all that in history that we have ignored. Partisan political fundamentalism pervades American society. After the attacks of 9/11, the rate of Islamophobia increased exponentially, especially in the Western world. Islamophobia is characterized by “exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, and civic life” (Gottschalk 2014). Regardless of their personal, self-reported prejudice towards Muslims, at least one in five Americans state that they believe that Muslims are not accepting of other religions or of people of different races (Gottschalk 2014). A sense of inherent mistrust can be reinforced to become fundamental distrust. The ambiguous ending of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and the unanswered question regarding the trust that we can have in Changez, has piqued curiosity rather than deterring or dissuading readers. It is suggested by some scholars that Western or American readers of this novel are captivated by the story because it confirms their beliefs about “male, bearded subjects from the Middle East who become dangerous in their disenchantment with America” (Chiu 133). I think that readers are, or should be, captivated by this novel because it challenges their beliefs and causes them to re-examine their cultural attitudes and stereotypical thoughts and behaviors. “Hamid forces readers to detach themselves from habitual, culturally conditioned modes of perception” (Clements 77). We should not be reluctant to question our biases and beliefs.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist is perhaps the best known and most unsettling literary intervention into the discourse around South Asian Islamic extremism to have been produced after the attacks of 9/11” (Clements 73). This novel can be classified as a faux confessional narrative, in that it implicated the reader under the guise of implicating Changez. The appeal and the literary strength of this novel derives from the massive degree of co-creation that is required on the part of the audience to read and to understand this text. As a half-conversation, readers are required to supply the missing context and to extrapolate for themselves how they must then interpret not only what they have read, but what they have co-written. In the end, it is the world views and inclinations of the reader that are reflected more so than those of Changez, or of any of the characters, in this novel. The question then becomes not whether Changez is a trustworthy narrator and character, but whether you can trust yourself to read this novel free from bias and prejudice.
Chiu, Monica. “Double Surveillance in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Scrutinized!: Surveillance in Asian North American Literature, by Monica Chiu, University of Hawaiʻi Press, in Association with UCLA Asian American Studies Center Los Angeles, 2014, pp. 111–133.
Clements, Madeline. “’A Devilishly Difficult Ball’ – Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.” Writing Islam from a South Asian Muslim Perspective: Rushdie, Hamid, Aslam, Shamsie, by Madeline Clements, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016, pp. 60–87.
Gottschalk, Peter. “Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Sentiment in the United States.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2014, doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199862634.013.004.
Hamid, Moshin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Anchor Canada, 2008.