In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, 25-year-old Changez tells the story of how he left his home in Pakistan to study at Princeton, how he became a successful analyst in a New York valuation firm, and how, in the wake of 9/11, he became sick of America and its power and returned to live in Lahore. Now an academic, he agitates against American influence on his country, how innocently it is unclear.
- The Reluctant Fundamentalist
- by Mohsin Hamid
What is most unusual about this first-person narration is its form: it is addressed to an unnamed listener, an interlocutor. Over the course of an evening, Changez talks to an American, whom he has met in the centre of Lahore. (The novel is short enough to be read in one sitting.) They drink tea in a Lahore café; they eat together; they walk back through now dark streets to the American’s hotel. And all the time Changez is talking. With a slightly stilted politeness (“if you will permit me”), he explains himself to a listener who is, he assumes, not disposed to be sympathetic. “I suspect you are looking at me with a degree of revulsion”.
His interlocutor must speak, for the narrator often responds to his comments – “you are right” – but to the reader he remains voiceless. He is a sounding board for the narrator’s re-enactment of his initial love affair with, and final revulsion for, America. (His actual, unrequited love affair with the mournful Erica, while it absorbs much of his narrative energy, seems a confirmation of this alienation.) We are constantly reminded of the companion’s presence. Changez pauses from his recollections to recommend particular dishes; the American’s mobile beeps its message alert; an exhaust backfires and startles him (“It is most disturbing, I agree”).
Who is the man to whom Changez is speaking? From the narrator’s comments – often questions or exclamations – we can infer certain facts. The American is a well-travelled man (“Have you been to the East, sir? You have!”). He has not met the narrator before but wants to hear his story (“You are curious, you say, and desire me to continue? Very well”). He knows something of what it is like to be in military service. His lightweight suit bulges just where a security agent would wear an armpit holster. “No, no, please do not adjust your position on my account! I did not mean to imply that you were so equipped.” He feels threatened.
The form of address used in the novel is at once conversational and stylised, and is rare in fiction. Many novelists, from Fielding to Martin Amis, have addressed the reader, but few have created a silent character to whom the narrator confidentially “speaks”. The trick was first attempted by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, where Tristram has several interlocutors, ranging from unsympathetic moralists to an intimate friend called “Jenny”. In the 19th century the use of an interlocutor became common in the dramatic monologues of certain poets, particularly Browning. In the 20th century, Albert Camus used the device in a manner similar to Hamid’s in his novel The Fall (La Chute), whose narrator, Clamence, reminisces in a bar in the company of an unnamed stranger.
It is a technique that dramatises antagonism as well as intimacy, and Changez readily detects resistance in his listener. We keep being reminded of the gulf between the narrator and his American companion. “What bad luck! The lights have gone. But why do you leap to your feet?” It will just be one of the frequent power cuts that are a condition of life in Lahore. Changez’s interlocutor has jumped to his feet, his hand reaching towards his wallet. He must be calmed, but he is never relaxed: “You, sir, continue to appear ill at ease.” The narrator’s solicitousness is naggingly equivocal. Is this politeness? Or is he taking pleasure in the American’s unease?
The framing of the narrative as an exchange also serves the purposes of plotting. “What exactly did I do to stop America, you ask? Have you really no idea, sir?” The one-sided conversation leaves us uncertain how far Changez has come down his political path. And the exchange itself starts to seem to have some ulterior purpose. We are encouraged to wonder whether the meeting between narrator and interlocutor is accidental. Changez’s reassurances to the American throughout the novel – “Do not look so suspicious. I assure you, sir, nothing untoward will happen to you” – have an unsettling effect.
Near the end of the novel he is unconvincingly promising that the men who seem to be following them “mean you no harm”. But perhaps the narrator is the prey. Having become an influentially “anti-American” spokesman, Changez might be a target for assassination. His companion has a satellite phone, and that bulge under his suit. Who has the power here?