Mohsin Hamid’s electrifying new novel

From The Telegraph:

BookHamid has already staked out this fast-changing world as his literary territory. His first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), is the riches-to-rags story of Daru Shezad, a Pakistani financier, who descends through the circles of Lahore society when he loses his job, falls in love with his best friend’s wife, and becomes addicted to heroin. The novel was widely acclaimed as the first fictional portrait of a new, vibrant, grungy Pakistan: a far cry from the genteel poeticism of much South Asian literature. In his Man Booker Prize-shortlisted second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), Hamid turned his attention to the changing relationship – before and after 9/11 – between this new Pakistan and the West. The novel is narrated by a Princeton graduate originally from Lahore, who once worked for a high-powered consultancy firm in New York; he addresses his story, in a kind of dramatic monologue, to an American man who may be a tourist, but on the other hand might be a CIA agent come to rendition him, since his decision to leave his job and return to Lahore has aroused suspicion. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is brilliantly structured and is written in a prose style of lapidary beauty; it was a massive international hit, and established Hamid as one of the most auspicious new voices in world literature. (A film adaptation is being released in May.) Changez, the narrator of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, comes from a privileged background (his father is a lawyer), but he is conscious of the shifting class structures of his society: his family looks “with a mixture of disdain and envy upon the rising class of entrepreneurs – owners of businesses legal and illegal – who power through the streets in their BMW SUVs”. It is this “rising class” that is the subject of Hamid’s new novel.

“You” are born in rural poverty, in a compound where food is cooked over a fire and water is drunk slightly upstream of the same channel used for washing and sewage, but your family soon moves to the city in search of better opportunities. You find after-school work delivering pirated DVDs on your bicycle, and through your job you meet the pretty girl, an aspiring actress who wants to learn more about films. She seduces you, and being the sort of man who believes that “the first woman you make love to should also be the last” you are smitten. But she soon leaves the neighbourhood with a producer who tells her he can help her career. Because you are the youngest child, you are able to finish school (your brother is sent out to work and your sister is married off) and, being clever, you obtain a scholarship to the university. There you join a “political organisation” (which seems more like a religious organisation), in order to secure some influence for yourself. But you realise that if you are ever to re-enter the pretty girl’s orbit – she is now a successful model, her face visible on billboards all around the city – you will have to make some money. You find a job selling expired goods to small vendors, before setting up your own business: bottling boiled water and selling it on as mineral water. This grows and grows until you are filthy rich. The pretty girl eventually comes back into your life; but the path to true happiness, the novel suggests, can’t be dictated by a 12-point plan. The second person voice allows Hamid to move around his hero’s life – and sometimes to move away from it altogether – much more nimbly than would be possible in a traditional first- or third-person narrative. The self-help device also allows him to dispense nuggets of genuine wisdom: love “dampens the fire in the steam-furnace of ambition”; nepotism “is not restricted to swaggering about in its crudest, give-my-son-what-he-wants form. It frequently assumes more cunning guises, attire, for example, or accent.” If the conceit is ultimately a bit gimmicky, Hamid’s style rescues it from becoming irritating. His sentences have a beguiling formality, but are always underscored by warmth and wit. The novel is filled with crisp images: after a riot, “broken glass and bits of rubble rest like five o’clock shadow on the city’s smooth concrete”.

More here.

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