The Reluctant Fundamentalist
About the book: At a café table in Lahore, a bearded Pakistani man converses with an uneasy American stranger. As dusk deepens to night, he begins the tale that has brought them to this fateful meeting . . .
Changez is living an immigrant’s dream of America. At the top of his class at Princeton, he is snapped up by the elite “valuation” firm of Underwood Samson. He thrives on the energy of New York, and his infatuation with elegant, beautiful Erica promises entry into Manhattan society at the same exalted level once occupied by his own family back in Lahore.
But in the wake of September 11, Changez finds his position in his adopted city suddenly overturned, and his budding relationship with Erica eclipsed by the reawakened ghosts of her past. And Changez’s own identity is in seismic shift as well, unearthing allegiances more fundamental than money, power, and maybe even love.
About the author:
MOHSIN HAMID grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and attended Princeton and Harvard. His first novel, Moth Smoke, was a Betty Trask Award winner, PEN/ Hemingway Award finalist, and New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has also appeared in Time, The New York Times, and other publications. He lives in London.
Click here to download a pdf of the reading guide for The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
1. Early on, Changez says that his café companion’s “bearing” gives him away as an American. What does Changez mean by this? What are his deeper implications?
2. In chapter 1, Changez explains that his family belonged to the old aristocracy in Pakistan—though they are no longer wealthy, they still retain their social status. How important is it to Changez to regain what his family has lost? How does he hope to do that?
3. When he’s vacationing with his college friends in Greece, Changez makes a joke about “an Islamic republic with nuclear capability.” Erica thinks it’s a funny remark—but why doesn’t anyone else?
4. What do we learn about the American who sits across the table from Changez for most of the novel? And what do we never learn about this person? How does Hamid convey this information?
5. Who is Jim, and why does he take such a liking to Changez? What do they have in common?
6. Changez announces in chapter 3, “I was . . . never an American; I was immediately a New Yorker.” Explain this. How is Changez’s sense of identity altered over the course of the novel?
7. In chapter 5, Changez is in a hotel in Manila, packing his suitcase and watching television, when he sees the World Trade Center collapse. “And then I smiled,” he confesses. Explore this scene as the turning point of the novel—in terms of plot, character, scope, and tone.
8. After visiting his family in Pakistan, why does Changez decide not to shave his beard upon returning to New York?
9. Over the course of his monologue, Changez delivers more than a few critical appraisals of American life, culture, society, values, and politics. Is it fair to say that these criticisms grow sharper—or cut deeper—as the story progresses? Why or why not? Identify a few such criticisms, explaining why you do or don’t agree with them.
10. Discuss Changez’s relationship with Erica. What prevents them from having a “normal” relationship? Why are they attracted to each other? How does Erica’s fate affect Changez?
11. In the book’s final chapter, Changez speaks of how terrorism, according to America’s post-9/11 political and military leadership, “was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers.” Do you agree with this assertion? Did you agree with it in the weeks or months following September 11, 2001?
12. When Changez is in Santiago, Chile, for a project, he befriends Juan-Bautista, the head of the publishing company Underwood Samson is there to value. Why are these two men drawn to each other? Why has Changez suddenly become so disinterested in his work? Who were the janissaries? Why do they resonate so much with Changez?
13. For a novel with “fundamentalist” in its title, this work has surprisingly little to say on the subject of religion. When, if at all, does Changez speak of devout faith, divine right, or deity worship?
14. The Reluctant Fundamentalist turns out to be quite a page-turner—a political thriller that builds to a memorable, and memorably climactic, conclusion. What exactly happens at the end of the novel? What clues or moments of foreshadowing tipped you off as to how the book would end? Why does Changez tell this stranger his story?
15. Since 9/11, there has been a growing trend in contemporary fiction to write about the tragedy of that day and its aftermath. Compare The Reluctant Fundamentalist with some of the other “9/11 novels” you have read. What sets it apart or makes it unique?
PRAISE FOR THIS BOOK
“I read Mohsin Hamid”s The Reluctant Fundamentalist with increasing admiration. It is beautifully written—what a joy it is to find such intelligent prose, such clarity of thought and exposition—and superbly constructed. The author has managed to tighten the screw of suspense almost without our being aware it is happening, and the result is a tale of enormous tension. I read a lot of thrillers—or rather I start reading a lot of thrillers, and put most of them down—but this is more exciting than any thriller I”ve read for a long time, as well as being a subtle and elegant analysis of the state of our world today. I was enormously impressed”—Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy
“A brilliant book. With spooky restraint and masterful control, Hamid unpicks the underpinnings of the most recent episode of distrust between East and West. But this book does not merely excel in capturing a developing bitterness. The narrative is balanced by a love as powerful as the sinister forces gathering, even when it recedes into a phantom of hope. It is this balance, and the constant negotiation of the political with the personal, that creates a nuanced and complex portrait of a reluctant fundamentalist.”—Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss, 2006 Man Booker Prize winner
“An intelligent and absorbing 9/11 novel, written from the perspective of Changez, a young Pakistani whose sympathies, despite his fervid immigrant embrace of America, lie with the attackers . . . Changez comes off as honest and thoughtful, and his creator handles him with a sympathetic grace.”
“Terse, disturbing . . . The climax builds with masterfully controlled irony and suspense. A superb cautionary tale, and a grim reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, miscommunication and confrontation.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This novel’s firm, steady, even beautiful voice proclaims the completeness of the soul when personal and global issues are conjoined.”—Booklist (starred review)