Archives for posts with tag: book review

When it comes to politicised literature, a strong, didactic voice that resists passivity and plays with stereotypes is great. What is better is the ability to represent two of these opposing voices equally with dignity. This is exactly what Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist does so well. This balance, or contradiction, is contained in the very title – reluctance and fundamentalism bringing to mind opposing ideals. The dialectical nature of the novel could become wearisome in its insistence on not offending anyone. However, the subtlety with which stereotypes or popular opinions of Americans or Pakistanis is treated is such that the reader does not feel they are being lectured. For example, the protagonist recounts how Jim, his boss at the American firm, talks to him about his childhood living in poverty. The hint is that Jim assumes the protagonist is/used to be poor and so this is a male bonding session. However, the protagonist never picks up on this and makes a point about it, only mentioning in passing ‘I did not grow up in poverty’ (he is firmly middle-class), before discussing how they both feel like ‘outsiders’. Yet the reader cannot help but note Jim’s implied assumption that the protagonist must have been disadvantaged and had to overcome adversity to be in the US because he comes from Pakistan. In this sense, the novel strikes me as being realist in both the literary sense and a wider politic sense.

Issues stemming from 9/11 and the effects on Muslims (or at least Muslim-looking) in the US, immigration and even the capitalist lifestyle of successful New Yorker businessmen is never given as black and white but as the complex issues that in reality they are. The subtlety almost makes the book more political, in allowing us to see the impossibility of having a stable, innocent, concrete opinion. Whereas ‘9/11 literature’, as it is called, and the associated issues are well versed and discussed in our culture and so the novel is not necessarily telling us anything ‘new’, the more notable innovation is the structure. A monologue, with the reader/listener as the other character to whom the monologue is directed at and to which the protagonist responds. As the monologue addresses the reader personally, they are implicated in the action and so cannot voyeuristically watch as per normal.

It is fundamental that the monologue is coming from a Pakistani in Pakistan speaking to an American – this keeps the balance harmonised as the majority of the monologue recounts his experience in America. This is vital in providing an alternative narrative of Pakistani experience outside of its immediate relation to Islamic fundamentalism and its associated images (that which is popularised in American media)  – to see the Pakistani man going through challenges and experiences that are not directly associated with where he comes from is important for the balance to be kept. This is where the film comes into trouble, as an added plot twist (only hinted at in the novel) concerning the American government pursuing the protagonist heavily politicises the story and pulls away from the sole perspective of the Pakistani protagonist. The film ending is made overly violent, whereas the novel anti-climaxes somewhat disappointedly to leave a sombre mood.

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Kureishi in 1970. Photo from the Telegraph (click on photo for link)

Kureishi says the form of the book is going to be haphazard – and that’s exactly what happens. A hybrid between a memoir of his father’s life (mediated through an interpretation of his father’s unpublished novels – and his uncle’s published memoirs in Pakistan) and an examination into writing as an entity with copious insight into some of Kureishi’s inspirations –  including Chehkov and Freud. Sometimes it’s not always apparent how they link and it can lapse into episodic musings that seem irrelevant to each other. But this does not detract from how interesting the book is, which is down to how the three central stories are woven: Kureishi’s father’s life, Kureishi’s childhood, and the present day Kureishi with his children. What this does is show us the roots of Kureishi’s life, which are not always what you would expect, linking the second generation to the first generation immigrant. Kureishi’s fiction is often so much about the ‘now’, the contemporary, which makes this delving into the past so significant for whose who are familiar with his writing. In this respect, I feel the content may overshadow the form- emphasis is so often placed on Kureishi’s ethnicity and so the story threatens to overshadow what is a cleverly written form – not quite a memoir, somewhat a journal, yet not entirely an autobiography.

Reading the memoir of a writer you know well inevitably makes you link their work to their life. It becomes apparent (both in ways he admits to and not) how autobiographical Kureishi’s work really is – not just The Buddha of Surburbia but more recently (published in 2008 – 4 years after his memoir) Something to Tell You in which the main character is a psychoanalyst (Kureishi has experience with psychoanalysing and is influenced heavily by Freud).  Rather than change the way I thought about his novels, this served to highlight how inevitable it is for an author to draw on what they know.

Overall, the book made me reflect on the general label ‘postcolonial’. Whereas Kureishi’s father’s unpublished stories and experience of moving to Britain as well as Kureishi’s childhood experiences of racism can be easily deemed ‘postcolonial’, the Kureishi of today is surely not so easily placed under this title. Where do we draw the line? Kureishi is certainly a product of British colonialism – the links of Britain and India from the colonial era contributed to the immigration of Indians to Britain after independence. And the troubles caused by partition led to many immigrants favouring Britain over returning home. Does this mean Kureishi’s sons also have a ‘postcolonial’ identity? Are all South-Asian people living in Britain today a product of colonialism? No- this is surely an insult to people who have firm identities outside of an event that happened over 60 years ago. So where do we draw the line?

How ‘in touch’ with the homeland second generation immigrants are becomes clear as Kureishi describes how only ‘bits of India, or rather bits that existed in his family, stuck to dad. They were mostly cultural: cricket, books, music, politics’. Not all of this is handed down to Kureishi – his father does not speak to him in Urdu, but he does try to involve him in cricket. When reading his Uncle Omar’s autobiography, Kureishi is shocked by his passing comment of Islamic belief, saying ‘I ‘d never imagined a liberal and literary man finding a combination of social hope and justice in a religion which, for me, can only seem a betrayal of our family’s values.’ This brings to light how religious belief often is what defines (first/second generation) immigrants into a set of binaries: religious as fundamental or non-religious as westernised, liberal (=literary), when obviously there are many gradients within the spectrum of religious belief.