The Voice, Image, and Story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

23 Jun

A few years ago, for my introductory course on post-colonial literature, I taught the novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, published in 2007 by Mohsin Hamid, which was reviewed very positively (e.g., see herehere, and here) and received numerous awards. Many of my students told me they liked it because it provoked them to think about the World Trade Center attack of 9/11/2001 in new and more complex ways; however, the highly emotional and complex issue of 9/11 and the American response to it were only one of the reasons I included the novel on the syllabus. A personal reason was that I really liked his first novel, Moth Smoke, and wanted to check out his second one. (I have recently also read his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, published just a few months ago.)  The more academic reason to include it on the syllabus near the end of the semester was to move the students from post-colonial literature as it had been originally conceived in the 1970s and 80s by theorists such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak toward the questions about globalization and international finance that came to dominate scholarly debates among those same theorists in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The field has changed, and indeed Hamid has called himself a post-postcolonial writer. Last week, I was motivated to re-read the novel because it was made into a film by the well-regarded director Mira Nair. I went to the theater with much curiosity. Reviews of the film  were much less positive than those of the book, and in adapting the novel to the screen, Nair made some very significant changes — changes that were criticized harshly in this New York Times review for losing all the subtlety and complex ambiguity of the novel.

Although I generally agree with that review, I don’t want to repeat the so-often repeated refrain that “the novel is always better than the movie.” I don’t think that’s always true. I also don’t wish to simply lament the changes Nair made to the story. The medium is different, so changes had to be made, and we should receive those changes with an open mind. Some of the details that she changed were, in my view, actually an improvement. Instead, I want to raise some questions of more practical value for the aspiring writer and filmmaker about the idea of voice and its relationship to image, plot, and meaning.

The novel begins with the tantalizing line, “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?” It is almost as if the novelist is addressing the reader, but of course it is one character speaking to another. The entire novel is a monologue, one man narrating his life to a stranger, while the two men eat dinner and walk around the city of Lahore, Pakistan. We never know who, or what, the other man is, except that he is American — an especially “quiet American” if I may make a joking allusion to the Graham Greene novel. Hints are dropped that he may be an operative for the U.S. government, but nothing at all is ever revealed, and we don’t even know why the narrator wants to talk to him in the first place. The structure of the novel creates a doubling effect so that we feel the narrator is not only talking to the unknown man, guiding him through Lahore and though his life, but also talking to us, the reader, explaining the feelings and complexities of people in Pakistan. Hence, the success of the novel — what keeps the plot and meaning alive and moving — is that we never see or know this American, because he is virtually us, whoever we might be.

To summarize the story that the narrator tells his unknown audience, it begins in New York City in the summer of 2001. The narrator’s name is Changez (pronounced Chon-guez, but it’s obvious that the name is meant to be a pun on the word “changes.”), and he has just graduated from Princeton University and been offered a job as a financial analyst for a prestigious “valuation firm.” His job is to assess the worth of other firms and make recommendations about how to increase that worth by cutting labor costs, selling off assets, etc. His company’s approach is described as focusing on the “fundamentals,” and although Mohsin Hamid never explicitly makes the connection, we might speculate that he has in mind the “market fundamentalism” of the Chicago school of economics that dominates the world of high finance and the International Monetary Fund. This approach to economics and policy has been criticized by eminent economists such as Joseph Stiglitz, journalists such as Naomi Klein, and even wealthy investors such as George Soros. One of the main twists of the novel is this play on the word “fundamentalism” since before we begin reading the novel we might assume that the sort of fundamentalism that this Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated man is “reluctant” to adopt is the fundamentalist Islam of terrorists, some of whom reside in his home country. However, what we eventually learn is that the fundamentalism the character is relectant to adopt and eventually comes to reject is the market fundamentalism of American financial institutions and his own employer.  At the same time that he begins his new job, he also begins a romance with a white, American classmate, who is an aspiring novelist, and whose name Erica is clearly a pun on America (Am Erica), since his relationship to her mirrors his relationship to the country and his job. She has not been able to get over a longterm childhood boyfriend, Chris, who died unexpectedly of cancer. After the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, things change for Changez. His love for America and for his job are overwhelmed by the anti-Islamic rage and prejudice he feels around himself and the policies of America towards his country. Erica is also affected by 9/11 and emotionally retreats into a nostalgic past centered around her dead boyfriend Chris. She removes herself from Changez, is put into a psychiatric institution, and eventually dies of melancholy. Changez quits his job and moves back to Lahore, Pakistan, where he becomes a popular college professor.

For the most part, the movie keeps this plot. But before I continue, check out the movie’s trailer:

One minor change that is an improvement is that Erica is less of a symbol in the movie and more a real human being. She does not waste away and die; rather she and Changez simply separate. Her psychological issues actually seem to have a more sensible cause since she was the accidental cause of her boyfriend’s death when she drove a car while drunk. Instead of being a novelist, she is a visual artists, which makes sense since the movie is likewise a visual medium. The catalyst for the breakup between her and Changez is not simply 9/11 but the work of art she makes about her relationship with Changez which he finds offensive in the context of 9/11 because of the Islamic stereotypes it invokes. This is one of the minor changes to the story that director Mira Nair makes, and I like it not just because the female character is more believable and human, rather than an imaginary construct of the male ego, but also because it draws attention to the key question of art, image, and meaning. The conflict between Changez and Erica begins because of a difference in interpretation, and this might alert the viewer of the movie that they too should question their interpretation of what they are watching. I say that “it might” do this, or it could have done this, but the movie’s focus on the sexual relationship between the two characters overwhelms this more cognitive, interpretive dimension.

However, the more significant and problematic change is the entirely new story-line that is added. Instead of an unknown American, the character is very much known. He is a journalist working as a secret agent for the American government. Somehow, Changez is aware of all this. The movie adds some rather complicated circumstances around the conversation between the two men in order to give the movie some dramatic action and suspense. The journalist has been led to believe that Changez might be part of a radical, anti-American Islamic movement that has kidnapped the American professor who works at Changez’s school. According to one reviewer [here], the movie is very deliberately grafting the real case of a kidnapped American journalist, Daniel Pearl (see this report in the NY Times) onto Hamid’s story. As the movie’s plot eventually reveals, the CIA and the journalist were mistaken about Changez’s politics. He is not the radical fundamentalist they assumed he had turned into. As Changez’s explains, he has come to reject all fundamentalisms, both the religious and the economic. The movie’s most obvious message is against prejudice and stereotypes. Mira Nair explains that goal in an interview here:

It is Nair’s committment to this message that probably led her to be far more blatant and heavy-handed in showing scenes of Changez experiencing such prejudice and abuse. In these scenes, the police are so obnoxious and stupid that the audience easily empathises with Changez, who is a somewhat heroic figure by the end of the movie. Most of these scenes are not in the novel at all, and others are given less description, so that the prejudice Changez describes in the novel is more abstract and psychological. In the novel, Changez is not such a heroic character, not quite so easy to empathize with, and not at all clear about his own agenda and reasons for talking to the strange and strangely quiet American.

In addition, Nair’s rather simplistic message of liberal openness to others is slightly different from the message of the novel. The novel poses a much sharper question about the contradictory feelings the character Changez has about how to understand economic and personal success. In my view, the novel could have done even more than it did to show in concrete terms what is meant by “market fundamentalism” and what market fundamentalism’s inherent, self-contradictory problems are. After all, there is plenty of material available for him to use, such as the Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen’s aggressive critique. But Hamid perhaps wisely refrains from such a polemic, which might have undermined the novel’s committment to moral ambiguity, the human psyche, and the play of semantic meaning. In contrast to the novel, whose plot twist is the meaning of the word fundamentalism, Mira Nair’s movie focuses on cultural identity and prejudices.  It almost seems as though the director Mira Nair has forgotten the Hamid’s double entendre on the word “fundamentalism” until one single sentence near the end, and instead of exploring what that could mean as Hamid does, she offers image after image of Pakistani culture and angry Muslims that her American and European audience already expect. The repeated refrain is that things aren’t always as they seem — a refrain that should remind us that we are watching a movie and that we should question our own points of view, except that it doesn’t.

Why doesn’ it?

The answer to this question takes us back to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog post about the difference between the medium of print and the medium of film, and this includes the relationship of voice to plot and meaning. The novel’s strength is the voice of the narrator and the first-person structure of the narration. The narrator’s voice appears so emotionally detached from the events in spite of the fact that he is telling about highly emotional events. It’s as if Changez has changed into a different person, now looking back on his life not quite objectively, but through a fog of time. The entire event of the novel — a complete stranger pouring out his life story to another — is somewhat improbable, and this reminds us that this is precisely the sort of conversation we never actually have, but maybe should have. The novel’s structure also keeps us skeptical about the truth of Changez’s story. We don’t know anything for sure. The American character is a blank that allows us to put ourselves in that place, and this along with the twist on our expectations about the meaning of the word “fundamentalist” forces us to think critically about ourselves.

I am reminded of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s joke about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In justifying the doctrine of preemptive strike, Rumsfeld claims there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. In other words, stuff we definitely know about the enemy, stuff that we know that we don’t know about the enemy, and stuff we don’t even know that we don’t know. Therefore, for Rumsfeld, to avoid another 9/11, preemptive strike is justified. Zizek observes that Rumsfeld neglected to take his logic all the way, that also there are unknown knowns — and these are things we ought to know but repress. This includes things about ourselves (our own guilt and culpability) and things about the basic humanity of the “other” that we repress in order to demonize them. My argument is that the structure of Hamid’s novel asks us to confront our own unknown knowns.

Of course, the movie is a very different medium. It can’t simply be a first-person voice, because then it would be just one person talking on the screen for an hour. Instead, it must dramatise the story, render it in a series of images, and as soon as it shows the image of something, then the characters and events appear to us as actual “events” rather than narrated story or “voice.” Hence, the movie gives us a back story to the American journalist who is listening to Changez’s tale, and we see other characters interacting with Changez during this conversation, and based on those interactions we get a sense of the complex and basically good man he “really” is. Ultimately, we feel like we understand both characters’ points of view, so we are never really asked to question our own. Moreover, another difference between the novel and movie is that the novel relies heavily on linguistic play with the names Changez and Erica and the concept of fundamentalism. The activity of reading is a slower, more reflective activity so that we are given time to think about the meaning of words. How can a movie accomplish such linguistic and conceptual play through images that move relatively fast?

In my view, the movie can do all the things that the novel does, and perhaps even do it better. Such movies as The Third Man, Memento, and Dead Again all force the audience to question the nature of what they see on the screen. The most important aspect of any film is not what it shows, but rather what it conceals. For instance, suspense is created when a character points at something but we the audience can’t see what he’s pointing at, or when something happens, but we can’t see the cause of it. So, considering that what gives a film its meaning is precisely what is concealed and how that concealment gives audience a space to begin using their imagination and think critically — and considering that this sort of game of showing and concealing is precisely also the structure of Hamid’s novel —  what should Mira Nair have done differently?

I will leave it at that.

2 Responses to “The Voice, Image, and Story of The Reluctant Fundamentalist”

  1. Madhu July 18, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    I think this is a good take on what is at issue in the novel and the film. I was not, myself, terribly impressed with the film. For me, the issues that come up are largely based around the question of interpellation and are not dissimilar to your comments. Much of the novel really hinges around this issue of interpellation, both in the way in which we, as the reader, are interpellated into a certain position, vis a vis the text and vis a vis Changez, based on our ‘unknown knowns’, and in the way Changez is differently interpellated into a certain position at Princeton, Underwood Samson and, finally, with Juan Bautista (sidenote: could the names possibly get any more allegorical??). I certainly think that a film could do the same work, and in fact, I think a film could do it better, but this particular film just did not. It’s a real shame, because Mira Nair is a very careful director and I thought her adaptation of the Namesake, in particular, was a much better version of the novel than the novel itself.

    I wonder if Nair wasn’t just a little too enthusiastic about the novel’s commentary on empire (Changez = Ghenghis; janissary references; the very overt discussion of American imperialism in the latter half) and chose to go in that direction in her adaptation. I think there is a lot to be said for that, but I also think that the execution ended up stripping away the nuance. Without nuance, it just isn’t a very good story. I mean, the plot of the novel itself is not exactly groundbreaking or terribly interesting – what’s interesting is the ambiguity and, as you suggest, the deliberate deployment of voice.

    As far as the issue of fundamentalisms, I read the novel as being deliberately vague on this point. A more drawn out explanation or contextualization would make it quite clear, early on, what the novel is trying to do. As it is, the novel is such that it can be read in its entirety without the reader necessarily catching on to that double entrendre at all. Anecdotally, when I taught the novel in December the group was split about 50/50 on who caught on to what the fundamentalism of the title referred to.

    A final point worth teasing out is the issue of closure. I actually disagree about the changes to the Erica/Changez story. Part of what I disliked in the film was the assumption of closure, which is something that the novel, across its plot points, denies. Also, I have a real issue with the casting, but that’s a different story.

    • steventhomas August 6, 2013 at 9:24 am #

      Thanks Madhu! And since the day that I wrote this post, I have come to agree with you about the issue of fundamentalism being unclear in the novel, because after one of my colleagues read my blog, she told me that she had not noticed the double meaning of fundamentalism in the novel, and she’s a very careful and smart reader. I can’t remember if any of the book reviews that I read pointed it out; I think maybe one did, but I’m not sure. I feel that this aspect of the novel (that it’s so easy to read the novel and miss that point) is really unfortunate, because Hamid could have added just one or two sentences to make this wordplay more successful and more connected to real stuff. When I write my full length article, it’s precisely Hamid’s avoidance of the real economy in novels about characters who are directly involved in it that is a center point of my critique. (It’s also my critique of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s version of cosmopolitanism, so you can see where I’m going with that.)

      One thing that’s funny is that both you and I value the nuance and ambiguity of the novel, in contrast to the film, and at the same time both of us laugh at the heavy-handed allegorical meaning of all the names — Changez, Erica, Bautista. To that we could add Chris for Christ. Does the obviousness of such allegorical allusions contribute to the nuance or take away from it? (When I first read it, they annoyed me. The second time I thought they were funny. But my students liked them, so it’s an effective classroom novel, I think.)

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