What makes a fundamentalist?

We all know the answer to this one, right? Indoctrination. Individuals and groups taking ancient, religious texts literally. Basically, a combination of a vulnerable / gullible or angry person and another person or group of people promoting an aggressive ideology. So, all we have to do to prevent the spread of fundamentalism is lock up those spreading dangerous ideas and counter the narrative with reminders of how great the Western world is.

Except, of course, it’s not as simple as that, as this mesmerising story will show anyone with an open mind. As you read, you’ll realise even the title deserves your reconsideration, and that maybe your own perceptions need adjusting…

What’s it about?

‘Do not be frightened by my beard. I am a lover of America,’

A stranger greets a tourist visiting Lahore, instantly identifying him as an American based on his bearing.

The stranger becomes a tour guide, showing the visitor the best spots to drink a decent cup of sweet tea and enjoy a delicious repast.

Meanwhile, the native guide recounts his life story to the increasingly anxious American, revealing a tale of enchantment and betrayal, and a final, disturbing resolution.

What’s it like?

Mohsin Hamid’s slow-burning, surprisingly menacing account of two men sharing a cup of tea, a meal and a conversation is a fascinating exploration of one immigrant’s uncomfortable relationship with America – and how he comes to perceive American perceptions of his culture.

Initially I found the second person narration disconcerting, but it makes perfect sense for the developing storyline. I didn’t much care for some of the key symbolism (our guide falls in love with a girl called Erica while in America, but she can’t move on from ex-boyfriend Chris), but I really enjoyed the conversational style and the political discussions. Despite the hints of menace, the civility and focus on appreciation of nature and culture in this book made it really enjoyable to read.

Final thoughts

They say it takes two to tango. It also takes two to build a conflict and Hamid makes several undeniable points about the way in which America’s aggressive and dismissive attitude towards other cultures exacerbates existing tensions and encourages immigrants to feel alienated and persecuted. I wish all Western politicians would read this book and actually take it’s message seriously, but that seems, sadly, unlikely.

I usually like a decisive ending, but I enjoyed the ambiguity inherent in this whole book. Having spotted a film poster online, I suspect the film doesn’t quite retain that ambiguity, so this is definitely one case where I would advise reading the book first!

‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’,
Mohsin Hamid,
2008, Penguin books, paperback