‘Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?
Ah, I see you have alarmed you.
Do not be frightened by my beard.
I am a lover of America…’
So speaks the mysterious stranger at a Lahore café as dust settles. Invited to join him for tea, you learn his name and what led this speaker of immaculate English to seek you out. For he is more worldly than you might expect; better travelled and better educated. He knows the West better than you do. And as he tells you his story, of how he embraced the Western dream – and a Western woman – and how both betrayed him, so the night darkens. Then the true meaning for your meeting becomes abundantly clear…..
except surely, the whole point of this book is that it doesn’t. Eight of us met this week to discuss the latest choice for our Wednesday Evening book group and only one was convinced that she knew what happened at the end of the novel. For me, the fact that I don’t know, that nothing is abundantly clear, is the most important feature of the experience of reading what I think is a remarkable book.
You aren’t going to be the slightest bit surprised when I tell you that what attracts me most about the book is the way in which the narrative voice is structured. That opening passage quoted above sets the pattern for what is to come. The only voice we hear is that of Changez, a young Pakistani who, after being educated at Princeton, has gone straight into Underwood Samson, a prestigious company whose role is to place a price on other businesses prior to their being sold or restructured. The reactions and responses of the American to whom he is speaking are all relayed to us through Changez’s voice so that what we have is more akin to a staged monologue than anything else. And, as anyone who has seen Alan Bennett’s remarkable Talking Heads monologues will know, this is a form in which the listener, or here the reader, is invited to fill the gaps left in the dialogue for themselves. And, the way in which they fill those gaps will say as much, if not more, about the reader as it does about the speaker. We have to read the signs and make our own minds up about what the intentions of both parties might be. It is interesting that the member of our group who was convinced she knew the outcome of this conversation was the only one who had had the experience of being a Westerner in Lahore since 9/11 and was definitely filling the gaps, reading the signs, in a different way than the rest of us as a result of what had happened to her during that visit.
For 9/11 is the turning point in Changez’s relationship with the West. As he tells the unnamed American about his time in his country, it becomes clear that from that moment the way in which people from both East and West read certain signs began to change and as it did so the signs themselves took on greater significance becoming almost an indication of identity. But people misread signs. We interpret them in the light of our own experience and beliefs, when they should be read in the light of the experience and beliefs of the people who give them out. One of the novel’s major concerns is the way in which this encourages the trigger happy to react first and think later with no concern at all for those who will be affected by the actions they take.
This links with the notion of fundamentals. One of the questions I found myself asking as I read the book was ‘what does Hamid mean when he talks of fundamentals’. Most commonly, I think, when we use the word fundamentalist now we are thinking about religious fundamentalists, whether they be Islamist or Christian. However, there is almost nothing in this book about religion and the first discussion we have that raises the notion of fundamentals is to do with Changez’s work for Underwood Samson and the necessity of putting economic fundamentals before the needs of the people in the companies being assessed. As someone said on Wednesday, the bosses of Underwood Samson are people who know the price of everything but the value of nothing. What we watch is Changez’s growing reluctance to abide by those fundamentals when it means destroying the efforts of hardworking employees who will find themselves tossed to the wolves.
Another thought that always comes into my mind when I hear the word fundamental is the ever popular political cry of ‘going back to basics’ or in other words harking back to a past when whoever utters those words had it better than they do now. Inevitably those basics are ways of living that privilege the beliefs and the values of the speaker over anyone who is looking for change. Nostalgia for the past runs throughout this novel. Changez himself hankers after the wealth and power that his family once had, but the most obvious manifestation of this theme comes through the person of Erica, the young American woman that Changez woos but always fails to win. Erica is still in mourning for her childhood sweetheart, Chris, who, following a long illness, has died during her time at Princeton. While Changez hopes that gradually Erica will put her sorrow to one side and begin to move forward into a new life with him, eventually he has to face the fact that actually her depression is becoming deeper and her ability to operate in the world around her diminishing. That the relationship between Changez and Erica acts as an analogy for that between the West and the East is, I think, deliberately writ large and perhaps the most disturbing moment comes when he reads the draft of the novel that she has written only to discover that there is no reflection of him in it whatsoever. Erica cannot conceive of a story in which someone from such a different background has a role. Could there be anything more demoralising than to be told that there is no place for you in the way someone envisages the world order? If the East and the West cannot share a story then what hope is there?
One of the wonderful things about belonging to book group is that you are encouraged to read books that you otherwise would never have thought of picking up. For me, this month, those books have been as diverse as Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford and this remarkable piece of literature. If you haven’t yet read it then can I act as your book group host and plead with you to do so.