To See Ourselves as We Are Seen
The next Pakistani comment I came across regarding the events of that day was several years later, and of a very different order. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid, can be seen as a pointed fleshing-out of that editor’s remarks. It won’t have any more success in waking up the American people than did that immediate post-9/11 commentary, but the brilliance of this novel certainly makes it worth the effort. Indeed, I was hooked from the opening paragraph, and read the book in one sitting. Written in the form of a monologue delivered, at a café in Lahore, to an American CIA-type (or so it seems) by “Changez,” the narrator, Hamid’s prose has a limpid, natural quality that is both understated and seductive at the same time. Changez tells his silent listener the story of his life to date: as a bright Pakistani student, he won a scholarship to Princeton University, graduated with honors, and went on to a job as an analyst at a prestigious New York-based corporation, “Underwood Samson & Company”. USC is in the business of “valuation,” i.e., estimating the value of a company that another company might want to buy, or of a division of a company that the larger firm might want to liquidate. More often than not, the lives of workers are destroyed by the valuation. In one case, that of a publishing firm in Valparaiso, Chile, the intended goal is to eliminate the trade books section that deals in quality literature, so that the press can market books that have purely commercial value.
In the beginning, Changez is dazzled by his high-paying job, elegant Manhattan apartment, and the prestige derived from moving in corporate circles. He follows the company’s directive to “focus on the fundamentals,” i.e., the cash value of things. The social and political context in which his work is situated is not something that concerns him. All of this, however, starts to change after the attacks of 9/11, the American response to them, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, a Muslim nation that borders his homeland. Ineluctably, Changez is led to grasp the nature of American society as a whole, and in particular, of the American empire. He sees how class-based and xenophobic the society is; how civilian deaths in countries under American attack are regarded as nothing more than “collateral damage”; and how “no country inflicts death so readily upon the inhabitants of other countries, [or] frightens so many people so far away, as America.”
The real turning point comes during his work with the publishing house in Valparaiso. The elderly company chief, Juan-Bautista, reminds him of his maternal grandfather, with whom he was close. Juan-Bautista asks Changez what he knows of books, and the latter finds himself saying that his grand-uncle was a poet, and that books were loved in his family. The problem is that USC’s goal is to evaluate the firm from a strictly financial viewpoint; it couldn’t care less about the world of learning. Sensing Changez’s internal conflict, Juan-Bautista takes him to dinner, and talks to him about the Janissaries, Christian boys captured by the Ottomans and trained to destroy their own civilization, until “they had nothing else to turn to”. Changez gets the point: he himself is a modern-day Janissary, having sided with an empire that thinks nothing of ruining the life of someone like Juan-Bautista for the sake of monetary gain. It becomes impossible for him to keep pretending that his “valuations” are neutral. He finally betrays USC to save the deeper values he was raised with, and which he had never really given up. For Changez sees that the American Dream is not only shallow and illusory, but actually destructive of the deeper values of civilization; and even worse, is by now grounded in violence. Having lost his job and his visa, now back in Lahore, he tells his American audience of one:
"As a society, you were unwilling to reflect upon the shared
pain that united you with those who attacked you. You
retreated into myths of your own difference, assumptions
of your own superiority. And you acted out these beliefs
on the stage of the world, so that the entire planet was
rocked by the repercussions of your tantrums, not least my
family, now facing war thousands of miles away. Such an
America had to be stopped in the interests not only of the
rest of humanity, but also in your own."
Changez finally leaves the United States and becomes a university lecturer in Pakistan, popular for pulling no punches in his analysis of the American attempt to dominate the world. Eventually, as the title of the book seems to suggest, he is led to act on his beliefs in more radical ways.
With the exception of this final development, which gives the novel its concluding (and ambiguous) twist, it is difficult not to regard the story as autobiographical. Hamid himself is a Pakistani who grew up in Lahore, and subsequently studied at Princeton and Harvard. Although the prose is smooth and low-key, his passion over what the United States is doing in and to the world can hardly be disguised; and there is much here for Americans to learn, if they could only see themselves as others see them. For there is a definite relationship between macrocosm and microcosm: as the U.S. government behaves, so do its citizens, and this is hardly an accident. On a holiday with some Americans in Greece, for example, the narrator says that he found himself “wondering by what quirk of human history my companions–many of whom I would have regarded as upstarts in my own country, so devoid of refinement were they–were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.“ Good question, and hardly irrelevant to American imperial designs and U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. Speaking again of the aftermath of 9/11, Changez relates to his listener how New York was suddenly soaking in American flags–on windshields, fluttering from buildings, even stuck on toothpicks: “They all seemed to proclaim: We are America...the mightiest civilization the world has ever known; you have slighted us; beware our wrath.”
That was indeed the mood, all right, and Hamid’s lines remind me of that classic poem by Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias,” in which a traveler in the desert finds the remains of a statue, now reduced to a pedestal, which bears the following words:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
The traveler looks around, and all he can see is an empty landscape of sand
stretching to infinity.
Everything passes; what else is there to say?
©Morris Berman, 2010