/ 21 September 2007

How to vanquish literary giants

Had September 11 2001 been just another ordinary day, Mohsin Hamid’s second novel would have turned out very differently. Hamid began working on it in 2000, as a parable about a young Pakistani man uneasy with corporate America. But when his literary agent read the first draft, he found the protagonist unconvincing. Why on earth would a secular, Westernised, successful Muslim feel any hostility towards the United States?

The fallout from the 9/11 attacks soon answered that question. But it also transformed the life of every Pakistani in New York so entirely that, by 2005, Hamid realised his manuscript would have to be completely rewritten and located explicitly in the aftermath of the terrorism.

The revised version was snapped up by publishers and The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Hamish Hamilton) appeared this year to lavish reviews. It has been lauded as “an act of courage”, “extraordinary” and “worthy of Nabokov”. This month Hamid saw his name on the Booker prize shortlist, nominated in place of literary grandees such as JM Coetzee and Doris Lessing.

When we meet for breakfast in a café near his Kensington flat, I wonder if he feels awkward about the implication that he owes his success to Osama bin Laden. After all, one could argue, al-Qaeda’s atrocities in the US have proved to be the making of him.

“Well I wouldn’t resist that at all,” he says. “I mean the Holocaust was the making of Primo Levi. Anti-black sentiment was the making of James Baldwin. And certainly I think that this current tension between the West and Islam is, for a Westernised Muslim like myself, identity-forming as an artist.” He pauses. “But I would happily trade a world where I didn’t have to worry about my family in Pakistan — which US presidential candidates talk about invading — for the success of my second novel.”

It is a reminder of how closely Hamid’s fiction overlaps with his personal experiences. The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of an encounter between a Pakistani man called Changez and a mysterious American stranger in a Lahore cafe. A first-class Princeton graduate, Changez had been the rising star of an elite New York finance company, infatuated with Manhattan and in love with an American girl. He was living the American dream.

But the romance was poisoned by fear and mistrust after 9/11 and by the time we meet Changez back in Lahore the air of menace around him is so thick that our suspicions soon begin to run wild. Is he a terrorist? Is the American a spy? Who can we trust?

Hamid is the son of a liberal, secular family and he first lived in the US from the age of three to nine. After graduating from Princeton and Harvard, he worked as a management consultant for McKinsey in New York. Hamid’s love for the city is just as deep as Changez’s once was and early passages of The Reluctant Fundamentalist are almost identical to articles by Hamid about his passion for America and, in particular, New York City.

But the parallels come to an abrupt end when the twin towers crumble to the ground. Changez finds himself smiling at the spectacle. Hamid did not smile; he had moved to London just a month earlier and watched the events unfold on television with horror and fear.

But he had, he says, been warning his master-of-the-universe-type friends in New York that “something bad” was going to happen to the city soon. “I told a lot of friends, ‘Look, there is so much resentment towards America abroad, and America needs to find a better accommodation with the abroad, otherwise there will be a counter to that resentment.’ And I remember them saying, ‘Well, what can they do to us?’ I said, ‘What if someone were to smuggle a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb into New York?’ They said, “It’s impossible, it will never happen, it couldn’t happen.'”

Hamid describes their obliviousness to the impact of US foreign policy on parts of the world they could barely spell, but of which he had first-hand experience. As a teenager in Lahore in the 1980s he’d seen his gentle, rather mystical city become Islamified under General Zia ul-Haq’s dictatorship, sponsored by the US in its fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. What have become “footnotes” in America’s foreign policy history are still “chapter headings” in his country and yet, as he recalls this, he seems surprisingly forgiving of American ignorance. I wonder why he isn’t angrier with his friends for their complacency.

“Well, if you want to persuade people, it’s a lot more effective to try to persuade them as friends than it is to yell at them as enemies. I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.

“That’s the Martin Luther King approach as opposed to the Malcolm X approach, which says you are a bunch of oppressors and we will kill you if we have to. I think there are plenty of people on the Malcom X side right now and fewer effective Martin Luther Kingians.”

An urbane sophisticate in his mid-30s and a native of both East and West, Hamid can empathise with the irrational emotions of both tribes while simultaneously offering a dispassionate analysis.

“Can tribal identity ever be a good thing? Well, it’s just there. It’s there just like our sex drive is there. Is sex drive a good thing? It’s just there. It’s a powerful part of being human — which has caused an awful lot of violence — and so is tribal identity.

“We should try to wrestle with it, certainly, just as we wrestle with our sex drives. But we have a huge number of conditioning mechanisms to help us deal with the fact that we have sexual desires towards people who are not appropriate — your best friend’s wife, say, or your boss — whereas the tribal identity is relatively new. So the goal is to evolve the tribal equivalents of our sexual mechanisms.”

He is so scrupulously charitable that one can’t help wondering whether he is fearful of angering either constituency. Is he worried about his words ending up on a far-right website or incurring a fatwa? “Both,” he says. “And others. Always. Constantly. As a writer, I am constantly aware that I take my life in my hands with everything I do and say. It’s just a fact of life. For me it always has been. My wife might tell you I’m a paranoid maniac — and she’s probably right. There’s always a sense of … well, one wonders who might be offended by what one’s said.

“I’m obviously opposed to threats against any writers for anything. On the other hand, we live on Earth, and Earth is a dangerous place full of people who feel strongly about things — and writers engage with those emotions very directly. There are risks that come with doing that.”

Hamid is wary of commenting on the Salman Rushdie fatwa, partly for fear of finding his words cooked up into a literary spat, but mainly because “the Rushdie saga is basically used as a vehicle for two different arguments to deploy themselves.

“There’s the argument of, here’s the West being against the Muslims again. And there’s the argument of, here are the Muslims, they’re barbarians. Personally, I don’t think the risks of the world fall disproportionately on Rushdie. I just think he’s a convenient way to have this conversation.”

Hamid writes “because I need to. I think I would be very sad if I was not creating a universe in my head.” His next novel is already under way.

But his professional identity is not exclusively literary. Like his tribal identity, it is more complicated than that, for he still works three days a week as a brand consultant and his manner has the polished focus of a McKinsey man more than a writer. But, then again, he points out, he doesn’t really have a choice.

“If it takes you seven years to write each novel,” he says, smiling, “you need a patron. And I would rather have my corporate self as my patron than any arts council or bestower of grants.” — Â