This is another one you probably don’t want to read about before reading it. You need to stop right now and read the book.
My first thought when I saw this title was that the author was writing a book about how he became a terrorist or something like that, maybe getting into the head of the suicide bomber. It’s not. In fact, the only place any form of the word “fundamental” is used in the book—other than the title—is in the work the main character does at the prestigious Manhattan valuation firm he joins after Princeton. He is constantly enjoined to stick to “fundamentals”, nothing else. “At Princeton, learning was imbued with an aura of creativity: at Underwood Samson, creativity was not excised—it was still present and valued—but it ceded its primacy to efficiency. Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time an again. We learned to prioritize—to determine the axis on which advancement would be most beneficial—and then to apply ourselves single-mindedly to the achievement of that objective.” So the irony double entendre begins with the title.
The book is a narrative, told to an American tourist at a sidewalk eatery in the center of Lahore some years after the events of the story take place. The narrator is Changez, still in his twenties, reviewing his career at Princeton and the valuation firm and the “change of heart” that made it impossible for him to continue. It is not just a friendly conversation. Changez perceives some hostility, even fear, in his interlocutor and shows a hostile edge himself. One imagines him with shabby clothes and a full beard—somewhat threatening, hardly the clean-cut young man who’d beat out fellow Princetonians for his spot as an analyst and then bested the trainee class at Underwood Samson. He’s a university lecturer now, involved intimately with his students, some of whom are clearly revolutionaries of some sort.
It’s a love story too. Changez goes with a group of graduates to Greece right after graduation and experiences the seaside for the first time in his life, indeed travel as an amusement of the rich—for his companions are privileged sorts. There he discovers Erica who blends into the group but is also aloof, deeper than the rest. They continue to meet back in NY where she lives with her parents on the Upper East Side. It’s no simple love affair. Erica is damaged, the result of the death of Chris, her childhood companion and lover. The closer she comes the Changez, the more the damage surfaces until she checks into an institution to protect herself from the life around her and disappears from there, possibly throwing herself off a cliff into the Hudson.
Changez is in Manila when the Twin Towers fall and he is elated, though ashamed of his reaction. He is detained and searched more thoroughly than the others on the return to New York and he begins to notice a different reaction to him on the streets. At home war is threatening with India; the US attacks Afghanistan, a Muslim neighbor of Pakistan, but depending as it does on Pakistan, does not side with it in the matter of India. He parents caution him not to come home for Christmas, but he does. And begins to see himself differently. When he returns he grows a beard, making himself more threatening to Americans, but more authentic to himself. He’s chosen for a plum job in Chili, but screws it up—deliberately. A Chilean in the firm he’s come to value tells him about the janissaries, Christian youth captured in childhood and trained to be Muslim soldiers—fierce and loyal, but he remarks that because they were captured as children they have no memories of their former lives. Changez gets the implication loud and clear; he’s become an American businessman (“my Pakistaniness was invisible, cloaked by my suit, by my expense account, and—most of all—by my companions”) but he does have memories.
Erica has written a novella she’s trying to get published and after her disappearance, her mother gives Changez a copy. He’d expected tortured autobiography but instead found a narrative that “shimmered with hope, and although it was for the most part rather spare, it paused often to delight in little detail: in the texture of a piece of fallen fruit, for example, or in the swaying antennas of crayfish in a stream.” Watch for the details and the metaphors in Hamid’s novella as you read—you’ll be blown away.