Mohsin Hamid’s novel of 2007 has a sort of precocious intent in wanting to question who is the greater ‘fundamentalist’: fierce American patriots who display shades of xenophobia post-9/11; infinitely intelligent corporate animals that slave for the Man unquestioningly, or a Pakistani emigre indignant at the foreign and domestic complications wrought upon his spiritual homeland by the global War on Terror.
The protagonist, Changez, is a young Pakistani man who, following an education in one of America’s elite colleges, Princeton, was cherry-picked for one of the most ruthless corporations in New York mere months before the devastating attack on the Twin Towers. Though initially he surpasses all his colleagues in his professional performances, soon doubts begin to creep in about the nature of the work he applies himself to so enthusiastically. At around the same time, he begins to witness with consternation the effect that American demands on the world post-9/11 are having on Pakistan, and especially his family, and grows angry that his adopted nation should be quite so truculent in its dealings with the world. He becomes the ‘reluctant fundamentalist’ of the title, therefore, but wait, was he more of a fundamentalist when he obeyed American corporate values without reflection? Profound stuff already, you might say. But there’s more – Changez is also suffering a mirroring intense personal agony in his relationship with Erica, a troubled, affluent young white American who never quite opens herself up to Changez. The one time they have intercourse leaves him ridden with guilt and remorse (and a dark delight), and pushes her further, it seems, towards her final destruction. Again, this fateful relationship is clearly intended to act as an allegory: an immigrant who cannot quite integrate comfortably, and a depressed (Am)Erica plagued by ghosts of better times and driving herself to her oblivion because of it. All these mirrors within mirrors are perhaps a little too neat; it’s a school set-text waiting to happen.
Nonetheless, it’s beautifully written. The narrative framing of the story is also quirky – we hear Changez as he relates his story to an American in a shady cafe in Lahore – if a little unsatisfying because of the needlessly crime thriller-like ending. It does what it sets out to achieve by questioning how subjective our view of fundamentalism is, although in itself this is an act of willful conceit that manipulates what Hamid already knows is an uneasiness among some Americans about the handling of post-9/11 relationships with the world. I’m not saying it’s cruel in exposing how unhappy people are by the American dream-turned-nightmare, but it does seem to me to be the kind of book that preaches to the converted, that is, young liberal-leaning Americans. So it is in the end beautiful and tragic but not quite as thought-provoking as it ought to be.
All that being said, I began to wonder, considering what a ‘bestseller’ The Reluctant Fundamentalist has been around the world, what the impact of a book can be beyond its actual nuts and bolts. There is already a film version of Hamid’s prize-winner in the works, set to come out next year and starring American sweetheart Kate Hudson as ‘Erica’. Perhaps someone out there is worried the book will lose its zeitgeist appeal soon? Would an American audience that had voted in a new, potentially hardline Republican President be as keen on the sentiments of the original book as a nation continuing to lick its wounds under Obama, for example? As far as public consumption goes I think there’s another interesting aspect we could look at: readers of this blog will know that I like looking at cover art as extensions of reading matter. Here are some covers that have been used for editions of the The Reluctant Fundamentalist:
For a book that gives away its central conceit in its title quite as well as this one, I think it’s interesting to think how the cover designs might serve to further influence readers. For example, the green-with-arabesque-flourishes (third image) gives the book all the appearance of an Islamic text or religious manual. Green is, of course, the colour most associated with Islam. Gaddafi’s infamous ‘Green Book’ used exactly this symbolic association as part of an ideological charade. It’s no wonder therefore that green is also used heavily in another cover, this time with the addition of the overt Islamic symbol of the ‘crescent and star’, evoking strongly the flag of Pakistan. This time it is accompanied by the stripes of the American flag (but not the stars – have they lost their lustre or have 50 triumphant stars been out-spangled by the Islamic motifs?), as well as a moody, stubbly brown man.
The first and last cover are in contrast to both of these, and are diametrically opposed to each other: the first tells us this is a book that may offer an insight into the inscrutable, misty East, a book that may show us a vision of Pakistan through the eyes of the figure dressed in a simple kurta with his back to us; the last suggests this is a tale of monochrome suits, a sharp, sexy espionage thriller of some kind – an Our Man in Havana for the current age perhaps. And different again, the fourth image would suggest this was a coming of age story for the Skins generation. I’m not really sure what countries they were all primarily for distribution in. I do know that the Skins-like one, fourth down – the most racially and religiously neutral one out of the whole lot – is from Penguin India, and by its Creative Designer, Bena Sareen. Is this religiously neutral, black and white cover (though with a hint of green) deliberately tailored for a country trying to come to terms with various shades of fundamentalism within its own borders? The ‘stars and stripes’ is, perhaps predictably, from the US edition, and the trendy-looking pink affair is a UK edition.
I think the huge variety of covers on offer is very revealing in itself. How do they feed into national politics in their place of publication? What tropes to they appeal to, what stereotypes do they employ? What suggestions do they make about fundamentalism? Do they associate it with a certain place, person, or religion? Do they imply it is born of a certain kind of cultural conflict, or the melancholia of youth? Does the very plurality of covers and symbols invoked show this is a book that can be vested with whatever one wants to see in it?
I think Hamid himself is pretty precise about the proposition he is trying to make, to the point of unsubtly. What these contrasting covers show is that that proposition was then handed over to publishers to market as widely as possible (although probably with a varying degree of collaboration with the author), and though they have been very successful in selling copies, they haven’t yet found the visual idiom that most defines a work about an uncomfortable protagonist who, after all, takes some bitter joy from watching the twin towers collapse.
While I was rooting around for covers to write about, I found this, the cover of the Norwegian edition of the book. Somehow, with Norway’s own recent tragic encounter with fundamentalism, it seemed worthwhile to include it here. Note the familiar use of green coupled with Islamic geometry; the surreal I ‘heart’ NY badge containing a green crescent; but also, literally, a white-collar fundamentalist. For those interested in Bena Sareen’s cover for Penguin India in particular, here is her insight into what makes a great book cover. You might also enjoy her literal and yet ethereal design for Arundhati Roy’s Listening to Grasshoppers – fieldnotes on democracy.
Just because I can, here are some more covers, each revealing in their own ways. For example, how much more overt and potentially controversial does the juxtaposition of flags become in the Israeli cover, which is clearly a variation of the US edition? Note that the backdrop photograph of a young man is the same one (the image has just been flipped sideways) but the rest of the design is such that you can now tell that there is the faintest of smiles on his handsome face. The French cover is arguably the most intriguing and visually arresting of the lot, with its hidden figure dressed in a culturally-ambiguous hooded cloak, walking past us barefoot across a pool of cool blue, geometric tiles…