When I was teaching The Reluctant Fundamentalist to my Year 12 VCE students in Melbourne last year, one of the most oft-repeated questions that came up as part of our discussion, was whether author Mohsin Hamid, was in fact writing a semi-autobiographical tale.
Was the Pakistani author who had spent considerable years in America blurring the line between fact and fiction, personal story and universal humanity; and doing what has been so consistently championed in recent years: telling his own story through the creative lenses offered by memory and imagination?
My students had all but made up their minds that Hamid was in fact the Pakistani protagonist Changez when one of them, an astute Vietnamese-Australian young man finally asked: But what if he’s actually the American?
Yes, I will admit that in that moment I saw a shining light to liberate Australia from its current reign of circus antics; but equally as I read Hamid’s current collection of essays in Discontent and its Civilizations I knew that if he had heard that response he probably would be giving that lad a cyberspace fist pump.
“People often ask me if I am the book’s [The Reluctant Fundamentalist] Pakistani protagonist. I wonder why they never ask if I am his American listener. After all, a novel can often be a divided man’s conversation with himself.” (2007)
The reason I began with a memory of one of one Hamid’s other texts is because Discontent and its Civilizations is more than a mere collection of ‘dispatches’ from a foreign correspondent; they are the etchings of memory committed to give some shape, some form to the most ephemeral of moments. The first section is the stuff of ‘Life’ offering tiny glimpses into certain fragments of Hamid’s personal history, a quick flash of colour and scent through the author’s private viewmaster ranging from a decision of a NYC cabbie to turn off the meter as he realizes the author has just come from the embassy: ‘You have had a hard morning brother… this ride is on me’ to the wonder at returning to discover Pakistan as a land where ‘people who prayed five times a day and people who escaped from their hostels late at night to disappear on sexual adventures in the city could co-exist’; to the genuine delights at seeing ‘my daughter playing with her grandfather each morning in the garden before he goes off to teach at his university and she goes off to study at her nursery school’.
But all is not memory and anecdote.
Having introduced himself to his readers the next section reveals questions and murmurings on ‘Art’ and more specifically, on writing. He unequivocally denounces The Great American novel (while wondering where is the validation of women’s contribution to the oeuvre) arguing that it is a ‘mythological beast, an impossible mountaintop, a magical vale in the forest…It keeps you warm when times are cold and times in the world of writing are mostly cold.’ He calls his readers to ‘drop the ‘the’. Drop the ‘American’. Unless you think you’re working on the Great American Novel. In which case, if it helps, keeps the notion of it alive in your heart, no longer as a target to hit, but the gravity you must defy to break from orbit and soar into space.’
It is reflections such as these the make up the chunk of the Hamid’s middle section, a series of ruminations on writing and reading, popularity of eBooks, development of character and keeping match-fit for the demands of the next book. It is a shift from the previous deeply introspective and personally reflexive voice of ‘Life’ and is not unlike browsing a comrade’s personal library collection and dipping in and out of various favourite texts.
The third and final section ‘Politics’ is perhaps an area where Hamid is most passionate and yet in some ways his natural eloquence is somewhat stilted. These are his admonitions, recommendations, persuasions as much to himself as they are to the US and Pakistani governments (and indeed to the world) to dare to re-imagine a conversation, re-cast the die and allow it fall in unexpected productive new places. It is crucially informative to challenging misconceptions about numbers, deaths and causalities in Pakistan; occasionally veers on the didactic and has twinges of nostalgia which remind us that this is a human voice writing from a human heart. There are criticisms and statistics galore, sobering as in the example of how the definition of ‘militant’ has been conceived to reduce the number civilian casualties (even a shepherd with a rifle to protect his flock is a militant) to the alarming number of drones that have penetrated Pakistani airspace; the ongoing US intervention policies that have escalated since the capture of Osama-bin-laden and the various ill-suited categories (Westernized Muslims, Islamized Westerners) that the world has seen fit to employ as tropes to trade with for various self-vested purposes.
But while ‘Politics’ is undeniably enlightening and the hard facts are what is needed to eschew a generation of new thinkers alternative ways forward armed with intelligence and compassion, I found myself returning not to any of Hamid’s insights in particular (though there were many that moved me) but a section of a quote from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It is one that Hamid himself uses and which in turn encapsulates the essence of this collection:
‘Seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
Mohsin Hamid has the full quote taped to the printer on his writing desk. I might do the same.