Initially, I've been less than enthused about picking up Hamid's new novel, along the lines of: do I really need to read another book about the tension between fundamentalism and modernity? This ground has been covered so many times already -- starting with The Satanic Verses -- that one doesn't expect to be surprised. But the more I hear about the novel, the more interested I've become.
A good place to start might be the 20 minute interview Hamid did this week with Terry Gross, where (among other things) they spent a fair amount of time discussing how having or not having a beard affects how you're perceived, in both Pakistan and the UK/US. Apparently this is a major theme in the novel as well; as a dariwalla (bearded person), I approve.
And there's been other prominent coverage of the book, including an interview where Hamid discusses his allusions to Camus' 1957 novel The Fall:
The Fall is very clearly a model for this novel – both in the first sentence, and throughout the book I try to acknowledge Jean-Baptiste (who is present in the Chilean publisher who Changez meets later in the book), it’s something I did very consciously. In 1957 this idea of trying to break down the individual, and debunk the notion of us being good – something literature and the world has done very successfully – was quite radical. Now no one goes around thinking the individual is good; we're all tarnished. If you look behind anyone you find all sorts of stuff. What’s surprising given that, is that notions of larger collectives haven’t been debunked as thoroughly. We indulge ourselves in larger narratives that remain fundamentally good. Somehow, there is an emotional tribal feeling that remains. And that tribal feeling is actually particularly encouraged in America, as the only victor of the Second World War still standing. And in the Muslim world, it’s a sense of decadence and decline and impotence, which causes people to reach out for a similar type of decadence.link
More in the political vein, I've been impressed to see Hamid directly challenging Pervez Musharraf's recent actions against Pakistan's judiciary in the Daily Times:
Like many Pakistanis, I knew little about Justice Chaudhry except that he had a reputation for being honest, and that under his leadership, the Supreme Court had reduced its case backlog by 60 percent. His suspension seemed a throwback to the worst excesses of the government that General Musharraf’s coup had replaced, and it galvanised protests by the nation’s lawyers and opposition parties, including rallies of thousands in several of Pakistan’s major cities yesterday. (link)
And the interview with Hamid in Tehelka from August 2006 was pretty striking -- actually quite confrontational in tone. Hamid feels the Indian media (even Tehelka!) has a somewhat hysterical attitude about Pakistan, which is perhaps borne out by the interviewer's own rather bizarre choice of questions ("What about Pakistan makes you blanch?" ?!?). In general, I think Hamid makes some good points, especially on the Indian media's tendency to immediately point at Pakistan whenever there is a bombing -- irrespective of whether the evidence warrants it:
I think India is terrified of looking inside itself because if a homegrown Indian Muslim group has done this in Bombay, you’d have massacres. India is a tinderbox so it’s forced to look outside. Who’s backing the Naxalites? People out of Nepal? Who’s backing the Muslim groups? Pakistan and Bangladesh? There are a billion Indians, many of whom are very upset with the government and could certainly be involved. In Pakistan, we have sectarian bombings all the time. Certainly one could say these are the work of Indian intelligence agencies. Perhaps they are. But I think it’s a mistake to look at these problems in this way and ignore what is often a very strong domestic component. I think Pakistan is right now desperate for a peace deal on Kashmir. Musharraf — like him or not — is bending over to find some compromise. But India is completely uncompromising. It prefers the status quo so any time there’s a bomb in India, it can be blamed on Pakistan. (link)
Well, I'm not sure whether what Musharraf has put on the table regarding Kashmir is really a workable compromise. And overall, I think I'm more anti-Musharraf than Mohsin Hamid is; I'm a little surprised, for instance, that he's not saying anything here about Mukhtar Mai or the status of women under Pakistani law as he considers Musharraf's legacy. That said, his perspective is a helpful corrective to some jingoistic/paranoid images of Pakistan that are often circulated.
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I was also interested in Pankaj Mishra's recent review of Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men. Matar is a Libyan novelist, writing about life under the shadow of Qaddafi. Like Hamid, his book has been getting prominently displayed in the Barnes & Noble stores near my house -- it clearly seems to be doing quite well. Are publishers trying to make it into the "next" Kite Runner?
What's striking from Mishra's review is how personal, even intimate, the novel appears to be, despite the backdrop of state repression, disappearances, and torture. One quote Mishra pulls from the novel struck me as being particularly memorable:
Mama and I spent most of the time together—she alone, I unable to leave her. I worried how the world might change if even for a second I was to look away, to relax the grip of my gaze. I was convinced that if my attention was applied fully, disaster would be kept at bay and she would return whole and uncorrupted, no longer lost, stranded on the opposite bank, waiting alone. But although her unpredictability and her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that has since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love. (from In The Country of Men; link)
Mishra also favorably reviews Laila Lalami's Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which is another book that I've had on my "to read" list for quite awhile.