I first read this book as part of my university degree and knew immediately that I had the subject of my next essay! Returning to it now I was excited to re-read it, but even I was surprised at how much I still enjoyed it and the impact it had on me.
The story is told first-hand by our protagonist, Changez, who converses with an unnamed American visitor to his hometown of Lahore in Pakistan. He takes the man back through his American education at a top university and the struggles he faced being less privileged than his peers. Nevertheless, Changez is determined and hardworking, securing himself a job with a top firm and quickly becoming the golden boy.
As you might have guessed, the story doesn’t just continue on to ‘happily every after’… Enter the love interest – teamed up with a life-changing event that will shatter the way Changez both perceives others and is perceived himself – and you have a concoction of gripping and thought-provoking circumstances, actions and events. We become witness to a piercing identity crisis, as Changez is forced to choose who he wants to be and how he wants to live his life. He is drawn towards the American way of life, finding himself on the verge of assimilation when it happens…
I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled.
This catastrophic event sets in motion the gradual unravelling of Changez’s ‘American Dream’. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Changez starts to withdraw himself from the society that has so suddenly isolated him.
All through the novel the narrative is interrupted by snippets of conversation and occurrences between Changez and the American. Changez is courteous and polite, but an underlying sense of tension grows in their encounter.
“Ah, our tea has arrived! Do not look so suspicious, I assure you, sir, nothing untoward will happen to you, not even a runny stomach. After all, it is not as if it has been poisoned.”
Pandering to the polite rules of society whilst a sinister ‘unspoken-ness’ lies dormant on the one hand, then cutting so outrightly to the point on the other, the two timeframes in which we witness our protagonist represent vastly different approaches to adversity. The young Changez refuses to go out of his way to contradict the new stereotyping is subjected to, yet whilst the older Changez is a model of civility, a hint of something far more insidious is lurking.
Our feelings are based on nothing more than suspicion and assumption, but we can’t help but feel uneasy as the encounter continues. This only builds on the overarching message of the book, proving that we are all capable of judgement and assumption even as we are reading about its injustices. Hamid artfully teaches us a vital lesson about modern society, presenting us with a subtle challenge to resist the prejudicial tendencies behind forming identity in multicultural societies.