Life in a cruel world

Life in a cruel world

Lead review

Life in a cruel world

In ‘How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia’, Mohsin Hamid tells a tale of love and ambition that also works as a larger, metaphorical look at sweeping changes in the world, writes
Michiko Kakutani

Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was an artful tour de force, a lapidary monologue delivered by a young Princeton-educated Pakistani that opened out to become a puzzle-like exploration of identity, and a suspenseful, post-September 11 meditation on the nervous, mutually suspicious dynamic between America and the Muslim world.

Hamid’s new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also tells a compelling story that works on two levels — in this case as a deeply moving and highly specific tale of love and ambition, and as a larger, metaphorical look at the mind-boggling social and economic changes sweeping “rising Asia”. Set in an unnamed country that resembles Pakistan, the novel chronicles the 70-odd-year-long life of an unnamed hero who journeys from an impoverished village to a sprawling city and who makes — and loses — a fortune in the water (“bottled hydration”) business.

The story is couched as a kind of self-help book, and told in the second person, with a protagonist referred to only as “you”. What might initially seem like a clumsy narrative technique is actually a device that allows Hamid to zoom in and out from his hero’s life, as though he were using a telephoto lens. He moves in to give us up-close-and-personal glimpses of “you’s” enduring relationship with a woman he meets when they are teenagers, then moves back to show us the ways in which “you’s” entrepreneurial career mirrors that of millions of others as they become part of a new urbanised demographic that is changing the shape of the world.

Of the decision of “you’s” father to move his immediate family from their small village (where “you” grew up surrounded by dozens of relatives) and their arrival in the metropolis, Hamid writes: “As you and your parents and siblings dismount, you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite, but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a minuscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans.”

He adds that the change in family dynamics was in itself “an explosive transformation”, the “supportive, stifling, stabilising bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity and potential.”

In the big city “you” gets himself an education — another step on the ladder of getting filthy rich — and a job delivering DVDs for a video retailer, which brings him into contact with the pretty girl, a movie buff, who works at a beauty salon and is plotting her escape from her dysfunctional family. He falls in love with the pretty girl and installs her as the ideal woman in his heart, where she will remain ever after. The pretty girl, who seems way more liberated than the hero, has sex with him, but does so the night before running away with a man who says he recognises “her potential to be a model”.

“You” goes to a university and falls in with some sort of political organisation that in exchange for membership offers him “a monthly cash stipend, food and clothing, and a bed”. He grows a beard and notices that wealthier students and corrupt administrators now regard him with something like fear. After his mother dies a horribly painful death from cancer, he begins to drift away from the organisation: Its clinic tells him there was nothing to be done to alleviate his mother’s condition except prayer, and its members exhort him to recognise his comrades as his one “true family”.
Business becomes his new religion. He realises that if he is to become as successful as the pretty girl — who has become a well-known model who “earns as much as a retail banker her age” — he must become an entrepreneur. From a job as “a non-expired-labelled expired-goods salesman”, he sets himself up as a bottled-water tycoon.

What starts out as a small-time scam — pouring boiled tap water into mineral-water bottles recovered from restaurants — gradually evolves into a thriving big-time business, enabling “you” to ascend into the firmament of the wealthy with a big house, a driver and lots of security to protect him from the envious rabble.

Hamid has high-frequency radar for status distinctions, and in these pages he provides an acerbic, almost anthropological sense of how bribes and corruption grease the social system in his not-quite-Pakistan. He also records the envy, resentment and desire to emulate that America and the West provoke. For instance, a retired brigadier describes his plan of creating a “premier housing” development that would have “its own electricity plant” and drinkable tap water. When you enter it, “it’ll be like you’ve entered another country,” he says.

In Hamid’s not-Pakistan-exactly, change has arrived in fits and starts: poverty and high-tech modernity exist side by side, turning the country into a patchwork of the old and new, and the ugly urban sprawl of the in-between. “In the city’s outskirts,” Hamid writes, “on one of a thousand and one rutted streets where a few years ago were only fields, but now little green can be seen, unplanned development having yielded instead a ribbon of convenience stores, auto garages, scrap-metal dealers, unregistered educational institutes, fly-by-night dental clinics and mobile-phone top-up and repair points, all fronting warrens of housing perilously unresistant to earthquakes.”

It is a measure of Hamid’s audacious talents that he manages to make his protagonist’s story work on so many levels. “You” is, at once, a modern-day Horatio Alger character, representing the desires and frustrations of millions in rising Asia; a bildungsroman hero, by turns knavish and recognisably human, who sallies forth from the provinces to find his destiny; and a nameless but intimately known soul, whose bittersweet romance with the pretty girl possesses a remarkable emotional power.

With How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid reaffirms his place as one of his generation’s most inventive writers.