A young Muslim’s American experience raises his consciousness and shapes his future in this terse, disturbing successor to the London-based Pakistani author’s first novel, Moth Smoke (2000).
It’s presented as a “conversation,” of which we hear only the voice of protagonist Changez, speaking to the unnamed American stranger he encounters in a café in the former’s native city of Lahore. Changez describes in eloquent detail his arrival in America as a scholarship student at Princeton, his academic success and lucrative employment at Underwood Samson, a “valuation firm” that analyzes its clients’ businesses and counsels improvement via trimming expenses and abandoning inefficient practices—i.e., going back to “fundamentals.” Changez’s success story is crowned by his semi-romantic friendship with beautiful, rich classmate Erica, to whom he draws close during a summer vacation in Greece shared by several fellow students. But the idyll is marred by Erica’s distracted love for a former boyfriend who died young and by the events of 9/11, which simultaneously make all “foreigners” objects of suspicion. Changez reacts in a manner sure to exacerbate such suspicions (“I was caught up in the symbolism of it all, the fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”). A visit home to a country virtually under siege, a breakdown that removes the fragile Erica yet further from him and the increasing enmity toward “non-whites” all take their toll: Changez withdraws from his cocoon of career and financial security (“. . . my days of focusing on fundamentals were done”) and exits the country that had promised so much, becoming himself the bearded, vaguely menacing “stranger” who accompanies his increasingly worried listener to the latter’s hotel. The climax builds with masterfully controlled irony and suspense.
A superb cautionary tale, and a grim reminder of the continuing cost of ethnic profiling, miscommunication and confrontation.