Your Inner Salmon

Nick Richardson

  • How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
    Hamish Hamilton, 228 pp, £14.99, March 2013, ISBN 978 0 241 14466 4

‘You watch your mother slice up a lengthy white radish and boil it over an open fire. The sun has banished the dew, and even unwell as you are, you no longer feel cold.’ The following day, despite your illness – you have hepatitis E; ‘its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral’ – your parents take you and your older brother and sister from your village to live in the city, ‘the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia’. You finish school, unlike your siblings, who drop out and get jobs to help support the family. You fall in love with ‘a pretty girl’ who leaves you and the city to pursue a successful modelling career. At university you fall in with a crowd of sinister, bearded ‘idealists’, who advise you to take your mother to their hospital when she falls ill; but their doctor tells you ‘you should pray’ and your mother dies, so you ‘ask a wrinkled old man with hennaed hair and a cut-throat razor finally to give you a shave’.

Only you don’t. Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is written in the second-person singular, but his ‘you’ is unlikely to resemble you very much. ‘You’ marries a woman half his age, with a ‘wide, sensuous mouth’, and has the details of the arrangement thrashed out by his accountant. He works for a swindler flogging groceries that are past their sell-by date, then sets up his own business selling filtered tap water as mineral water in stolen branded bottles. His company and profits grow, the boss of another water company gets upset and threatens him, so he hires a bodyguard, who kills one of his rival’s thugs. Then his brother-in-law, who works as his assistant, rips him off, skips town with his money and the business collapses. He bumps into the ‘pretty girl’, now elderly, whose career has followed a similar boom and bust trajectory, and moves in with her: ‘you do not share a bedroom … but you do share much of your days, by turns cheerfully, grumpily, quietly, or comfortingly, and when the mood strikes you both, your nights.’

The pretext for the second person is that ‘this book is a self-help book. Its objective, as it says on the cover, is to show you how to get filthy rich in rising Asia.’ But the device is contradicted before it has even been enunciated: the first sentence of the book is ‘Look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron.’ Each chapter begins by reasserting the claim that the book is a self-help book then almost immediately undermining it, either by casting doubt on the usefulness of self-help books, or by using abrupt shifts of register to imply that the goal the book is supposed to help you achieve shouldn’t be a priority after all: ‘Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?’ Unlike most self-help books, How to Get Filthy Rich has a storyline, its tone is descriptive not normative, and the self it’s supposedly trying to help ends up poor, not filthy rich at all. Quite clearly, Hamid has not tried to write a novel in the style of a self-help book; he has written a book narrated by someone who is pretending to write a self-help book but is really doing something quite different. It feels more like a choose-your-own-adventure story, but without the choices: on the eve of ‘your’ family’s departure for the city, the narrator says, ‘this book is going to offer you a choice,’ but then it makes the decision for you – when your father asks you whether you’ll be well enough to travel ‘you say “yes”.’

The book is not what it says it is, you are not who it says you are, and you soon give up on reading the book the way the narrator says you should: ‘you’ becomes ‘he’, the ‘idealists’ Islamists and the ‘city’ Lahore, Hamid’s home town and the setting of his two previous novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. But this hasn’t stopped some reviewers from praising or damning the book for doing things it carefully avoids. Edmund Gordon, in the Telegraph, wrote that Hamid’s use of the second person allows him ‘to implicitly pair the trajectory of his hero’s life with the trajectories of millions of other lives’ when what it really does is make you conscious of how different your own life is from the novel’s protagonist’s, and how different his life is from the lives of most of his countrymen. Nirpal Dhaliwal, in the Standard, declared that the book’s ‘refusal to locate its protagonist geographically is fatal. There is no generic Subcontinental experience, even for the poor.’ But this ignores the narrator’s ironic detachment from his form. ‘Rising Asia’ is a clumsy shorthand that conflates Lahore, Karachi, Delhi and Mumbai, and the fortunes of a very small minority of wealthy Asians with those of the vast majority, who remain poor despite upwardly mobile GDP figures. Hamid takes pains to make you feel its inadequacy. If the self-help conceit fails to be entirely effective it’s simply because, for it to work at all, Hamid has to leave some aspects of his protagonist’s life vague, so the character seems under-developed and is therefore, paradoxically, given that he’s ‘you’, harder to identify with.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also addressed by an ‘I’ to a ‘you’, but ‘I’ is fleshed out into a proper character and ‘you’ is barely developed at all. ‘I’ is a Pakistani man called Changez who is sitting with ‘you’ at a tea house in Lahore, talking about his life; ‘you’, it transpires, has come to arrest, if not kill him (as the book ends Changez asks ‘you’ why he’s reaching into his jacket pocket: ‘I detect a glint of metal … I trust it is from the holder of your business cards’). Changez was a scholar at Princeton, where he ‘reached [his] senior year without having received a single B’, then a graduate trainee at a valuation firm called Underwood Samson & Co. (The novel is at least partly autobiographical: Hamid, like Changez, was a scholarship kid at Princeton, then a management consultant at McKinsey, before he moved back to Pakistan.) He excelled in his work, but felt more and more uncomfortable with American attitudes to his home country (his girlfriend’s father’s glib analysis of Pakistan’s economy made him ‘bridle’ with its ‘typically American undercurrent of condescension’), then 9/11 happened, people started treating him differently, he was threatened, he grew a beard, stopped being able to concentrate at work, resigned, then returned to Pakistan where he became a professor at a university in Lahore, and an anti-American dissident, which is why ‘you’ has come to shut him up. The book bludgeons America, which wreaks ‘such havoc in the world … with so few apparent consequences at home’ and gives ‘partisan and sports-event-like coverage’ to its military adventures; capitalism, which depends on replacing people’s natural desires with the desire to become filthy rich and has drained Pakistan of its ‘fittest and brightest’; and the colonialism-at-home that passes for multiculturalism: Changez is coaxed away from the culture of his country and family and encouraged to believe in the adoptive culture of his firm – ‘soldiers don’t really fight for their flags, Changez. They fight for their friends’ – but then despised when he comes back from Pakistan bearded.

If this sounds a bit black and white, that’s because it is: ‘you’ and ‘I’, us and them, goodies and baddies. The new film version of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, directed by Mira Nair, with a screenplay by a young American TV writer, is foggier. Changez (Riz Ahmed) is portrayed as a violent man from the outset; ‘you’ is a more developed and more sympathetic character. Changez is shown to be more ruthless than his colleagues when it comes to firing people; sinister music plays when he tells ‘you’ about the brief moment of joy he felt when he saw the planes fly into the twin towers – ‘David beating Goliath’ – at which point ‘you’ (Liev Schreiber) turns firm and Bruce Willis-like and says: ‘and you wonder why your family is being threatened.’ Changez is seen giving a lecture at Lahore University and bellowing ‘We will wipe the blood of the invaders from our swords!’; at one point Schreiber gives a teary defence of America’s intervention in Afghanistan. In the book, Changez’s mentor at Underwood Samson advises the new recruits to ‘focus on the fundamentals’, i.e. the bottom line, if they want to succeed; as Changez realises that there are more important things – home, family, opposing American hegemony – he turns from one kind of fundamentalist into another. This nice structural trick is lost in the film, swapped for a cosy, woolly-liberal message: Changez tells ‘you’ that he decided not to become a follower of Lahore University’s resident radical Islamist because the preacher claimed to stand for ‘the fundamental values of the Koran’, then Changez gives a speech about how sick he is of having people preach ‘fundamental’ principles at him, and how the world would be a better place if there were no fundamentals. As a demonstration of America’s ability to process inimical propaganda, the film is undeniably impressive.

How to Get Filthy Rich is as angry as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but less strident. Like Changez, ‘you’ is shown to have been cheated out of the life he should have had by the false consciousness that led him to prize money over everything else. He treats his wife with indifference until she leaves him; his only son moves to America to seek his own fortune – an echo of the journey his father made from province to city, and of Changez’s journey to America – and it’s only after he’s lost all his money and got back together with the pretty girl, who also ignored love to get rich, that he gets a brief taste of what a happy life might have been like. To get to where he thinks he wants to be, he does bad things. He sells a product that’s not what it says it is for more than it’s worth, greases the palms of officials, and has his guard kill a ‘boyish gunman’ who shaves his upper lip every day ‘in the aspiration of one day provoking a moustache’ – a misguided young man with the wrong priorities, just as ‘you’ had been. Images of dirt and disease run through the novel as visual indicators of moral corruption. In the countryside, people fall ill and don’t receive adequate medical attention – his sister, for instance, dies from dengue fever halfway through the novel – because money and resources are concentrated in the capital. In the city, overpopulation caused by the influx of migrants from the provinces makes it difficult to find water that’s good enough to filter: ‘The aquifer below the city is plummeting and becoming more contaminated every year, poisonous chemicals and biological toxins seeping into it like adulterants into a heroin junkie’s collapsing vein.’ The ‘filthy’ in Hamid’s title is more than a figure of speech.

Hamid’s decision to structure an angry book in such a gimmicky way may seem odd at first. Gimmicks are typically a tool of the kind of capitalism Hamid attacks, drawing attention to the surface while disguising the vacuum below. But it’s clear enough that we’re supposed to feel frustrated by the gimmick, or at least to feel its gimmickiness. That’s why Hamid keeps telling us it doesn’t work: ‘the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one’; ‘more often than not, the self [self-help books] help is the writer’s self.’ The narrator’s refusal to make his prose conform to the rules of the genre he claims to be writing in suggests reluctance. Perhaps Hamid wants us to imagine a conversation with his publisher along the following lines:

Hamid: I’ve got a great new idea for a new bit of anti-capitalist propaganda about a guy whose greed ruins his life.

Publisher: Er, that sounds nice, but can’t you sex it up a bit? Write it in the second person maybe? That did wonders for Jay McInerney.

Hamid: You fool, that would completely ruin it …

[He pauses, then looks up, alert, as though suddenly inspired]

Hamid: In a way that will illustrate my point perfectly!

[He cackles]

Self-help is a $13 billion industry; literary fiction is a dying trade. If literature is to compete, Hamid’s narrator puckishly suggests, it must be able to pass itself off as self-help: ‘Why … do you persist in reading that much praised, breathtakingly boring foreign novel … if not out of an impulse to understand distant lands that because of globalisation are increasingly affecting life in your own? What is this impulse of yours, at its core, if not a desire for self-help?’ If people can be persuaded that literature is a survival tool, and not just stories about other people, maybe they’ll keep reading.

Hamid has expressed worries about these issues before. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the final phase of Changez’s disillusionment comes when he is sent by his firm to evaluate a Chilean publishing company. The owners of the company want to shut down its loss-making trade division and concentrate on educational and professional books: ‘Trade, with its stable of literary – defined for all practical purposes as commercially unviable – authors was a drag on the rest of the enterprise; our task was to determine the value of the asset if that drag were shut down.’ But the chief editor, an elderly gentleman of letters called Juan-Bautista, senses Changez’s willingness to believe that getting filthy rich isn’t necessarily the most important thing in the world, and tries to show him what we risk losing if markets are allowed to become the sole means of determining value. He encourages Changez to take in the fading beauty of Valparaiso and to visit Pablo Neruda’s house; he also takes Changez to a restaurant to taste the local delicacy, sea bass cooked in salt, where he tells him about the janissaries: ‘They were Christian boys, captured by the Ottomans and trained to be soldiers in a Muslim army, at that time the greatest army in the world. They were ferocious and utterly loyal: they had fought to erase their own civilisations, so they had nothing else to turn to.’ The implication for the ferocious, if no longer utterly loyal Changez hardly needs spelling out.