Literature and poverty: It’s time for Mohsin Hamid to tell us how he really feels about Pakistan
Earlier this week I was thumbing through a range of books published by The Economist while at a publisher waiting to see someone. Not as dull as it sounds. The pocket World in Figures 2013 includes a cornucopia of country profiles that blows away myths, even if what came floating into my mind was the pastiche Fifty Sheds of Grey: ‘Harder,’ she said leaning against the work-surface.’Harder.’ ‘Alright what’s the GNP of Nicaragua?’ The Economist both in its weekly form and the books its publishes is quite a wise old thing, with a tendency to sit on the fence, and now fully up to speed with what the progressive mega-rich might be doing with their money: philanthropy. Times have changed.
So when I read Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia it was a bit of a shock. In the neutrality of the prose there are shades of The Economist here but also (the long-defunct) Pan-Am In-flight magazine, advertising images from 50s and 60s America, management speak books, and McKinsey’s 90s lingo. It is a story of go-getting and consolidation: a rise from poverty through squalor to insubstantial industries, deals, decline and – the time-honoured American movie ending – the realisation too late, or perhaps just in time, of the importance of love.
Filthy Rich may be a parable and metaphor of the story of globilisation, as well as the story of individuals from Texas to New York, Mumbai to Singapore, but it is not the story of Pakistan, although like Hamid’s previous novels, western readers will assume that it is. The poverty into which the protagonist is born could be subcontinental, but might just as easily be Chinese, Thai, Cambodian, Indonesian. ‘The pretty girl’ and her trajectory sits easily with Singapore but in reality it would prove impossible in Pakistan: caste still underpins society there. The poor do not get to drink wine. (Nor would they want to.)
It is the poverty that Hamid handles least convincingly. The poor copulate and fart without sufficient or gentle irony in the narration but when they progress into wealth, and assume middle-class values and sensibilities, they make love, their feelings now refined and redeemed by its spirituality, and their farting by contrast is tenderly funny.
The point of How to get filthy rich in rising Asia – at a guess – is that you become wealthy by understanding that the riches are love, but for countries that have high levels of poverty, such as India and Pakistan, there is now almost a duty for novelists to peel off their comfortable middle class educated selves and see this issue differently. The novel sits alongside Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger in taking the debate no further on. In fact nowhere at all. Oxford and Yale have quite a lot to answer for.
We live in a world where poverty matters and in fiction or fact, the stereotyping of the poor is no longer acceptable. The thread that is now appearing in Hamid’s work of sexually casual women, without tender depiction, is also numbing but hints at the surreal globilisation of fantasies brought on by the internet.
However, it is poverty and a sketchily drawn sort-of Pakistan, Hamid’s home country, that leaves the largest question mark and the largest gap. We are still waiting for one of Pakistan’s best known novelists to break cover and to put into words how he really feels about his country. Surely a declaration of love worthy of his eventual switch into the first person narration in How to get filthy rich in rising Asia, but of far greater importance. There has been too much hiding, with a predominantly western reading audience at his bidding who have no understanding of Pakistan, it must be about time for him to stand up and be counted.Tagged in: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
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