Tag Archives: unreliable narrator

What Do Robert Browning and Mohsin Hamid Have in Common?

Happy New Year to everyone!

One of my holiday presents this year was Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a novel praised for its innovative form. In fact, the form Hamid uses is an old one—the dramatic monologue—a convention I studied many moons ago as a college lit major.

This month I’d like to talk about this primarily poetic form in relation to Hamid’s fiction. The form is called a monologue because we hear only the words of a single character; it’s dramatic in that a listener is on the scene, and though we don’t have the listener’s words on the page, we infer them through the speaker’s responses. (By contrast, the soliloquy conveys the speech of a character alone with himself.) During the course of the dramatic monologue, the speaker makes inadvertent revelations, and the reader is left to interpret his or her character.

The Victorian poet, Robert Browning, used the dramatic monologue to sublime effect, most famously in “My Last Duchess.” Here the Duke of Ferrara, the speaker, opens in the following conversational manner: “That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall, / Looking as if she were alive.”

Later, when his guest asks (as we infer) about the expression on the face of the Duchess, the speaker responds that many, “if they durst,” (that is, if they dared) have asked about that “pictured countenance”—“so, not the first / Are you to turn and ask thus.”

Today we might call the Duke of Ferrara an unreliable narrator (although the term itself did not appear until 1961, when Wayne Booth coined it in The Rhetoric of Fiction). The Duke is a jealous narcissist, a monster of arrogance, who took offense at his late wife’s generous nature. Her grievous flaw, according to the Duke, was that she valued everyone equally. He doesn’t tell the listener how his Duchess died until the poem nears its chilling end:

. . . Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together.

Now let’s turn to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where we find another unreliable narrator. As the novel opens, the speaker, a Pakistani named Changez, spots an American—“How did I know you were American? No, not by the color of your skin. . . . It was your bearing”—and invites him to tea in an outdoor Lahore café. The narrator’s ensuing monologue comprises the content of the novel.

The dynamic of statement/question and implied response runs throughout the novel: “Surely at this time of day only one thing could have brought you to the district of Old Anarkali . . . and that is the quest for the perfect cup of tea. Have I guessed correctly? Then allow me, sir, to suggest my favorite among these many establishments. Yes, this is the one.”

Technically, Hamid handles the interaction between speaker and listener less subtly than Browning. Often he depends on interrogatives and repetition to suggest the listener’s response: “I spent four and a half years in your country. Where? In New York, and before that attended college in New Jersey. Yes, you are right: it was Princeton!”

More aptly, the form contributes to the suspense of Hamid’s novel, as when Changez comments on the wary reactions of the listener. “You prefer that seat, with your back so close to the wall? Very well, although you will benefit less from the intermittent breeze.” (Why, the reader asks herself, does the American want to protect his back?)

Again we read: “You seem worried. Do not be; this burly fellow is merely our waiter, and there is no need to reach under your jacket, I assume to grasp your wallet.” (Hmmm. Who is that waiter, really, and what’s in that jacket pocket?)

Ambiguity resounds in Hamid’s ending, leaving us to wonder if the American listener was assigned to kill Changez for his radical politics, or if the American himself is the target of an assassination by the narrator in collusion with the waiter.

We read the following as Changez accompanies the listener to his hotel:

Perhaps you are convinced that I am an inveterate liar, perhaps you are under the impression that           we are being pursued. . . . Yes, those men are rather close, and yes, the expression on the face of that       one—what a coincidence; it is our waiter; he has offered me a nod of recognition—is rather grim. . . .           Perhaps our waiter wants to say goodbye as well, for he is rapidly closing in. Yes, he is waving at me         to detain you. . . But why are you reaching into your pocket, sir? I detect a glint of metal. Given that you       and I are now bound by a certain shared intimacy, I trust it is from the holder of your business cards.

And the novel stops dead (pun intended).

Hamid’s book is undoubtedly a notable piece of work. My initial qualification stands, however. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the author’s salient innovation, as I see it, is not in the development of a new structure, but in the deployment of a traditional poetic form to service his prose.