How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid
Mohsin Hamid came to international attention with his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Reluctant was a timely book, dealing with issues of radicalisation and globalisation, but what really made it stand out was Hamid’s unusual stylistic choice – the entire book was written in the second person, the reader taking the place of an unnamed American sitting in a cafe with the narrator.
The use of the second person in Reluctant led to a few clumsy moments where the narrator had to say things that normally would be covered by descriptive text, but most of the time Hamid pulled it off and the result was a clever and engaging novel which read like a thriller but which glittered with intelligence and insight. One point I picked out specifically in my 2009 review was that you had to simply accept the narrative device; embrace its artificiality. If you could do that the novel worked. If you couldn’t every page would have another irritation.
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (my favourite book title in quite a while) is another second person novel. This time the conceit is that it’s a self-help book, but a peculiarly specific one. It’s divided into twelve chapters titled things like Move to the City; Get an Education; Focus on the Fundamentals (a little shout-back to Reluctant there); Have an Exit Strategy. It works better than it sounds.
The you of the book starts out as a young village boy from a poor family, and each chapter follows a key moment or decision in the boy’s life leading right up to his eventual death. Hamid uses this structure to follow a particular character’s (rags-to-riches) story while at the same time exploring the social and economic context in which it takes place.
There are no names here, characters are described by role or relationship to “you”: your brother; the pretty girl; the bureaucrat; your deputy. These generic descriptions lend a sense of universality to the story, or potential universality anyway, but at the same time the actual characters under the bland labels are sharply drawn and credible. The pretty girl, one of the most important characters in the book, is fully realised to an extent you’d never expect given that’s the only title she’s ever given. Here’s the opening paragraph:
LOOK, UNLESS YOU’RE WRITING ONE, A SELF-HELP book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you, that someone being the author. This is true of the whole self-help genre. It’s true of how-to books, for example. And it’s true of personal improvement books too. Some might even say it’s true of religion books. But some others might say that those who say that should be pinned to the ground and bled dry with the slow slice of a blade across their throats. So it’s wisest simply to note a divergence of views on that subcategory and move swiftly on. None of the foregoing means self-help books are useless. On the contrary, they can be useful indeed. But it does mean that the idea of self in the land of self-help is a slippery one. And slippery can be good. Slippery can be pleasurable. Slippery can provide access to what would chafe if entered dry.
This being Hamid pointed social commentary is rarely far away. Quoting again from the first chapter:
The people of your village relieve themselves downstream of where they wash their clothes, a place in turn downstream of where they drink. Farther upstream, the village before yours does the same. Farther still, where the water emerges from the hills as a sometimes-gushing brook, it is partly employed in the industrial processes of an old, rusting, and subscale textile plant, and partly used as drainage for the fart-smelling gray effluent that results.
“Your” father is a cook, working for long periods away from home in the city; your mother is a strong and independent woman but uneducated, dependent on her husband’s income, and under the notional authority of her mother-in-law. They’re responsible parents, caring and keen to help their children find their places in the world. You all live together in a single room, the children pretending not to notice when their parents have sex.
Your brother becomes an apprentice to a spray painter, breathing in paint fumes in an unventilated room. It’s a good job, with a salary even as an apprentice and prospects for having his own business one day. Your sister is taken out of school early and married off to a man ten years her senior that she barely knows. “You” are the lucky one, with your brother’s wages coming in your parents can afford to keep you in school.
Chapter one tells how “your” parents decide to move to the city, giving you access to a world of economic opportunity you would never see back in the village. You become part of the great story of Asian development, mass urbanisation. Chapter two shows what passes for your education, your school class taught by a barely educated and hostile teacher who had wanted to be an electricity meter reader as it offered better chances for bribes. Even so, education remains essential, its benefits neatly underlined by a scene where the family watch TV together. To the illiterate mother the credits are “a meaningless stream of hieroglyphs”; your father and sister can make out “an occasional number”; your brother “that and the occasional word”. “You” however can actually read it, and understand that the text tells you who did what on the programme.
The story continues, with Hamid using his entrepreneur’s progress to explore life in a city that is clearly Lahore but which is never named, as what happens there happens just as much in many other Asian metropolises. Even without a name though the city breathes and convinces; the heat and traffic; the bicycles for the poor and chauffeured limos for the rich; the intertwined politicians and businessmen; the high–end hotels and one-room apartments; the power-outages so regular they happen to a schedule.
The protagonist starts out selling pirated DVDs; moves to distributing expired food with forged sell-by-dates; finally he gets into the counterfeit bottled water business, and from that into water purification, crawling his way slowly up from a backroom operation to prestigious government contracts and a gated mansion. The key to wealth, true in rising Asia as it is in the risen West, is to work for yourself and to have others work for you, leveraging your labour by using theirs.
In rising Asia however business nous alone is not enough. Corruption pervades every aspect of life; the protagonist’s early success depends on his drive and intelligence but it depends too on his membership of a politico-religious faction that might as well be an organised crime syndicate. Later, the bought friendship of bureaucrats, politicians and the military becomes equally essential; outsiders need the patronage of incumbents to get ahead, so co-opting precisely those who otherwise might have fought for a better system.
For real money though, to make serious wealth, for that you need access to the deepest pockets of all:
Entrepeneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success. No, harnessing the state’s might for personal gain is a much more sensible approach. Two related categories of actor have long understood this. Bureaucrats, who wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests. And bankers, who wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state. You will need the help of both. But in rising Asia, where bureaucrats lead, bankers tend to follow, and so it is on befriending the right bureaucrat that your continued success critically depends.
How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is written with a wry intelligence. Hamid knows his economics, micro and macro, and the hypocrisies inherent in our current economic setup. His goal here though isn’t some tub-thumping exposé of our own complicity in the often-appalling environment he portrays, this isn’t reportage. Instead, Hamid uses a single story to illustrate a world of possible stories, one fictional life to illuminate a society.
All that and Hamid includes a love story too, of sorts, with the protagonist falling in love at an early age with the pretty girl, named after his first impression of her but distinguished more by her intelligence and ambition than her looks, which are just an advantage she can exploit. In many ways she’s his counterpart, born smarter than her peers and driven to something beyond the village she grew up in. Their lives parallel, soon diverging as she heads off to become a model and then an actress, but reconnecting from time to time over the years as each of them tries to get as far and high as they can, to never return to the poverty of means and aspiration they were born into.
The second person conceit works better here than in Reluctant. The self-help element allows Hamid to make astute observations and cynical asides from outside the protagonist’s own experience (don’t fall in love if you want to be truly rich, it’ll distract you from doing whatever it takes to amass as much capital as you can). That distance lends a perspective that was harder to achieve in Reluctant, and more opportunity for humour. It allows Hamid to explore some fairly bleak elements of Pakistani society without the book becoming ugly in the process.
The knack for description I mentioned in my review of Reluctant continues here. A passage near the end describing the experience of being hooked up to life-support machines was impressive in its persuasive immediacy, but also underlined a key message showing how all of us (even self-made men) are part of a complex web of social connections. Hamid understands that nobody exists without context, that Randian supermen are fantasy, and that however much we may shape our own destinies we do so within the pages of books written by other people. As he says at one point, “We are all refugees from our childhoods.”
I’ll end as I often do with a final quote. I chose this one because it illustrates for me why Hamid is a 21st Century author. In one sense of course any writer writing today is a 21st Century author, factually that’s simply what they are. In another though most aren’t, because most aren’t writing about the world I inhabit but about a world which might be mine but could just as easily be the 1990s or 1950s or even the 1880s albeit with televisions on in the background.
As I write this I’m reading Colm Tóibín’s new novel, Nora Webster. In the literal sense Tóibín is of course a contemporary author; Nora Webster came out in late 2014. In another sense though Tóibín is a profoundly 19th Century author, his style and approach to fiction sitting well alongside Henry James (on whom he has of course written so much). Brooklyn and Nora Webster both take place in the 1950s, as did his first novel The South. Tóibín isn’t interested in exploring the specificity of modernity, of contemporary experience, but rather in exploring themes of wider resonance.
I love Tóibín’s work. I think he’s a superb writer, an absolute craftsman and a master at portraying quiet moments that echo through a life. I hope he writes many more books for many years to come. I plan to read them when he does. We need too though writers who write about today, and about the world not as it always is but how it currently is. It’s a point I’ll come back to when I write up Alice Furse’s Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.
Anyway, after all that buildup this small quote is bound to be anticlimactic. So it goes. Here it is:
Near the pharmacy is a coffee shop, evidently part of a chain, and possessed of a franchise’s artificial quirkiness, its seemingly mismatched sofas and chairs and tables corresponding to a precise and determined scheme set forth in the experience section of a corporate brand guidelines binder. Its furniture and fittings evoke decades gone by. Its music, its menu, and, saliently, its prices are utterly contemporary.
I’m not aware of any of the blogs I follow having reviewed this, but if you know of any other blogger reviews please don’t hesitate to mention them in the comments. I will point though to what I thought was a truly excellent review in The Telegraph, which is here. Also, this book gave rise to my very favourite one star review on Amazon, titled “Disliked narrative from outset.,” which is here.