Monday, June 24, 2013

It pulls me in, you know?

For Frances, on the theme of travel.

For readers of multi-volume stories, the characters you grow up with always have a special place in your heart. For me Granger, Weasley, Snape and Potter were the much loved companions of my twenties, both in books and on screen, and I felt I was setting a slice of my imagination in amber after watching the last movie. It was a sad thought that I would always look back now at the Twins and Dumbledore, rather than forward into the endless future with Joanne and her fabulous friends.

There are other books that are solitary outcrops of emotion for me, and those emotions loop back on themselves each time I encounter the ideas that drive the book. One such book is The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, which I was handed in 2008 by a rather legendary manager of mine. Mr Les was an extraordinary man, a sailor and engineer who did Honours in feminist literature before his Engineering degree, he taught me some of the best professional hustle around.

We were working as the thin and exhausted insulation between Saudi and Kuwaiti industry on one hand, and Australian, Persian and Eastern European industry on the other. It would take a longer and more carefully worded piece of writing than this to tease out the extraordinary cultural fault lines that made that job such a gift in hindsight and a horror at the time, but the way he armored me to take on the floor of sixty men I helped mediate each day was unique and wonderful.

The tools he gave me for life were varied; I still aspire to be as good as him at offering three options to every workmate. Mr Les’ three options seemed on the surface to be equal, yet two quickly become completely untenable, and the one that was the only possible solution was always the one Mr Les wanted. He also encouraged me to get my frustration out in imaginative ways, and one method in particular is still a favorite of mine. The trick is to think of a song with ‘heart’ in the lyrics and change ‘heart’ to ‘arse’. Simple, yet guaranteed to coax a smile from any girl in the middle of editing three pages of chemical engineering bumph for translation into Arabic.

And then there was the book he lent me as the world watched the Obama and Clinton nomination race, as the Egyptian mathematician crunched the Electoral College numbers for me each day, as I had discussions on the difference between the Bible and the Qur’an in the corridors with my workmates and as I managed the medical appointments for the wife of my terrifying Saudi boss, who was dangerously old to be pregnant again. At the time my writing was crippled by my own Honours the year before, and I was trying to negotiate a resignation that would not leave everything I had worked for in the job as a steaming pile of nothing. So the intricacies of family, culture and art that Erica and Changez were negotiating were strangely applicable to me at the time.

Last week I watched the movie based on the book, and while it has changed immensely in its journey to the screen, it still spoke to me on the same personal level as the book did five years ago. Just as I treasure a quote from Erica in the book (sadly she is a much reduced character in the film, although Kate Hudson gives her more character than the script often allows), I think I will be quoting the Changez on the screen more than a few times in the future. I am relieved that the ideas that drove the book, although now driving a film, still reach inside and sit comfortably in the grooves of my heart.

Hmmmm … the groove is in the heart …

“it doesn’t help anymore,” she said “I used to turn to it, my writing, when I needed to get something out that was stuck inside. But I can’t get it out now. It pulls me in, you know?”
“It’s whether there’s something left,” she explained, suddenly and unsettlingly calm, “or whether it’s all already happened.”

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid

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