Mohsin Hamid has designed his much-acclaimed new novel as though it were a self-help book, with punchy, pithy exhortations as chapter headings. So chapter one is Move To The City, two is Get an Education, three Don’t Fall in Love. Chapter eight, is, interestingly, Befriend a Bureacrat, and so on.
Given some of our own Celtic Tiger shenanigans, you will find yourself nodding in recognition at certain features of the Get-Rich-Quick mentality that is not so much satirised here, as depicted with a po-faced, sometimes rueful sense of humour.
The narrator addresses throughout a notional “you” character and basically everything that happens in the novel, happens to this ambitious “you” fellow. Or if doesn’t happen to him directly, it will impinge to a greater or lesser degree on his rickety trajectory towards the pinnacle of success.
For it is a personal story sewn into the fabric of a contemporary context. Thus, what appear to be the economic fortunes of a country like India, or Hamid’s native Pakistan, are bound up with the fortunes of his wily protagonist.
The “you” character pulls himself up by the boot-straps from a disease ridden, clay-floored hovel , before making that all-important 'move to the city.' Told in a different tone of voice, the early chapters might have made a touching document. But Hamid siphons essence of pathos out of the first chapters of his saga of one man’s progress in fast and furious Asia. The pathos comes later.
"You" starts off his working life delivering pirated DVDS by pushbike in the unamed city to which he moves. However, the protagonist ignores the self-help headings and does in fact fall in love with an unnamed girl who is known throughout as 'the pretty girl.'
The pretty girl leaves the city and soon enough he sees her face on a giant billboard, as she makes her way in modelling in a more sophisticated environment. Conversely, as the rising tide begins to lift boats, our protagonist gets into the primitive bottled water business - boiled water masquerading as mineral water - and becomes a titan of the industry in time.
When he is around 40, he marries a woman half his years. While she does provide him with a son, the marriage eventually ends, and she finds herself a man more her own age.
Parents and family members die, the protagonist himself ages and becomes frailer, but he never forgets the pretty girl who remains unmarried.
Their paths cross every so often, as their lives progress, and they lose their youthful potential, he his chutzpah and vigour, she her physical attractiveness. Wordsworth’s phrase “the still, sad music of humanity” comes to mind when attempting to describe Hamid’s remarkable sensitivity in the depiction of his two lovers.
How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a refreshingly different take on love and poverty. from a writer with a winning, humane approach. Readers may be familiar with his previous, 2007 novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. It has also become a movie, directed by Mira Nair (Midnight's Children) and starring Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber and Kiefer Sutherland. This new novel will hopefully make the Man Booker long- list in July. It more than deserves it.