Magazine article The Spectator

One Step at a Time

Magazine article The Spectator

One Step at a Time

Article excerpt

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid Hamish Hamilton, £14.99, pp. 228, ISBN 9781594487293

In the classic rags-to-riches narrative, a boy born into poverty attains respectability by dint of hard work, clean living and moral courage. Mohsin Hamid's third novel - his eagerly awaited follow-up to The Reluctant Fundamentalist - updates the genre for the 21st century, transplanting it to 'rising Asia' but stripping it of all sense of uplift.

We first encounter Hamid's unnamed protagonist in his filthy village compound, 'huddled, shivering on the packed earth', wracked by hepatitis E. His father, a cook with a 'voracious sexual appetite', soon moves the family to the city ('the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia'), where our hero lives in equally squalid conditions but does acquire the vital 'second step' of an education.

Things move along rapidly - though this is a short novel, there are 70-odd years to pack in - and in no time the protagonist enters adolescence. Working as a DVD delivery boy, he becomes infatuated with a 'pretty girl' from his neighbourhood, who relieves him of his virginity and then promptly vanishes. He goes to university, briefly falls under the sway of left-wing idealists, loses his mother to cancer and becomes a salesman for a firm that retouches the labels on out-of-date foods.

Next our hero enters the drinks trade, boiling up tap water in a makeshift workshop and flogging the resulting 'mineral water' to the emergent middle classes. This operation eventually nets him a fortune.

He acquires a wife (who divorces him) and squires a son (who dashes off to America at the first opportunity). All the while, he pines for the 'pretty girl' of his youth, who, we learn, follows her own solitary route to self-made affluence - if not happiness - by becoming a model and TV celebrity.

Hamid adds extra satirical bite to this tale by presenting it in the guise of an inspirational 'how to' guide, of the sort that has become popular in subcontinental Asia.

Chapters are couched as lessons ('Learn from a Master', 'Don't be Afraid to Use Violence') and open with passages of awkward rumination before moving on to specific episodes from the protagonist's life. …

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