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I watch in bewilderment and surprise as America's Frankenstein Monster – capitalism, corporatism and greed – have been embraced with stunning enthusiasm and success in the region of the world author Mohsin Hamid calls "rising Asia." These ascending capitalist Third World nations seem to have grasped the greed and exploitation part, but overlooked the darker sides of the American experiment – dislocation of family, violence, the destruction of good jobs and decent wages, the corruption of politics, the obliteration of culture, horrific damage to the environment and of rural life and community.
This is the subject of Mohsin Hamid's (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) second novel, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia, (Riverhead.)
Mohsin Hamid has written a new kind of Horatio Alger story right out of rising Asia. This is a riveting and very timely journey of a nameless striver from impoverished rural village child to corporate tycoon in a Mumbai-like city. Soon after his family moves to the big city to find work, the striver figures out that in a world whose water is being polluted more and more by the hour – there is no environmental regulation and bribes get contractors permits to build anywhere, even over aquifers – water has got to be a valuable commodity. He pumps some out of the ground, boils it, and sells it to the anxious nouveau riche in their condos. His rise is marked by violence, corruption, bribery and raw nerve, the new skills of rising Asia's business community. Everywhere the striver goes – even in his new mansion – there are guards with assault rifles and cement barriers guarding rising Asia's new titans. The rich in rising Asia need a lot of protection from the poor who surround them.
Despite his wealth, the striver's heart is really set on something else – the also nameless pretty girl whose success occurs parallel to his, their paths crossing and recrossing, their lifelong affair frustrated time and again by the same forces that pull their careers along. Rising Asia is a mad, out-of-control place, it's economies growing so rapidly they tear through the culture like Tsunamis, obliterating just about everything in their place. Centuries old traditions and patterns of life are destroyed overnight, millions flee impoverished villages to help Asia rise, and the whiff of corrupt bureaucracy makes almost anything possible but rational growth.
Hamid was smart to keep his protagonists nameless, this works to make them both universal metaphors for the human spirit and yearnings that underly even greed and great success. As the striver is enveloped by the very forces that made his success possible, we see that all he ever really wanted was a life with the pretty girl, and all she ever really wanted was him. I thought the ending was pitch perfect.
The story of one man's rise in the new economy is compelling enough. The striver guessed right about water, but his instincts may have initially failed him when it comes to life. He had plenty of money, but always wanted something more, so the story becomes touching, poignant even as it reveals so much about the new global economy and what it has done to us and his own conclusions about life. This book is rich and evocative and skillfully crafted. It is political without preaching, romantic without ever being sappy, and we are also reminded of the terrible cost nations and communities have to pay to be rich American style. In this country, we are just beginning to grasp our own limits. No one in this version of rising Asia yet believes there are any. Like Marquez and Naipaul before him, Hamid finds the collision of the old and new worlds the richest imaginable vein for great fiction.
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