Review of Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

BOOK REVIEW

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Mohsin Hamid

Hamish Hamilton, €18.50

 

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia tells the gripping, decade-by-decade story of one nameless man’s life, from babyhood to death. There’s a sort of Slumdog Millionaire vibe as we follow the rise of a poor boy from rural Pakistan to financial success.

One of only three surviving children, the boy moves with his family to an unnamed city. As youngest child – the older siblings must work or marry young – he gets an education, then slowly builds up a bottled water business and gathers the accoutrements of wealth: nice house, fancy car, large staff, armed bodyguards.

He marries, has a child, neglects his wife, divorces. The business continues to grow, with new contracts for municipal water supply, dealing with some scary people in Pakistan’s military-industrial complex. He’s an economic success at least, though vaguely dissatisfied in his heart. Eventually his manager insists they load the company with massive debt in order to “grow” – and the edifice he’s so painstakingly assembled becomes in danger of falling apart.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a classic rags-to-riches story, so familiar to us, that mad scramble for money and status. Running throughout is our hero’s lifelong love for “the pretty girl”, their relationship stymied by fate and poor choices.

The novel is written by Mohsin Hamid, whose previous work, 2007’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was a critical and commercial smash. Shortlisted for the Booker and IMPAC Prize, it was named New York Times Book of the Year, while The Guardian declared it one of the decade’s seminal works. Within months of publication, this story of a Pakistani man called Changez, struggling to adapt to post-911 America, was a staple on college curriculums.

It was also a best-seller, and has now been made into a movie of the same name, out this May. Starring Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson and Liev Schrieber, the screenplay was co-written by Hamid himself.

The author, like Changez, has lived in the US, both as child and adult. His peripatetic existence also brought him to Britain, Greece and elsewhere. This, you feel, gives Hamid an especially clear view of many of his new book’s major themes: the modern technology economy, the shrinking of our planet, the impulses and currents that drive global capitalism.

On one level How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a simple boy-loses-girl romance. But on another, it’s the history of a rapidly changing land, and a lucid explanation of how economics and politics work. As the title suggests, “Rising Asia” is as much a character as any individual, and the book gives great insight into these Tiger-ish economies striving to usurp the West.

It’s presented as a pastiche of a self-help book, addressed to a fictional “you”, which is interesting and very appropriate: those kind of texts, one imagines, would be devoured by the hungry young talents of modern Pakistan, sensing opportunity for their country and themselves, determined to finish first in the great race of life.

Each chapter begins with a self-help platitude – don’t fall in love, ensure you have good contacts, and so on – then moves onto the main narrative. This structure makes it the first novel I’ve read that’s written in the second-person, and it’s a testament to Hamid’s skill that he uses this voice so successfully.

I flew through the novel, and particularly appreciated how he didn’t predictably dwell on capturing the smells, sounds and textures of Pakistan, thus giving the book a more universal feel. Anyone can relate to the likeable hero’s triumphs and falls.

The prose is good, though prone to the odd clumsy formulation: “He catches a bus to the century-old, and hence in city historical terms neither recent nor ancient, European-designed commercial district.” It stands up grammatically but just sounds wrong to the ear.

When he hits the mark, though, Hamid’s prose really sings. Here he compares the dangerous, exhausting work of a painter to life as an astronaut: “It too involves the hiss of air, the feeling of weightlessness, the sudden pressure headaches and nausea, the precariousness that results when an organic being and a machine are fused together.”

It’s funny, too: a man’s hair is described as “so thick he could safely ride a motorcycle without a helmet”. The conversations between the hero and his sweetheart are charming and often comical.

That, and they, are the heart of this book. Their star-crossed romance is treated with tenderness and wistfulness by Hamid, and is hugely moving at times. It’s almost certainly the first literary novel that had me close to tears. Most of them are so chilly and distant, but this is full of love: love for family and friends, love of life, character love and authorial love for those characters.

Ultimately, it’s that age-old story of a man gaining the world but losing his soul. Money will certainly improve your life if you don’t have any, but after a certain point, it won’t make you happy. And the sacrifices in acquiring it might just be your ruination.

 

  • First published in the Irish Independent

 

  • Darragh McManus’ crime novel The Polka Dot Girl is out now
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