I had read a bit of buzz about this book so I picked it up, not really knowing what to expect. I absolutely couldn't put it down and read through it in one day. It begins as what appears to be a parody of a self-help book, in an unnamed country (but probably the author's native Pakistan), about an unnamed village boy addressed in the second-person as "you".
The story opens with the boy living in the family compound in a rural area. Each chapter heading is a piece of advice for how to get “filthy rich”. The first is: “Move to the City”. The boy’s father has been working in a big city and has finally saved enough money to bring his wife and three children to live with him.
The boy describes the strange feeling of being just five people now. He says,
“…you embody one of the great changes of your time. Where once your clan was innumerable, not infinite but of a large number not readily known, now there are five of you. Five. The fingers on one hand, the toes on one foot, a miniscule aggregation when compared with shoals of fish or flocks of birds or indeed tribes of humans.” (p. 14)
Each chapter takes us further along this boy’s odyssey. The early bits of advice are fairly basic: ‘Get an education’, ‘Don’t fall in love’, ‘Avoid idealists’, ‘Learn from a master’, and ‘Work for yourself.
The boy notes that some aspects of his life have made him fortunate just by chance. He is not a girl, so he won’t be sent back to the village at a young age to marry; he has an older brother who will be expected to get a job before he himself will, meaning there will be time for him to go to school. As he matures and enters the business world, the advice becomes more troubling: ‘Be prepared to use violence’, ‘Befriend a bureaucrat’, ‘Patronize the artists of war’, and ‘Dance with debt.’
Approaching the end of his story and of his life, the protagonist seems to change the focus of his advice: ‘Focus on the fundamentals.’ The ‘fundamentals’ no longer seem to be about getting “filthy rich”. They are a beautiful musing about the meaning of the life he has led. Really, even though this story takes place in a Third World country, it speaks to our modern striving wherever we are, and it is, at its heart, a love story.
The unnamed "you" is in love, all his life, with the also unnamed "pretty girl", even though one of the early injunctions as a requisite for becoming "filthy rich" was not to fall in love. Both the protagonist and the pretty girl do become rich but find it is ephemeral and that what really remains is their attraction for each other, formed in their youth.
Reading the last chapter, I found myself catching my breath at the exquisite way the author captured what it means to be human:
“We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.” (p.219-220).
Not so many books can capture the essence of humanity the way this book does. It is deeply felt, yet unsentimental which is a rare achievement.
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