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Rich pickings: Mohsin Hamid’s Asian satire


How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

By Mohsin Hamid             Hamish Hamilton $39.99

I’ve heard Mohsin Hamid interviewed a number of times on books podcasts and always found him considered and measured in his responses. The author of the best-selling The Reluctant Fundamentalist appears modest when contemplating that novel’s runaway success but also deeply saddened and somewhat jaded when discussing Pakistan, the country of his birth.

Hamid’s writing is clear-sighted, objective, satirical, humane. The Reluctant Fundamentalist was ostensibly a monologue on the effects of 9/11 on a high-achieving, liberal-minded Pakistani who once lived in the USA and whose return to Lahore has aroused suspicion. What singled the novel out was not only the elegance of the prose but that Hamid had dared to introduce the Muslim perspective to the 9/11 debacle. That was both brave and audacious and marked Hamid out as a writer to watch.

In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (which I’ll abbreviate to “Filthy Rich”), he returns to territory covered in part by his first novel, Moth Smoke (2000), described as a “riches to rags” story of a Pakistani financier. Filthy Rich goes one step further in that it is a rags to riches to rags story with a twist – the novel itself is written as a “self-help manual”.

Set in an anonymous Asian country (which the reader infers is Pakistan) addressed to, and written in, the un-named second person “you”, Filthy Rich is divided into 12 chapters, each containing a Commandment and a lesson for the aspirational: Move to the City; Get an Education; Don’t Fall in Love; Avoid Idealists; Learn from a Master; Work for Yourself; Be Prepared to Use Violence; Befriend a Bureaucrat; Patronise the Artists of War; Dance with Debt; Focus on the Fundamentals; and Have an Exit Strategy. As Hamid writes: “A self-help book is an oxymoron. You read a self-help book so someone who isn’t yourself can help you….the idea of the self in the land of self-help is a slippery one.”

Still, by never naming his characters, Hamid implies they are societal archetypes or Everyman. “Your” story” is therefore “his”, “hers” and by implication Asia’s story. “You” in Filthy Rich is a child of extreme poverty and ambition who employs cunning and street smarts to clamber out of penury to eventual millionaire status. On the way he falls in love with the “pretty girl” from his wretched village who uses her looks to secure her status and sleeps her way to the top. Their paths cross, diverge and eventually coincide in a world that is noted for its unscrupulousness, corruption and vertiginous unpredictability.

In some respects. Filthy Rich is a dark, sardonic satire. Politicians can be bribed, competitors are disposable, police and officials are persuadable, everyone has a price. To leave the squalor of his situation behind, “you” isn’t afraid to bend the rules or flout them if needed. His first business is selling expired tinned food with falsified use-by dates and he then progresses – in entrepreneurial fashion – to exploit the rising middle classes’ fear of disease by boiling water, then re-bottling and re-labelling it as mineral water. His business empire expands until he becomes the Filthy Rich Asian of the title. To Hamid’s credit, the reader continues to find “you” likeable and sympathetic, despite his dubious business dealings, in no small part due to the way Hamid describes “you’s” miserable beginnings.

However, the book can also be viewed as a pure morality tale. No-one keeps their ill-gotten gains for long. Governments crumble, empires tumble and (SPOILER ALERT!) even “you” is not immune, losing much of his fortune by the book’s end. The greatest victim, Hamid suggests, is the human heart. There is little place for affection, love or compassion in an Asia where the only badge of achievement is economic success. It’s no accident that on this reading, the pretty girl is reunited with her nameless lover only after his business affairs collapse.

Filthy Rich is written at a cracking pace, and covers some 70 years in our hero’s life – from birth to death – in just under 230 pages. If the use of the second person occasionally jars, it’s more than made up for by Hamid’s laser eye for detail, bone dry humour and a storyline that is affecting and universal.

Read it: to become immersed in a satire of the Third World economic “miracle”.