March 2013

Riding ambition to the top

By Mohsin Hamid
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Mohsin Hamid’s ambitious novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, puts a new spin on the self-help book, a genre known for its glib pronouncements and superficial imperatives (Get an Education! Learn from a Master!), and offers a piercing look at the economic realities of developing countries by tracking a young man’s rise from poverty to wealth.

An unnamed protagonist is born in a small village in an unidentified Asian country. After his family moves to the city, he begins to attend school. He proves to be clever and resourceful, though it is matters of chance such as birth order and gender that allow him to continue his education. He begins his steady climb up the ladder of success, first as a DVD delivery boy and gradually branching out into a business of his own, overcoming poverty, corruption and violence. At the same time, a pretty girl in the neighborhood also negotiates a climb to the top. Their paths cross several times in the novel and they anchor one another, each providing a reflection of how far they’ve come and what has been discarded along the way.

In his previous novels Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, both set in the author’s hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, Hamid’s protagonists were also young men, struggling with social and religious changes, as well as their engagement with the West. The scope of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is wider, looking at the opportunities wrought by global economic development with a critical, and sometimes brutally honest, eye. Hamid’s use of the second-person voice draws the reader close but allows him to shift perspective, offering objective details about the city or speculating about the effects of a low-protein diet on a teenage boy with a night job. The real delight of the novel is that beneath the blustery chapter headings, despite the relentlessly upwardly mobile rise of the narrator, lies a tender and romantic story of two people eventually finding happiness not based on their income. Perhaps being rich in love beats wealth in the end. 

Read a Q&A with Mohsin Hamid for How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.

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