Mohsin Hamid's cleverly written new novel unwinds the tale of a baby born into poverty who beats the odds to rise to prosperity, writes Malcolm Forbes
Book review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia a novel disguised as non-fiction
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
"This book is a self-help book" we are told at the beginning of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and the reader is momentarily gulled into believing that Mohsin Hamid's latest is a work of non-fiction.
Shortly after, however, a character emerges, a newborn baby, and Hamid's book morphs into a novel, or rather a novel masquerading as a how-to book.
It's a neat trick, and one he executes triumphantly over the course of more than 200 pages, and, indeed, the course of a life: namely, that malnourished, impoverished baby growing up into a healthy, wealthy adult.
Hamid mesmerises by expertly describing this rags-to-riches arc, but he also ensures we are a captive audience by addressing the reader directly throughout.
We, the reader, are his character. "You" are the baby, "huddled, shivering, on the packed earth under your mother's cot", just as later it is "you" who becomes the successful water industrialist who has "thrived to the sound of the city's great whooshing thirst". Hamid commands our attention and we willingly give it.
Our hand-to-mouth existence in a rural village marks our inauspicious beginning. The village isn't named and neither are we, for this is intended as a universal guide, a catch-all scheme; each of us a generic, delete-as-appropriate everyman anywhere in rising Asia.
"This book is going to offer you a choice" we learn, and soon Hamid supplies a way out in the dual form, not to mention double shock, of education and the city.
We defy the odds, survive the crushing privation and escape to the sprawling metropolis (which may or may not be Hamid's native Lahore).
We watch in wonder as "buildings go from mud to brick to concrete, then shoot up to an unimaginable four storeys, even five."
Hamid's local colour is shaded with great swathes of fact (more people live here than in half the countries in the world) and tiny pointillist detail (our teacher is "hollow-cheeked, betel-nut spitting, possibly tubercular"). The "young jaundiced village boy" is on his way to becoming a city slicker.
Moving to the metropolis is "the first step" and we have taken it. The book praises and instructs us. Getting an education is practically an order, but we realise that acquiring one places us among the lucky few. Our sister, despite having shown enthusiasm in the classroom, is plucked from school and betrothed to an older man. Later chapters teach further lessons: "Befriend a Bureaucrat" reminds us that while chance plays a key role in getting ahead in the developing world, so too does nepotism and venality (greased palms and cooked books being a requisite for passing exams, securing contracts and ensuring the taxman turns a blind eye); and "Be Prepared to Use Violence" paints a grim picture of the threats, casual brutality and armed security necessary to both stay afloat and alive amid cut-throat competition.
One slightly less mercenary chapter, "Don't Fall in Love", counsels safeguarding that one-track business mind from the corrupting influence of matters of the heart. Falling in love, apparently, is an impediment to getting rich: "Yes, the pursuit of love and the pursuit of wealth have much in common. Both have the potential to inspire, motivate, uplift, and kill." In hilariously exalted language, we learn that achieving love "dampens the fire in the steam furnace of ambition, robbing of essential propulsion an already fraught upriver journey to the heart of financial success." Which makes it all the more worrisome, then, that in our mid-teens we meet, and become infatuated with, the love of our life, a character known only as "the pretty girl". After a brief intimate encounter both characters go their separate ways, both on upward trajectories. Our steep path is aswarm with sharks and scammers; her journey is a little less bumpy, her good looks helping her in a range of careers from model to TV cook and later the owner of a home-furnishings boutique. We meet her sporadically throughout the years and compare notes on our fluctuating fortunes, and after our marriage and family life have crumbled there is a final, poignant reconciliation and rekindling of emotions in old age. Hamid imbues his self-help book with wistful longing and unfulfilled desire and at the end his two aged but spirited leads - "refugees from our childhoods" - are as alive as García Márquez's old sweethearts in Love in the Time of Cholera.
There are also links with Hamid's previous two novels. His debut, Moth Smoke (2000), also featured a money-hungry protagonist desperate to hit the big time in a cripplingly stratified society. His stunning second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), explored different themes but its narrator routinely interrupted his first-person account to speak directly to the reader ("Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?"). How to Get Filthy Rich appropriates the theme from one novel and the character-to-reader address of the other and goes further with both. The second-person narration here - seldom employed in fiction and notoriously difficult to pull off - is handled with aplomb, and we are frequently harangued and cajoled but every time compelled to turn the pages.
Hamid's treatment of the pursuit of wealth is equivocal and complex. It is a noble occupation when compared to the hand-to-mouth existence in the slums and shanty towns beyond the city, but Hamid outlines the considerable cultural and class hurdles that first have to be vaulted, and at one juncture, slipping back into that lofty prose, asks us to question our motives: "Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?" Later, when outlining the eventual overlap of a different, more desperate reality, that of the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of each striver and the lengths some will go to find their pot of gold, his message seems to be two-fold - life is cheap and money doesn't bring true happiness.
Hamid's novel is a nice twist on the glut of get-rich-quick manuals that are currently and slavishly followed by the young and wannabe upwardly mobile. It blends toxic black comedy (that gloriously brazen title) with moments of heartbreaking reality comprising busted ideals, broken dreams and bitter truths. When not starkly showcasing abject poverty or injustice, Hamid slyly hints at it: our mother watches a TV show, the credits roll, and she sees "a meaningless stream of hieroglyphs"; on our way to school we pass another 12-year-old boy, "A boy your height [who] is working shirtless in the tyre-repair stall. He watches you now as you pass." And in case we are in doubt as to what kind of land we are in, we are told schoolchildren daydream of kites or assault rifles. One character later berates us, the now-rich reader, for such wealthy civilians are "a subcategory of thief. They have robbed this country blind for generations."
There is a price to pay for getting rich, but fortunately Hamid resists sermonising and simply allows us to join his dots. In the end, however, the game he is helping us play is more snakes and ladders, with each giddy height scaled being one wrong move away from a crash landing. From the potholes of a Third World village to the pitfalls surrounding top-level entrepreneurship, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is less a self-help guide and more a cautionary tale. We may not get filthy rich from it, but we can at least revel in Hamid's unique storytelling and wonderful prose.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.