A Review by Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is an engrossing and imaginative novel written in the genre of self-help, by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani writer. Chapters are designated with pithy exhortations designed to ensure the flight from poverty: move to the city, get an education, don’t fall in love, and work for yourself, among other instructions. Our hero and lead character is “You,” and Hamid bestows a name upon not one character, not even “You.”
Our hero is a destitute villager in Asia, although the particular nation is as nameless as every character who populates this novel. He is the youngest of three children, afflicted with hepatitis, and surrounded by a pervasive hopelessness. Life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and Hamid occasionally succumbs to juvenile language to describe its trials.
His first big break comes when his father agrees to take the family to the city with him. This move allows our hero to obtain a decent education, earn money at night as a DVD delivery boy, and even attend university. Our hero’s membership in an unnamed political party affords him protection and a living stipend. He begins working for a ruthless, unethical entrepreneur who teaches him the basics of business, and more pertinently in so much of rising Asia, corruption.
Not heeding the book’s advice, our hero does indeed fall in love, with “pretty girl” who too is destined to leave behind the urban underclass. Pretty girl, by virtue of her innate though unconventional beauty as well as her strong will, becomes an increasingly successful model. Our hero and the pretty girl are clearly enchanted with each other, and in their youth they begin what becomes a lifelong, largely platonic, romance.
In the meantime, our hero has set up a small business in the bottled water industry. It is truly a venture of the future, and as standards of living rise, so too does our hero’s fortune. Our hero stays ahead of global social forces rising across Asia, and he masters the tide which lifts some previously marginalized members of society. Through a combination of hard work, relentless focus, and genuine skill, our hero becomes a corporate tycoon of national significance.
Through an arranged marriage, our hero also marries a significantly younger woman who bears him a much loved son. The relationship is strained, and our hero does little to build a relationship with his neglected wife. Our hero hires his wife’s brother to help repair the damage, which proves to be a critical mistake.
Our hero’s rapid success makes him vulnerable to bandits and gangsters. He hires armed bodyguards and walls off his living compound to protect himself from repeated threats. Unfortunately, the walls also isolate our hero from friends, family, and community.
Our hero experiences a sudden series of tragedies. He finds himself losing everything he has built over decades of toil, piece by painful piece. His protective walls of money, corporate influence, and a fortified garrison are all broken down. Yet our hero remains as emotionally inaccessible as the second person pronoun Hamid employs to tell his tale.
Our hero rarely admits to emotion, and even his closest relationships are with people who hold him at a distance. When a wing of the house proves insufficient armor against her husband, his wife simply leaves our hero. Our hero’s son moves half a world away and visits rarely. Even pretty girl, who makes sporadic appearances in our hero’s youth, resists his affectionate touch in their final years.
Hamid seems to employ deliberate irony to convey how even his reader is always on the outside, looking in at our hero. He writes at the close of the novel:
“The capacity for empathy is a funny thing.
As an illustration, let us consider a fish unable to burp. . . . It has escaped from the seas, from the lakes, from the ponds, and it dangles now, free, bathed in sunlight and in warmth. And yet it is deeply troubled. It has a pang, a bubble trapped in its fish esophagus. Though heavenly, angelic, still it suffers. It strains. And do our hearts go out to it? Yes, they do. Burp, dear friend. Why do you not burp?”
Like our troubled aquatic friend, our hero has been reduced to a small fish in a small bowl, surrounded by a fraction of the water that propelled him to wealth. It is a far cry from the heady days of his youth.
Like the observer fretting over the troubled fish, we see our hero’s troubles and yearn for him to be free. We long for him to be free to truly enjoy his wealth, work alongside trustworthy colleagues, marry the pretty girl of his dreams, and enjoy a meaningful relationship with the son to whom he is so devoted.
Inevitably, we even question why he fails to take seemingly obvious actions to remedy his troubles. But we live outside his fishbowl, and our capacity for empathy cannot free him. Only self-help may free him. Hamid urges our hero to “take your destiny in your own hands,” and indeed there are some things one must simply do for one’s self.
So Hamid concludes as he began, with a more subtle plea for self-empowerment. Is Hamid’s novel really about you, after all, and the limits of your empathy? It is an open, intriguing question, as interesting as Hamid’s masterful tale.