Dance with debt. Befriend a bureaucrat. Be prepared to use violence.
These are some of the tips Mohsin Hamid offers in “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia,” a novel that starts out parodying business self-help books and evolves into a powerful reverie on life in a time of soul-shaking change.
Told in the second person, its dictums are addressed to a nameless protagonist who is born into disease-ridden rural squalor in what seems to be Hamid’s own homeland, Pakistan.
Our hero takes his first step on the road to success when his father starts earning enough as a cook in the big city to move the family there. Though not a long journey, those “few hours on a bus from rural remoteness to urban centrality appear to span millennia.” Mud huts give way to concrete structures that grow story by story as streetlights appear and giant billboards twinkle.
The youngest of three, our hero is given a shot at the education -- step two -- his siblings missed out on. In college, however, his humble roots hold him back. After briefly falling in with a group of bearded blowhards, he drops out.
His real lessons are learned at work, delivering pirated DVDs and later peddling canned goods whose expiration dates have been altered. When he strikes out on his own it’s to manufacture bottled water that is not, initially, as pure as its label claims.
Quick-witted and just the right side of villainous, he’s a tenacious everyman who remains engaging throughout his rags-to-riches rise. It doesn’t end there for him, either: Having made his fortune he goes on to lose it, finding something more precious instead.
Hamid, who is the author of two previous novels including “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” a Man Booker Prize finalist, lets the surreal chaos that trails rapid modernization speak for itself. In a single neighborhood in this vast metropolis, for instance, “animals are slaughtered, pastries baked, high-fidelity speaker crossovers tweaked, fake imported cigarettes distributed, and blast-resistant window film retailed.”
His prose is pared down and precise, though every now and then he’ll flourish a particularly vivid metaphor. When a heart attack leaves the hero shaken by an awareness of his own mortality, he is experiencing “the shock of an unseen network suddenly made physical, as a fly experiences a cobweb.”
The novel is every bit as wry as its title promises, too. Here’s Hamid on the difference between wealth and love: “Both have the potential to inspire, motivate, uplift, and kill. But whereas achieving a massive bank balance demonstrably attracts fine physical specimens desperate to give their love in exchange, achieving love tends to do the opposite.”
In this respect, our hero is heedless. A teenage crush referred to only as “the pretty girl” exerts a hold over him throughout his adult life.
Luckily for his bank balance, the pretty girl is also ambitious, remaining just out of reach as she becomes a model, hosts a TV cooking show, opens a home furnishings boutique. Nevertheless, their lives intersect every few years as decades pass, lending the narrative an unsentimental, lingeringly romantic charge.
All books are in a way self-help books, Hamid muses. Why persevere with “that much-praised, painstakingly boring foreign novel” if not to deepen your understanding of our globalized world?
While no one would claim this particular novel is boring, it does nimbly delineate a region’s religious and political tensions, its gender and class inequalities, giving a deeply human face to Asia’s rise.
“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” is published by Riverhead in the U.S. and Hamish Hamilton in the U.K. (228 pages, $26.95, 14.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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