Reviewed: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Diamonds in the rough.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Mohsin Hamid
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £14.99

How-to books, religious texts, fiction, nonfiction: they’re all self-help, says the narrator of Mohsin Hamid’s third novel. He is quick to tell us, though, that “self-help” is a misnomer. We read because we want help from “someone who isn’t [ourselves]” – in this case, from the narrator, who will help you, the reader, to get filthy rich in rising Asia.

Hamid’s previous, Man Booker-shortlisted novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), was a spare, tense dramatic monologue, with the reader cast as an American visitor to Lahore and the narrator an American-educated Pakistani. In How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, there’s the same direct address but the balance has shifted. Whereas The Reluctant Fundamentalist was the life story of its narrator, How to Get Filthy Rich is the story of the addressee. Written almost entirely in the second person, it is both sly self-help satire and the story of “you”, an unnamed boy born in an unnamed Asian country.              

Hamid models the book on the business self-help guides popular across Asia. The title of each chapter is a piece of advice that will propel you along the road to riches; sometimes straightforward (“Move to the City”, “Get an Education”), more often deadpan (“Avoid Idealists”, “Befriend a Bureaucrat”). The advice that concerns your childhood and adolescence translates as: be lucky. You are lucky because your father decides on a whim to move his family from the countryside to the city. You are lucky because, as the youngest child, you stay in education while your teenage brother becomes a painter’s apprentice and your teenage sister returns to your native village to marry.

But luck is not enough. You are part of a stupendously corrupt system and you need to play it. “Filthy” describes not so much the quantity of your money as the means by which you will acquire it: selling pirated DVDs, food past its expiry date, fake bottled water. Along the way you bribe officials, fudge your accounts and pay others to kill those who threaten you. You also give generously to less fortunate relatives, care for your sick parents and take seriously your responsibilities as an employer.

In both The Reluctant Fundamentalist and his debut, Moth Smoke, Hamid focused on tensions between the middle class and the super-rich in Pakistan, spinning insider-outsider narratives that drew comparisons with F Scott Fitzgerald. How to Get Filthy Rich has a much greater reach, socio-economically and geographically. You may never be as wealthy as some of Hamid’s earlier characters but your journey is a more extreme one – a journey, as the narrator puts it, from “myshit- just-sits-there-until-it-rains poverty to which-of-my-toilets-shall-I-use affluence”. And though the unnamed country in which you pass your life is recognisable as Pakistan, there are regular reminders that your city is “only one among many such organs quivering in the torso of rising Asia”.

You share your city’s lack of specificity. Your physical attributes are sketched in (you are tall, strong, attractive – another instance of your good fortune) but there’s not much that’s distinctive about your character. The self-help format demands this, since the “you” that a self-help book addresses must be applicable to as many of its readers as possible. The risk in How to Get Filthy Rich is that the reader will lose interest in this cipher of a character.

Perhaps in an attempt to prevent this, Hamid makes your strongest desires romantic rather than financial. As a teenager, you fall in love with “the pretty girl” who lives near you. As adults, your paths cross only occasionally; nevertheless, your love for her persists. But this decades-long crush makes you more generic, not less – the pretty girl is about as generic a femme fatale as can be imagined. How to Get Filthy Rich fizzes when exploring the many-threaded web of contemporary Asian society; when it comes to affairs of the heart, it’s sometimes flat.

Towards the end, the narrator loses interest in “rising Asia”. Instead, he turns to the nature of help: writing it, offering it, accepting it. As an old man, you learn to rely on others and to give help that goes beyond the financial. The pretty girl reappears and at last becomes something more than a femme fatale. You, too, become frail and real, an individual rather than a type. There is happiness in companionship; love is more important than money. This sounds like, and could be, a pedestrian conclusion. How to Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia turns out to be as much moral fable as it is satire. Fortunately, Hamid makes each mode as fresh as the other.

Dubai. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit