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

Photo: Panayiotis Kyriakou / Eyeem
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The Evolution of Beauty reveals the true power of sexual attraction

Richard O Prum's book mimics the literary output of Charles Darwin.

In 1860, the year after Charles Darwin had published his On the Origin of Species, he privately confessed to a colleague: ‘‘The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, when­ever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!’’ It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cause of Darwin’s nausea.

Natural selection, as he had defined it, was assumed to modify the physical structure and function of a species’ composite parts, so that they were all adjusted to their environmental conditions.

Overall, it was presumed to shape an animal to make it better adapted to its life circumstances.

But how on Earth could such a theory explain something as gloriously impractical as the five-foot-long, eye-spotted upper-tail coverts of a male peacock? Far from leaving the owner skilled at negotiating its environment or better at escaping predators, this ­ludicrous appendage appeared to make it less able to survive. The peacock’s tail seemed the most beautiful and elegant rebuttal of Darwin’s arguments.

At least it did until, according to the author of this remarkable book, Darwin came up with the answer. It was an insight every bit as world-defining as his original theory and he described it in a later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). Darwin argued that another evolutionary force was at play among life in the way that organisms select their prospective partners. Natural selection may lead to the survival of the fittest, but sexual selection, as we now call this other mechanism, does not necessarily make a species better adapted.

Mate choices based on aesthetic criteria, of which the peacock’s tail is a perfect example, can give rise to arbitrary, even maladaptive characteristics. And not only does ­sexual selection lead to the acquisition of such useless adornments, it also has a co-evolutionary impact on the desires expressed by the male peacock’s mate. In short, what helps shape life on Earth is the subjective feelings that operate largely within female organisms.

According to Prum, this is Darwin’s truly ‘‘dangerous idea’’, and one that patriarchal Western scientific culture has instinctively disliked. Prum explores in detail the antag­onisms that sexual selection has aroused over the 150 years since Darwin articulated the idea. While natural scientists from Alfred Russel Wallace to Richard Dawkins may have accepted its existence, they have also sought to collapse its significance and make it a subsidiary element within the general theory of natural selection.

They argue that mate choices may lead to beautiful and bizarre adornments but that these features are also ‘‘honest’’ indicators of the good genes and vigorous health possessed by their male owners.

Prum calls it the ‘‘beauty-as-utility argument’’ and characterises it as a majority view, one to which he has been a lifelong opponent. In The Evolution of Beauty he provides a detailed justification for his position, making his book both an objective description of how sexual selection operates and a form of scientific autobiography.

It also mimics Darwin’s literary output in two crucial senses. Like his great hero did, it has taken Prum decades to assemble the hoard of supportive evidence that underpins his views. He has also articulated his life’s work in prose that is as lucid as the arguments are sophisticated: Darwin couldn’t have put it better himself.

The author is a lifelong birdwatcher and many of his favourite organisms feature strongly in the array of case studies that make up a good deal of the book. But the bird family that launched Prum’s scientific journey is a group of tiny, intensely colourful Neotropical inhabitants called manakins. The males of the group perform a bizarre display that has evolved under a severe form of sexual selection that Prum ­describes as 54 ‘‘distinctive ‘ideals’ of beauty’’.

One of the better-known of these birds is the red-capped manakin, which performs a dance routine said to resemble Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Another, the blue manakin, often functioning in collaborative teams of up to seven males, does a Catherine-wheel-like flutter past the dowdy female.

In their relatively long lives, as many as 90 per cent of male blue manakins may never get to mate. As Prum points out, these birds ‘‘engage in the most ruthless sexual competition known in nature’’, but it is not a violent transaction conducted with teeth and horns. Appropriately for one of ­Brazil’s best-known birds, it involves a song-and-dance number, of which the super-picky females are the ultimate arbiters.

What makes this book so absorbing is that Prum expands the range of his material to speculate on a panorama of intriguing questions. To give a small sense of this eclectic span, he proposes that sexual selection could have played a very important part in shaping feathers in dinosaurs and in the evolution of flight by their avian descendants, and that it may even have led to the Old Testament story of how God made Adam’s partner from a spare rib. According to Prum, the real bone used to fashion Eve may have been a baculum, a penis bone, which is found in all primates except two – spider monkeys and ourselves.

Prum devotes the last third of his book to considering how mate choices may have been decisive in shaping aspects of human physiology and behaviour. This is likely to provoke much of the attention that the book rightly deserves, because here he dwells on the size and shape of the human penis, the existence of the female orgasm and the evolution of same-sex sexual relationships, all of which are hard to explain through natural selection alone.

Prum’s thoughts on these matters are compelling stuff, but the book’s chief achievement is to challenge our relentlessly anthropocentric perspective. The Evolution of Beauty enables us to see that the most intimate emotions and subjective choices made by mere beasts are decisive subjects for science. And it is these aesthetic sens­ibilities, as owned and operated by other animals, that have fashioned the manifold beauties of our world.

Mark Cocker’s new book, “Our Place”, will be published in 2018 by Jonathan Cape

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us
Richard O Prum
Doubleday, 448pp, $30​

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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