How to get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia: a self-help manual

howtogetfilthyrichBOOK REVIEW

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

by Sherry Evans, Portsmouth Public Library

A tongue-in-cheek, yet serious novel written as a self-help manual. The ubiquitous ‘you’, our writer and our protagonist, climbs from country poverty to wealth in the big city (what big city? we never know) chapter by chapter, with titles such as, ‘Get an Education’ and ‘Befriend a Bureaucrat.’ One life story; every person’s story.

Imagine a self-help manual that talks to you throughout. Then imagine that the author who is writing to you is you. You are talking to you. You are reading about you. That is, the author is talking to you. But it’s not really you, it’s the main character. That’s a lot of ‘you(s)’. Confusing, right? Well, yes, it can be but once you understand the style, it becomes easier to concentrate on the story that is being told.

One other thing, no one has a name. Everyone is described as related to you. There is your mother, your father, your sister, your hostel leader, your technician, your accountant and so forth. A very important character is called ‘the pretty girl’ throughout, even though like our narrator she ages 60 plus years. Likewise, the country in Asia remains nameless, as do the cities, buildings, vehicles. We never know exactly what year it is, either, although I would guess that it is the 21st century by the conclusion.

Why read this book then? One reason is because of paragraphs like this:

“But when you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm”

The story is about life in Asia for a child who grows up poor and through tenacious dedication to his one real goal – to become filthy rich – succeeds. The chapters in this book follow the self-help manual form, ie, do this, then this, then this, etc. until you reach your goal. Start at chapter 1, read it until then end; do not proceed to chapter 2 until you have completed the steps in chapter 1, through to the end – chapter 12. Some self-help manual parts are missing though – no bold-lettered, numbered side bars, no penetrating questions to answer and no little action, pen and ink figures and no cutesy, encouraging smiley faces or photographs. This is after all, in reality, a novel.

Our protagonist, the ‘you’ of the novel, is born into poverty in a rural, poor area. His father works as a servant for a wealthy family in the ‘big city.’ The boy knows both worlds and definitely decides he wants the one with wealth. Eventually, the father is able to move the family into the city and although they are still very poor, they at least have access to better food and housing. Our young man is able to get an education, as instructed in chapter 2: Get An Education. He meets the love of his life, the pretty girl, in chapter 3 (Don’t Fall in Love), and their lives intersect in each chapter as they climb out of poverty and become successful, he rich, she rich and famous.

Skip ahead to Chapter 5 ‘Learn from a Master.’

Ask yourself, “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? In your case, fortunately, it seems to be. Because you have spent the last few years taking the essential next step, learning from a master.”

On we read through the twelve chapters that create our filthy rich man in Asia. The pretty girl rises as well. Palms are greased. People are injured. Shortcuts are taken. Life in a third world country. The predictable steps of life are happening as well. He marries, buys a home, starts a family. The chapter titles say it all: Work for Yourself, Be Prepared to Use Violence and Befriend a Bureaucrat.

The arc of his life crests, as does the pretty girl’s, and we travel steadily through chapter 10, Dance with Debt and chapter 11, Focus on the Fundamentals to the conclusion in chapter 12, Have an Exit Strategy.

Moments of lightness and levity infuse this small, yet epic novel, hidden in clever writing. A John Steinbeck-like everyman novel. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a book for the person who loves language and unpredictable pairings of words and phrases and who wants to learn more about life in a third world country. It’s also for the person who does not need a happy ending. But our ‘you’ does achieve, after all of his struggles, an exit strategy that he accepts with gratitude.

Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his international bestselling novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan.

Published in the Sunday Herald on April 14, 2013.

New York Times Book Review for How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.


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