Filthy Rich, Country GirlsSaturday, 26 December 2015
Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a clever project. From the cover it’s yet another self-help manual, although with a racy title. Inside the chapters are arranged just like a self-help book should be, running through from ‘Move to the City,’ via ‘Work for Yourself, Be Prepared to Use Violence’ and other useful advice including ‘Befriend a Bureaucrat’ before the final poignant guidance ‘Have an Exit Strategy.’
Plus it’s entirely written in the second person ‘you do this, you do that,’ there are no names, it’s you and ‘the pretty girl,’ but in fact it’s a novel, and a very good one. The country in ‘rising Asia’ is never mentioned, but it’s pretty clearly Pakistan, the author’s home country. The centre of action is probably Lahore (the author’s home city) although the big hotel which plays a key part in one chapter is the Marriott Islamabad in Pakistan’s capital city. I stayed in the Marriott in 2005 before the huge terrorist truck attack that devastated the hotel in 2008 and visited it again in 2013. That attack backdrops the hotel description in Filthy Rich.
The other key location is ‘the city by the sea’ which is evidently Karachi, where I lived for the first five years of my life. Irrespective of where it’s set this is a wonderful book. I loved it, right to the tearful end.
If Filthy Rich neatly encapsulates Pakistan – and by extension lots of other chaotic countries in ‘rising Asia’ – then The Country Girls perfectly captures Ireland at a transition period. Still locked in the old priest-ridden, convent-educated, rural backwater era just before the swinging ‘60s (the book was published in 1960) gently rubs up against it and then with increasing speed and energy races it towards the next century.
I picked up The Country Girls as a result of reading an article about Edna O’Brien, now 85 years old, and realising I’d never read her classic novel. Ireland today is clearly nothing like the Ireland that she wrote about and that change is so thorough that it’s rather puzzling to read her book today and wonder how it could have caused such outrage.
When it was published it was banned by the government, attacked by the church and Ms O’Brien, she was still in her 20s, was virtually chased out of the country. Today, of course, we realise the church and its convent schools were in fact far worse than their casually cruel nature in The Country Girls.