Review: The rise and fall of an Asian tycoon

July 19, 2013

By Katrina Hamlin

(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Mohsin Hamid understands corruption. His new novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, is as insightful fictional portrait of a crooked yet oddly sympathetic tycoon. Hamid doesn’t condone skullduggery, but this detailed profile is an instructive guide to a darker side of rising Asia.

The protagonist’s rags-to-riches tale is written in the style of a self-help book, with each of the twelve chapters offering a life lesson for aspiring tycoons. Chapter titles include “Be prepared to use violence”, “Befriend a bureaucrat” and “Avoid idealists”. Hamid uses an imperious second person voice throughout: it works well with the self-help form. But the teacherly narrator often lapses – with tragicomic effect – into the role of storyteller to explain not just what his protagonist should have done, but what he actually did.

The ultimate lesson is not actually how to get rich: the hero ends his life in poverty after stumbling over the final chapter’s edict, “Have an exit strategy.” But “How to Get Filthy Rich” is an excellent primer on the filthy underbelly of emerging Asia’s business community. The wheeler-dealer hero makes (and later loses) his fortune with a scam to bottle and sell dirty tap water. To grow the fledgling business, he plays the system, greases palms and breaks the rules.

If such practices are to be condemned, the reader has to do so. The word “corruption” is markedly absent from the account and the narrator’s path to wealth is described as completely normal: bribes are “customary”, and violence is “inevitable”. In sum, “Becoming filthy rich requires a degree of unsqueamishness, whether in rising Asia or anywhere else”.

The book explains how business practices which others may see as despicable spring from reasonable motives. Our hero’s cronyism begins as a favour to his in-laws. As his network grows to encompass bureaucrats and the military, he becomes even more pragmatic, a businessman ready to make the most of the resources available. That goes so far as to hires heavies who readily commit murder, though only in his defence.

Hamid has a real knack for gradual, fair-minded explorations of people and their behaviour – a skill he has used to great effect in earlier writings such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which chronicles the emotional and ideological evolution of an extremist. Those explanations are invaluable, because while the characters are fictional Hamid’s stories deal with the real world. The action takes place in a unnamed country which closely resembles the author’s native Pakistan, currently ranked number 139 out of 176 on Transparency International’s corruption index.

This book offers a close-up look at the human stories behind such statistics, and shows how these practices undermine healthy growth. The water business’s profits go to bribes and protection money, not to tackling the problem of the city’s ever-shrinking, increasingly polluted water table, an issue with which the protagonist is “intimately familiar”. Ultimately, the tycoon is a victim of the unsustainable system.

 

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