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The arrival of Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, could not be timelier. It smacks in the face of Western hypocrisy and our much- heralded moral values. How ironic that as we sink into right-wing xenophobia and double speak, spouted by our nativist leaders, non-Westerners still believe that we offer hope and the safety they cannot find at home. They struggle to reach our shores, often willing to risk their lives in the process. And we in the West, do we still welcome them? Do we even practice the Judeo-Christian values that permitted us to become the towers of stability that have enriched our lives—in some cases—for centuries?
The answers to these questions are hinted at in Hamid’s title, which will not surprise you by the story’s ending. But to get there, Hamid must guide us down a labyrinth few American writers are willing to take. The last American novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison, in 1993, a long time ago. Few of our novelists tackle ethical issues any longer; few are willing to grapple with issues of life and death. That’s why so many of my reviews of fiction in CounterPunch have been the works of non-Western withers, who are clearly still confronting issues of totalitarianism, race and gender inequality, hypocrisy, and basic survival. While we’ve permitted ourselves to go soft, we can be thankful for the writers in the rest of the world who continue to write in the tradition of our greatest literary works. No surprise, then, that Mohsin Hamid belongs in that pattern. Fortunately, he’s still a young man with much of his career in front of him.
Hamid is due our praise, also, for not continuing to write the same novel, following the formula of so many American writers. He takes risks. All four of his novels—Moth Smoke (2000), The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), and now Exit West (2017)—are different from one another. The first three works move from the gritty world of drugs, through a sobering account of terrorism, then through a comic but poignant look at economic malfeasance. And now, in Exit West, to a disturbing picture of refugees trapped in hostile environments, in a story that is more parable than realistic while bumping up against the dystopian. These four novels (there’s also a collection of his essays) demonstrate incredible versatility while, always, demanding that we question our blindness.
At the beginning of Exit West, two characters (Saeed and Nadia) are slowly falling in love. Both are students and both have jobs. Saeed lives with his parents, but Nadia has made the unorthodox move of living alone as a single woman. Their city and their country (probably Syria) is falling apart. The opening sentence reads as follows: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” That silence is important and will accompany them throughout much of their subsequent relationship. Then, shortly thereafter, headless bodies will begin appearing at the sides of streets, a curfew will be imposed, the rich begin fleeing the country, the phones and the Internet are turned off, stores become empty, and whole neighborhoods fall to the “militants.” The speed of these events is overwhelming.
Soon there is no water, no electricity. Explosions in the distance become closer. Most people can’t risk getting to their jobs. With no operative phone system or electricity, communication becomes all but impossible. After his mother is killed by a stray bullet, Saeed asks Nadia to move in with him and his father. There are executions in the city, and grotesque incidents become the new normal. One day, Saeed’s father observes, “teenagers, young men, and they were not playing [football] with a ball but with the severed head of a goat, and he thought, barbarians, but then it dawned upon him that this was the head not of a goat but of a human being….” He wants to believe that his eyes have tricked him but soon realizes they have not.
Saeed and Nadia are supposedly the lucky ones. Although not married, they flee the country together, leaving Saeed’s father behind and prompting a shattering observation on the narrator’s part: “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” Think about that line for a minute and its implications for the world today. First they arrive in Mykonos, followed by London, almost magically you could say by entering dark “doors” and then springing out into those new locations. The motif of their dark passage, developed through the doors, suggests horrors of migration too bleak to describe. Shortly, those doorways lead to dark underground passages that become a web of interlinked routes spread throughout the world, as political and social unrest extends from the Middle East into the West.
The novel describes rings of refugee shanties and strongholds, typically surrounding areas of stability—at least initially. But then the unrest spreads to the destinations the refugees have sought for starting their lives over again, in countries supposedly representing stability. It isn’t too long after Nadia and Saeed are living in a group refugee house in London that that city also becomes unstable, not so different from the city they fled. Gangs of Europeans attack the refugees in what is described as a “nativist backlash.” Then, whole areas of London lack electricity and basic amenities, just like the city they grew up in and left. “After the riots the talk on television was of a major operation, one city at a time, starting in London, to reclaim Britain for Britain, and it was reported that the army was being deployed, and the police as well….” Migrants are killed in huge numbers; drones observe their every move. In the midst of all this chaos, Saeed and Nadia slowly move apart from one another, suggesting that the trauma of migration will destroy the strongest relationships.
“All over the world people were slipping away from where they had been, from once fertile plains cracking with dryness, from seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges, from overcrowded cities and murderous battlefields, and slipping away from other people, too, people they had in some cases loved….” Large cities in the West find themselves surrounded by rings of smaller cities, full of newcomers/refugees. Yet, positive results eventually begin to evolve from these changes, especially people realigning themselves with different peoples, but the trauma of the transformation is anything but seamless.
To say more would not be appropriate, but Mohsin Hamid in Exit West (as in his earlier novels) does not give in to despair, to nihilism. He is, in fact, a writer celebrating the possibility of hope. That’s what makes his latest novel so profound.
Mohsin Hamid: Exit West
Riverhead, 231 pp., $26