Book review: Mohsin Hamid′s ″Exit West″

Through the black door

In his epic fourth novel, award-winning Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid presents a love story couched within the modern phenomenon of mass migration. Moving from bleak dystopia at the outset to cautious optimism, it is a welcome foil to the gloom and doom prophecies of modern times. Susannah Tarbush read the book

The novel′s central characters Saeed and Nadia are young professionals living in an unnamed city ″teetering at the edge of the abyss″. When they first meet, the city ″had yet to experience any major fighting, just some shootings and the odd car bombing″.

Saeed works in advertising, Nadia in insurance. Their relationship blossoms even while violence between the government and militants escalates. ″In a way all my novels have been love stories and this is a love story about first love, which can mean a love that is perhaps not meant to last,″ the author says. He minutely and convincingly chronicles the course of Nadia and Saeed′s relationship.

In the novel, published by Penguin Books imprint Hamish Hamilton, Hamid vividly shows how people find moments of joy and strive for normality even when surrounded by increasing savagery. His depictions of atrocities are all the more powerful for being referred to almost casually.

But as society collapses, people become desperate to leave. ″Rumours had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country″.

Saeed and Nadia pay an agent to get them out of the city through one of these black doors. ″It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle, as she fought to exit it…″ The door takes the couple to the Greek island of Mykonos.

Cover of Mohsin Hamid's "Exit West" (published by Riverhead Books)
The black door as narrative device: it first appears a few pages into the novel when the scene abruptly shifts to Australia. A man with dark skin and woolly hair emerges from the black door of the closet of a sleeping woman and jumps from the bedroom window. Such vignettes of people in various parts of the world travelling via black doors are dotted throughout the novel

The universal city

Hamid himself experienced migration first-hand. He was born in Lahore in 1971 and moved to California when he was three. He returned to Pakistan aged nine, then moved to America at 18 and London at 30. A few years ago he moved back to Lahore with his wife and two young children.

During a whistle-stop tour to publicise ″Exit West″, Hamid appeared at the Tabernacle, West London, in conversation with Claire Armitstead, books editor of the Guardian and Observer newspapers. She asked him why Saeed and Nadia′s home city is unnamed.

Hamid said that although he had modelled Nadia and Saeed′s city on Lahore, ″I couldn′t bring myself to write a novel in which Lahore goes through these horrific developments; it feels too close to home. And I didn′t want to write a novel about Pakistan tumbling to the Taliban, because that′s the narrative that we hear over and over again and it′s not one I want to repeat or reinforce. Besides I don′t think it′s likely to occur.″

In addition, he wanted ″to expand that city so it could be many people′s city.″ At the recent Lahore Literary Festival he met an artist who had spent a lot of time in Syria, ″and she was convinced that I was writing about Aleppo.″

Although Hamid′s own migrations were voluntary and not those of a refugee, he tasted some of the downsides of migration. At one point in ″Exit West″ the narrator observes: ″… for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.″

Hamid said: ″It′s not that we kill them, but we kill the time we spend with them which is emotionally very similar. There is an emotional violence to migration… it isn′t easy at all. To leave behind your parents, your siblings, your cousins, your friends, your city, the food, the music, the architecture – that is incredibly painful.″

Portals to other worlds

He describes the novel as ″almost like a children′s book for adults. The narrator has a kind of omniscient perspective but is partisan, is sort of cheering for the characters and is also on the side of the reader.″ While the book′s black doors do not obey the laws of physics, they are ″true to the emotional reality we find ourselves in today″ and ″they feel very much part of our present technological cultural moment.″

For example, he had been in Dublin the previous day, Manchester the day before that and in Lahore the day before that and would be in New York the following day. ″I literally stepped through the door of an aircraft and there I was.″ And the screens of mobile phones – or of a Skype conversation via computer – are like rectangular portals into other worlds.

The climax of ″Exit West″ comes in London. Travelling via a black door from Mykonos, Saeed and Nadia find themselves in a luxury mansion in the Kensington and Chelsea area. A million or more migrants have poured into the city and are confronted by the authorities and by ″nativists″. Electricity to Kensington and Chelsea is cut off and the area becomes ″dark London″. At night, ″in the darkness, as drones and helicopters and surveillance balloons prowled intermittently overhead, fights would sometimes break out and there were murders and rapes and assaults as well.″

There is a build-up of military and para-military forces: ″A great massacre, it seemed was in the offing.″ And yet this moment passes. London adapts to the influx of migrants and a ring of new cities – ″The London Halo″ – is built to accommodate them. At Nadia′s suggestion, she and Saeed move to the new city of Marin on the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco, hoping to rekindle their relationship.

The switch from the largely dystopian vision of the first part of the novel to the brighter tone of later chapters is in keeping with the author′s belief in the need for optimism. ″At this particular historical juncture it is very important to be optimistic,″ Hamid told the audience at the Tabernacle. ″I think we all have to be radically optimistic, because all around us are these pessimistic visions.″

Pessimism gives rise to nostalgia, manifesting itself in a desire to return to the Caliphate of the 7th or 8th centuries, to Britain before the EU, or America in the 1950s. Yet we cannot go back. ″The only direction we can go is forward: in our attempts to go back, all types of atrocities and horrors get committed.″

Susannah Tarbush

© Qantara.de 2017

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