by Mohsin Hamid
published by: Hamish Hamilton (a Penguin imprint), March 2017
‘We are drawn like lovers to the unreachable past, to imagined memories, to nostalgia.’ In the Guardian (Saturday 25 Feb, 2017) Mohsin Hamid argues that in uncertain times, with technology advancing inexorably, we look back to a golden past for certainty.
Moving from Lahore to California and back again, as a child Hamid (like the young Brontes) created his own maps and made up stories to make sense of the world. ‘Story telling offers an antidote to nostalgia. By imagining, we create the potential for what might be… to liberate us from the tyranny of what was and is.’ He reasons that we can’t rely on politicians or technologists: we need storytellers who can offer us an alternative – ‘a radical political engagement with the future.’
In Exit West he attempts to offer this vision. ‘In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war’ Saeed and Nadia meet over a cup of coffee and begin a love affair. Hamid holds a mirror up to the way we live now, where migration and the constant flow of refugees is the norm. We are shown the fragile transient nature of each individual existence: ‘with cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying.’
The novel presents technology as something we have come to rely on, but which can quickly transform into a threat or an absence: the skies are full of drones and ‘one day the signal to every mobile phone in the city simply vanished, turned off as if by flipping a switch.’ People escape the escalating conflict through mysterious doors – exits from one country to another where migration is less of a journey, more a rebirth: ‘With a final push he was through, trembling and sliding to the floor like a new born foal.’
Nadia and Saeed decide to leave and hardship, hunger, dislocation and insecurity leads to a slow erosion of their relationship. Settling in London, where refugees have moved into vacant properties in Kensington and Chelsea, there is a ‘social media chatter of a coming night of shattered glass’ alluding to the horrors of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. The lights are out in ‘dark London’ and with drones overhead, tanks in the streets and military robots, Nadia and Saeed experience ‘the kind of dread that a small mammal feels before a predator’. But as well as tanks trundling through the city, there are volunteers delivering food, and somehow, and Hamid doesn’t make this clear, an agreement is reached that there won’t be a violent end to the occupation. The couple exit through doors to other countries; but they are moving further apart. Nadia turns away from Saeed as he turns to prayer, trusting in ‘humanity’s potential for building a better world’ because we are all united by loss. Society is beginning to disintegrate and there is a return to ‘smaller units’ because they make ‘more sense’ than huge nations.
Ultimately, Nadia and Saeed go their separate ways, but ‘people found things to do and ways to be…and plausible desirable futures began to emerge.’ At the end of the book Nadia and Saeed meet again for a coffee, in old age. There is still insecurity, but there is a new kind of acceptance and a sense of quiet optimism.
Written in the generalised, rather flat language typical of a traditional tale, but with passages of intense, limpid prose, Exit West ends by painting a picture of hope in an uncertain world. I for one am not convinced that it’s earned: the whole process is rather vague, more a drift into tranquillity than an active decision to opt for peace. And it flies in the face of the evidence of most of human history. But this is a novel to raise rather than answer questions, to offer us one possible alternative story of how life could be, which is what a good novel should do.
© Ed Kashi
Mohsin Hamid is the author of three novels: Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and How to get filthy rich in rising Asia, as well as a book of essays, Discontent and its civilisations. His writing has been featured on bestseller lists, adapted for the cinema, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, selected as winner or finalist of twenty awards, and translated into more than thirty languages. He was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and has spent about half his life there and much of the rest in London, New York, and California.
Notes: his website can be found here: http://mohsinhamid.com/