Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid, Hamish Hamilton, 240 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241290088
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 …
Even slimmer and more densely packed with ideas than its predecessors, Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, Exit West, shares with them a compelling engagement with the present political moment. What is different this time though is a magical element, in the form of the inexplicably enchanted doorways through which the book’s characters are able to transport themselves instantaneously to other parts of the world.
These portals are a device that allows Hamid to sidestep a more realistic treatment of his theme of modern migration, with its brutal actuality of trafficking and rafts, walls and borders, exclusions and executive orders, and instead develop a more general meditation on the idea that mobility, or change, is ultimately unstoppable and necessary, is life itself.
The magic doors are also a way to compress time, to speed up the movement of huge numbers of people beyond anything imaginable today, to depict what Hamid has described as a “migration apocalypse” and its consequences. And – not least, in this ominous era – it is, too, a method of smuggling an unlikely hint of hope into a grim story.
At the start of the novel, we are swiftly introduced, as always in Hamid’s work, to the young couple whose fortunes are entwined with the sharply evoked political background they spring from:
His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.
The robe, we soon learn, is worn not for religious reasons, but, as Nadia tells Saeed, “So men don’t fuck with me”. In fact, it is Saeed who is the more potentially devout of the two, showing gentle respect to the beliefs of his elders in their unnamed city (probably a doomsday version of Hamid’s native Lahore, though it inevitably also brings to mind Aleppo or Mosul), which is rapidly descending into war and chaos. While Nadia rides a motorbike, lives courageously alone, works at an insurance company, smokes weed and buys “shrooms” (her ponytailed supplier is later beheaded by militants, “nape-first with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort”, and hanged headless by one ankle from an electricity pylon), Saeed, an only child, lives with his loving and other-worldly parents, about whom he feels protective.
The intimacy of the young pair, who meet at an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding”, is constrained not only by the increasing dangers of their situation but also by the tentativeness of their delicate chemistry. Saeed talks of not having sex before marriage, and Nadia, though sexually willing, is not so keen to relinquish through matrimony the unusual independence she has achieved.
But before we learn these details, and indeed before Saeed and Nadia have even had their first date, Hamid has already whisked us away from their story to a seemingly random location in a suburb of Sydney, Australia, where a woman is sleeping alone in her bed and a man, a refugee from unspecified “perilous circumstances”, is emerging tentatively from her closet through a magic door, en route to a new life via her bedroom window.
We learn nothing more of these characters beyond this incident, and their role in the narrative scheme is initially unclear, but the pattern of such diversions then recurs in each chapter, with the action suddenly skipping elsewhere – to Tokyo, Dubai, Amsterdam, Vienna – for stories of arrival or departure through the migrant doors, sometimes accompanied by epiphanies or life-changing moments, migrations of the heart and mind, such as a reunion between a mother and daughter, a first kiss between two old men, or a new start for a suicidal London accountant who is saved by the appearance of a doorway to Namibia.
Even those who haven’t moved from their home place, such as the old women who have stayed put in America and Morocco respectively, are nonetheless changed by the coming and going through the doors. “Everyone migrates,” muses the omniscient narrator (unusual in Hamid’s fiction), “even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”
Introducing the idea of the doors so early on is structurally important, opening out the narrative’s possibilities straight away. Waiting until later, after a realistic beginning, could have been felt as a cop-out, with the sudden availability of escape routes robbing Saeed and Nadia’s story of authenticity and tension. As it is, rather than expecting a plausible account of the stages of migration, we have already moved into a different realm where it is also treated as metaphor or fable.
Meanwhile, in the unnamed city, there is not much time available to Saeed and Nadia to explore the nuances of their feelings for each other. As the situation on the streets and in the skies around them worsens, and curfews and roadblocks make seeing each other more difficult, the portals that are most important to them are the mobile phones that keep them connected not only to each other but also to the rest of the world, including the rich, advertised world of pleasure and plenty that now seems beyond their reach.
Hamid is very good at startling juxtapositions, whether between rich and poor on the same streets, or between online fantasy and brutal actuality; in all his books, cosmopolitan excess and hedonism exist alongside deprivation and violence, and the clash of unequal opposites is often the motor of the action.
The mood darkens further when Saeed’s mother is killed by a stray bullet while searching for a lost earring in the family car, an event of blunt suddenness that recalls lines from the book’s opening page: “With cities as with life, for one moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.”
Nadia now moves in with Saeed to help him look after his grieving father, but as order breaks down completely, work comes to an end, and shortages and unpredictable waves of violence make basic survival almost impossible, the threats to this new arrangement accumulate to a point where the risks of escape are less than those of staying on. The couple make contact with an “agent” who will help get them out of the city, and nervous plans are made to leave. But before they go – and they are now desperate to proceed – Saeed’s father declares that they must depart on their own, that he will not travel with them, that he must remain in the home place of his late wife and relatives.
Knowing that they will probably never see him again, the young people accept his decision, even while realising that “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Guided by the agent, Nadia and Saeed leave their city – Nadia first – through a door “that had once led to a supply cabinet” but now leads to an unknown destination. It is a “passage that 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.”
On the other side of the doorway, the couple find themselves in a public toilet on Mykonos, from which they exit to a beach, and then, having straightaway been moved along by the owner of a bar, to a refugee camp on the island. The westward trajectory of their story is under way.
In the Mykonos camp, “everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was”, and there is a brief period of security before problems begin to close in again. The couple get swindled out of half the money they’ve brought with them, they face hostility from some of the locals and police, and they are short of food or prospects for further travel. Some of the other migrants feel survival is too difficult and risk a return to their homelands, even though it is rumoured that the doors have been discovered and that militants will be waiting for them.
Saeed and Nadia, however, find help to move on, and pass through another door that takes them to London, where a spell of disorientating good fortune and comfort (running water, a kitchen, a bed) soon begins to turn nightmarish.
Although the prospect of escape offered by the magic doors could make for a less harrowing narrative, a powerful sense of dread and dislocation nonetheless accumulates in the dreamlike London scenes, where the empty Kensington properties of the absent super-rich are rapidly occupied by door-migrants from across the globe, in such numbers that a potentially lethal reaction sets in. Whole areas are sealed off by the military and the new arrivals await their fates in a state of increasing suspense.
Again separated from the wider world, Nadia, Saeed and the other migrants drift to the edges of their territory in search of the mobile signals that can bring them information about their own prospects. And sometimes, gathered together in this way, they see footage of themselves on the evening news, which “in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart”.
This moving apart also includes Nadia and Saeed, who, though now sharing the luxury of a room to themselves in a communal house, find it more and more difficult to be together, or even to touch each other. Their forced interdependency has started to drive them apart. While Nadia is adventurous, adaptable and tending to rebel against oppression, Saeed is wary of the unfamiliar people and cultures he is sharing his space with, and spends his time seeking out his “own” people in the surrounding area.
When, in a more assertive spirit, he secures a gun from one of his compatriots, for self-protection, he and Nadia find their sexual interest in each other briefly rekindled, though afterwards Saeed realises that “he had no idea how to use or maintain a pistol, not the faintest clue, beyond the fact that pulling the trigger should make it fire. He realised he was being ridiculous, and must return it the very next day.”
The scenes of waiting in power-cut “dark London”, and of the suburban migrant worker camps in the “London Halo” around the city, seem to be building to some kind of catastrophe, with escape routes apparently cut off. The only hope, in the interregnum before the military makes its final move, lies in the possibility that “perhaps [the West] had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open”.
Ultimately, Saeed and Nadia’s westward odyssey finds its final destination in California, where there are still further journeys of self-realisation to be completed by them both. Their relationship reaches a perhaps unexpected, though clearly signalled and believable, resolution, and the promise of hopeful possibilities and reconciliation suggested by the novel’s closing pages extends to the migration crisis too.
As with his earlier novels, a great strength of Exit West is Hamid’s dual east/west perspective. Raised in Lahore and California, and later a student at Princeton (where his writing teachers included Toni Morrison) and Harvard Law School, he also lived in New York and London on either side of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks before moving back to Pakistan, which he has continued to make his home during the recent era of drone strikes and terrorist activity. “A novel can often be a divided man’s conversation with himself,” he writes in one of the essays in his collection Discontent and Its Civilizations (2014), going on to argue that “hybridity”, rather than being a problem, “could be the solution. Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false.”
This volume of essays covers most of this century and, surprisingly, as the world appears to become increasingly dangerous, it shows Hamid gradually evolving a more optimistic view of the future. Evident in the mood of Exit West, this optimism is not something that might have been anticipated from his powerful but little noticed debut, Moth Smoke (2000), with its prescient and eloquent warning about inequality and the anger of the dispossessed, who, as one character says, are “fed up with subsisting on the droppings of the rich”.
Written (and apparently rewritten many times) throughout the 1990s, during that brief pre-9/11 spell of complacency when the end of history was being discussed, Moth Smoke is a satire of excess set in an extravagantly atmospheric Lahore, with plenty of historical forces at play. It depicts the decline and fall of Daru, a banker with a heroin habit, in love with his wealthy, high-living best friend’s wife, who loses his job and finds himself caught between a hedonistic, decadent elite and a traditionalist religious backlash.
Told through a multiple first-person narrative, but mainly by the witty and desperate Daru himself from his prison cell after he is charged with murder, Moth Smoke, according to Hamid, “had been for me a look at Pakistan with a gaze altered by the many years I had spent in America. [My second novel], I thought, would be a look at America with a gaze reflecting the part of myself that remained stubbornly Pakistani.”
By the time that second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was published, in 2007, the political context had entirely changed, and the book’s obvious topicality ensured that it attracted attention, including a shortlisting for the Booker prize. With a confessional form not unlike that of Moth Smoke (and reminiscent, too, of Camus’s The Fall), it is narrated (to an American listener) by its high-flying immigrant antihero, Changez, who tells his story of first being embraced by (or offering up his soul to) American high finance and then, post-9/11, of being steadily excluded by it. Along the way, he loses both the girl, Erica (or should that be Am-Erica?), and his faith in US market fundamentalism, deciding to take up what he comes to see as the righteous fight against it.
It is a brave book in that Changez, though suffering discrimination, is anything but a victim. He has deeply conflicted feelings about his adopted homeland and the betrayal of his family’s values that his own materialistic ambitions involve. As he tells his listener, this internal division is something he becomes fully aware of only when he watches the 9/11 attacks on TV in a Manila hotel: “I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.”
All Hamid’s novels share a number of characteristics: they take the political pulse; they are relatively short; and they involve a tortuous central love affair whose fate echoes that of its setting. They are also formally innovative, something especially notable in his third novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), which is structured like a self-help manual and told from a second-person perspective. Set in another unnamed city (Lahore again?), its instructive chapter headings – “Move to the City”, “Get an Education”, “Don’t Fall in Love” (advice its antihero once again ignores), “Avoid Idealists”, “Be Prepared to Use Violence” – are a guide to doing well out of globalisation, something its unscrupulous protagonists (known only as “you” and “the pretty girl”) proceed to do with maximum efficiency.
This time the potentially doomed romance has a more light-hearted aspect, as the lovers are too busy lifting themselves out of poverty to be mournful about each other. Selling bottled tap water and food that’s past its expiry date, “you” is a man who is prepared to learn any lesson that will help him escape rural destitution, build his business empire and, ultimately, have a chance to reclaim “the pretty girl” from his home village. Unlike Hamid’s earlier protagonists, “you” and “the pretty girl” are not made for heartbreak and, whatever their crimes and compromises, they retain our sympathy as they cross paths, lose contact, get older, and then, in unexpected circumstances, reconnect.
The lighter, more accepting tone of How to Get Filthy Rich … is echoed by that of the essays in Discontent and Its Civilizations, which, according to Hamid, “might be read as the experience of a man caught in the middle” of the war on terror. That conflict, he believes, has also led to a “war on pluralism”, accompanied by a great reaction against both liberal values and migrants, a reaction that is his subject, and target, in his new novel.
A response to chaotic and tragic times, the stark clarity of Exit West in both its recognition of the effects of violence and in its unambiguous faith in pluralism and tolerance, is also a message from a possible future, a kind of admission of an unlikely optimism, even if this can seem wishful rather than convincing. The acerbic, witty and desperate voices of Hamid’s early protagonists have by now gradually softened into the calmer distancing of Exit West’s authorial tone. From a worldly writer whose four short novels have so closely examined the forces that have shaped this century so far, it’s some reassurance that he’s still hopeful about where they are leading us, even if this requires a leap into magical thinking.
Giles Newington is a journalist and former assistant literary editor of The Irish Times.