1. Book review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; a phantasmagorical view of the horrors of migration

Book review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; a phantasmagorical view of the horrors of migration

Nadia and Saeed meet in a city at a time when violence is still on the fringes. She dresses conservatively, and though merely symbolical, finds purpose in it.

By: | Updated: April 24, 2017 8:13 PM
Love and conflict are the dominant themes in Hamid’s new book, Exit West, but the author also hints at a dystopian future where even places like London and San Francisco are not spared the divisiveness of migration.

Nadia and Saeed meet in a city at a time when violence is still on the fringes. She dresses conservatively, and though merely symbolical, finds purpose in it. Saeed’s fanaticism is more in the mind. The two get close and things intensify, just like the conflict. Life is thrown astray and soon things deteriorate, forcing the couple to flee, leaving all behind, including Saeed’s father.

Mohsin Hamid captures well the pangs of separation, the dilemma of leaving parents behind, as well as people’s inability to let go of memories, preferring doom instead, like Saeed’s father does. Nadia and Saeed manage to escape from the crisis, but find themselves to be migrants for the rest of their lives, battling one crisis after the other.

Love and conflict are the dominant themes in Hamid’s new book, Exit West, but the author also hints at a dystopian future where even places like London and San Francisco are not spared the divisiveness of migration. The question is, is the future already here?

Hamid’s books capture the eye of the storm—be it xenophobia post-9/11, the rise of the Asian economy after the 2008 crisis (never mind his assumption that Pakistan is on the bandwagon to economic boom), and now the migrant crisis, making his books always so timely.

The irony of Exit West, however, is Hamid’s elegant writing, which seems to be in conflict with the grim realities he chooses to write about.

Call it optimism or elitism, Hamid tries to see the silver lining in the cloud, finding in his past books Pakistan part of a ‘Rising Asia’ where it is possible to get filthy rich. Even when he talks about the biggest global concern currently, he takes a surreal view of it, transporting people across continents through ‘doors’ that open magically just when people need them. If only life were that simple!

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If only, the doors opened as seamlessly and easily for the lakhs of migrants who drowned at sea in hope of a future, any future. Hamid almost wants us to believe Alan Kurdi never existed or that the chemical attacks in Syria never happened.

In his world, people in conflict-hit zones are still able to listen to music, have enough money to pay for an unbelievably smooth exit through one of the ‘doors’, reaching palatial homes in London where they find hot water in taps and food in the fridge. Any resistance to the migrants, weak at its best anyway, ultimately fizzles out. Migrants then also have the option to open yet another door to America when they have outgrown London.

Could it get more convenient than this? One wonders if this is a tale of love in the eye of the storm or one of unbelievably, bloody good luck?

The result is an unrealistic, elitist view, which might make for pleasurable reading, but is rather misplaced when the newspapers show pictures of dead children in the aftermath of a sarin gas attack.

The love story, if not surreal, is surgical. Hamid had told me during an interview in 2013 that he spends more time cutting his novels down in size than in writing them. Perhaps the love story in the book is what has felt his sharp incisions the most. Nadia and Saeed’s love story has a reluctant start and a rather clinical finish. The emotions are reined in, the conflicts of the mind not deep enough, and the final separation too easy. Life, indeed, goes on, but who would be able to so easily incise from the future a person who has been your past and present? Maybe Hamid has his finger on the pulse of today’s relationships, where moving on is rendered painless by the alternative reality of social media.

In perhaps relief from the narrative, the author weaves in wisps of stories placed in far-removed geographies and times, stories where love stories end on a positive note and people end up not harming others. The reader is almost teased with these utopian situations, which are as real for some as the horrors of conflict and migration are for others. Unfortunately, the positivity of love and comfort and wealth can’t balance the grimness of the horrible realities that many in this world are doomed to live with, and from which there is no escape, no exit.

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