Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Discontent and Its Civilizations by Mohsin Hamid

This slim book of essays by Mohsin Hamid is one of the most interesting and important books per square inch of space that I have read in a very long time. I have had difficulty reading lately, with lots of distractions and changes in my own life. Hamid’s small book of nonfiction essays promised to be short, relevant, engaging, and international, like his fiction.

These essays were much more than that. Hamid surprised and delighted me with his political section at the end in which he shares with us the notion of Pakistan as it is experienced from the inside: huge, populous, diverse, and multicultural. It has been so difficult over these years of conflict to gain an understanding of the place if one simply read the newspapers or watched TV commentary. Hamid assures us that Pakistan has its problems but indeed is filled, as I knew it must be, with people not so different from ourselves, who strive every day to work, raise children, and live well, if they can.

In a world where tolerance is becoming increasingly hard to find, it was thrilling to find a thoughtful, educated person taking the time to tell us about an area of the world we have been bombing (with drone strikes) for the past decade and about which we have only the remotest sense. In an early essay, “In a Home for Water Lilies,” Hamid tells us he began writing essays and journalism after 9/11 when world events kept him from focusing on fiction. He wrote “a piece for an American publication about the fears of his parents and sister in Pakistan as the U.S. prepared to attack Afghanistan. The paper deleted a paragraph on reasons for the anger felt toward America in many Muslim-majority countries.” A similar piece for a British newspaper was published in its entirety.

Imagine that. While this is not the first I have heard of newspaper self-censorship, it is the first time I have of heard it happening for a fiction writer rather than for secret government documents. We need this man’s voice, for he does not shirk from telling us what we need to hear: that America’s military interventions are so clumsy that they tend to create larger problems and greater resentments than they solve. We have seen this in our time, and know it in our hearts. Hamid dares to tell us how that is.

Hamid has lived in and enjoyed New York, London, and Karachi. He likes them all, though his movements around the globe have given him a refreshingly clear view of each of these places and the countries in which they are rooted. His essays from the past fifteen years reprinted here recount recent history, the present, and risk imagining the future of Pakistan. It takes someone of courage to step outside his chosen field and write his conscience to address pressing issues. We may not agree with him, but the opinion of a thoughtful man is hard to dismiss.

This review was going to be about other, earlier essays in his collection in which Hamid shares his favorite books, his preference for print over eBooks, and an amusing discussion on the current crop of really very decent television serials and what that means for the future of the novel. In a very short essay called “Rereading,” Hamid makes the case that small novels with fewer pages of plot can be “electric with potential” in a way that longer, more ponderous novels cannot be—potential that readers can realize once, twice, or many times in their lifetimes, each time a little differently, depending on experiences in their own lives.

Mohsin Hamid speaks to me. I mean directly to me. In “Enduring Love of the Second Person,” Hamid describes the “amazing potential of the ‘you’…You are given an active role, an invitation to create. Together.” It worked immensely well in his novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, and it works in his book of essays.

I highly recommend this title. It is a pleasure to read an author who excites, enlightens, and educates so profoundly in so few words.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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