Friday, February 24, 2017
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
People are on the move in Hamid’s latest book, south to north and east to west. This strange small novel definitely has the feel of a season of sense8, the Netflix Original production about shifts in consciousness, space, and time. Hamid’s characters, Nadia and Saeed, experience the bending of time and place, as when they leave their own war-torn country on the Asian subcontinent, a "passage both like dying and like being born."
Hamid’s female character Nadia, who insists on being draped in a black cloak or abaya, is more risk-taking and forward-thinking than Saeed. Nadia, not religious, wears the abaya to deflect attention, and it works, usually. Sometimes she does draw the anger or ire of men, when she is riding a powerful motorcycle or working in a store, but she doesn't back down, staring at the men steadily, aware and awake but not showing fear.
Perceptions of the abaya change in the course of the novel. Once a means of conformity and of escaping notice, in the west and in the future the abaya becomes a statement of nonconformity and defiance. Nadia likes this gesture even better.
Saeed, on the other hand, is good, kind, compassionate, nonviolent: he does not enjoy a tangle and avoids rather than confronts. He’d learned to pray from his father, much as one is taught to think critically or handle difficulty. Praying became “a lament, a consolation…a hope” that steadied and centered him.
Throughout the novel these alternate approaches to life gently grate on the two young lovers who had not decided to spend their lives together until they found they had no option. The genuine love they feel for one another feels like displacement, since the families of each are lost.
The refugee life, landing on Mykonos and somehow being smuggled to London, is hazy in process, but not in content. The danger, the hunger, the uncertainty, the resistance from light-skinned natives…these feel some years in the future, despite our current history, because electricity is becoming scarce, and times are harsh. Time in this novel is intentionally fluid and hard to reckon.
One day when Nadia sees on her phone a woman in a black abaya reading something on her phone, “she wondered how this could be, how she could both read this news and be this news.” Time was bending around her: she might be from the past reading about the future or she might be from the future reading about the past. She might be two Nadias…going in different directions.
Hamid also dislocates the reader in space, in one paragraph describing Nadia and Saeed in London and in the next describing a family in Mexico, just miles from the Pacific on the U.S. border, facing a paradoxically dry environment so close to water. No explanation is given for this wild shift west, as far west as one can get before entering again the east.
What happens in the novel is that time moves away from us. Hamid imagines our future, folding time and location. Remember Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being in which time is folded? Ozeki makes a statement about physics, love, and life on earth, and I think Hamid might be pointing to this also. His characters love one another, but the stresses of their needs wear them out. They find sometimes that it is just easier to try to slide through the cracks alone, though sometimes one wouldn’t survive alone. Think electrons. Think quantum theory.
The lifetime Hamid describes in this novel feels like it could be now and also a long time in the future: a Muslim country torn apart, population movement via smugglers, a Greek island, Europe. But interspersed we are also getting news from Japan, South America, Northern Africa. Something big has happened. The policies of control at first are harsh and then loosen, so we suspect a big event. Borders are no more and groups of people try to decide the best way to govern, to protect, to provide.
In one of the narrative shifts, Hamid points to a woman of advanced years and Asian descent living in Palo Alto. The woman lives in the same house she’d lived in since childhood, the house having passed to her from her parents. She’d been married more than once, had children, all while living in the house and yet now she felt distant from her neighborhood. Everything had changed around her while she stayed still. She was a migrant, too, Hamid suggests, because time had made her own insular unchanging world anachronistic. "We are all migrants through time."
This was a difficult book to understand through listening. I had the Penguin Random House production read by the author (thank you PRH Audio). Hamid read the book as though it were poetry, with stylized stops and breaths and some distance from the material. At times I felt totally involved, understanding it cognitively, but his sudden shifts to different parts of the world seemed intentionally dislocating.
The final quarter of the novel really threw me. I listened to it five or more times and within a few sentences my mind was wandering each time. There must be something in there that sends me off, not computing. I downloaded a print copy (Thank you Riverhead & Edelweiss). This work is a good candidate for Audible's Whispersync option.
This novel breaks new ground for Hamid. You are going to find yourself mulling his meaning as you examine our recent past, live through our near term, and contemplate our future. Below find a clip of the audiobook.
You can buy this book here: Tweet