Like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Never Let Me Go,” Hamid’s novel depicts a dystopian, otherworldly vision.
by Mohsin Hamid
Riverhead Books, $26.00, 240 pages
Reading Mohsin Hamid’s penetrating, prescient new novel feels like bearing witness to events that are unfolding before us in real time. In particular, Hamid explores the fear, limbo and uncertainty experienced by immigrants and refugees as they leave their home countries under dire circumstances and try to resettle in the West.
A native of Pakistan, Hamid is the author of three previous novels, including “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” which was shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize.
In “Exit West,” Saeed and Nadia live in an unnamed Muslim country, presumably located in the Middle East. They meet in an evening business class and become friends and then, furtively, lovers. Their lives proceed prosaically enough even as their city careens toward civil war. The “militants” are battling government forces and they take control of the city block by block, eventually reaching Saeed’s neighborhood. As the fighting intensifies, the militants impose more and more restrictions, and living conditions deteriorate. The young couple plot their escape.
The author of “Exit West” will speak at 2 p.m. March 18, at Seattle University’s Pigott Auditorium (information: seattleartmuseum.org or 206-624-6600).
The author uses mystery and metaphor to depict the passage between the war and chaos of Saeed and Nadia’s home country and freedom in the West. “It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born,” he writes in a narration that resembles the form and tone of an ancient parable. They enter a “blackness” and end up “on the floor of the room at the other side.”
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The couple re-emerges first on a Greek island in a large refugee camp along with “migrants” from many other countries. Their next destination is a vaguely apocalyptic version of London, where a million or more migrants squat in abandoned houses and apartments. As in other parts of Europe, tension and violence mount between migrants and nativists, and a major confrontation looms.
Saeed and Nadia decide to move again, this time to the U.S., and travel through “a nearby door” to the community of Marin, near San Francisco.
Hamid’s portrayal of contemporary America through the eyes of a newcomer is startling for its bird’s-eye detachment. He describes a community in Northern California where “there were almost no natives,” but those who proclaimed their nativeness most vociferously were only a generation or two away from arrival and “tended to be drawn from the ranks of those with light skin.” It is a dystopian, otherworldly vision that recalls Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” and is a brilliant commentary on the racial overtones of current nativist leanings in the U.S. and Europe.
Hamid is a sly stylist with an uncanny gift for metaphor. When Saeed and Nadia are no longer able to use cellphones to contact each other and orient themselves in their city, Hamid writes, “it was as if they were bats that had lost the use of their ears, and hence their ability to find things as they flew in the dark.”
He describes the brutality of leaving one’s home country as a kind of death: “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.”
Toward the end of the book, Saeed and Nadia grow apart as a couple, and the narrative stalls a bit, but the novel more than holds together and retains its urgent, extraordinary relevance to current events.