“One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” With this Kafkaesque beginning, we are plunged into the fable-like world of Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel.
Like all great fantasies, random, uncontrollable change is at the heart of The Last White man. Hamid conjures up a world where whiteness is vanishing. Like Kafka, Hamid is not interested in why the change is happening, but only on the consequences of this random, seemingly irreversible change.
Anders is not an isolated case, and soon there are reports of others changing as well. This inevitably leads to violence, with vigilante gangs trying to control the transformation by gunning down those who have changed, while some adamantly deny the change that is taking place. Violence and mutiny becomes rampant, with pale skinned militants becoming a common sight in the town.
The experience of being ‘othered’
In Hamid’s last offering, Exit West, a similar inexplicable change took place when mysterious portals started appearing for migrants to travel from one country to another, which served as an allegory for the lack of agency migrants face. The conceit in The Last White Man works in a similar vein and causes us to vicariously live the experience of being “othered”.
In the epilogue, Hamid described the genesis of this book based on how his life abruptly changed after the events of September 11, 2001. Describing himself as a highly educated brown man with a Muslim name, he says he “lost [the privilege of his] partial whiteness” after 9/11. That sense of panic over circumstances beyond one’s control is tangible in the narrative, which comprises extended sentences with multiple clauses punctuated by commas rather than full stops. This lends a sense of breathless, fervent energy to the pace of the novel which hurtles at breakneck speed.
While the book is a thought provoking commentary on race, it is handled with moments of levity. Anders’s boss, when told about his transformation, nonchalantly remarks that if it were him, he would have killed himself. Soon this becomes a reality when news starts coming in of people killing themselves after being transformed.
Anders hears a report about a white-man-turned-dark who committed suicide on his front lawn; a neighbour alerted the police, believing the dead Black man was a home invader. After the body is identified, the police determine that “a white man had indeed shot a dark man, but also that the dark man and the white man were the same.” The irony is not lost on anyone.
Though the book is very much a fable about race and prejudice, it is buoyed by the human connection it fosters. Anders’s relationship with Oona, a yoga instructor and a friend with benefits, deepens after their transformation and shifting dynamics with their parents brings them closer to each other. Both characters are grappling with loss in their own distinct ways. They have both already lost one parent and are on the verge of losing another one. Oona is mourning the death of her twin brother from an overdose.
How our dynamics with our parents alter as we grow older are poignantly depicted. Oona perceives her relationship with her mother as “each having two sides to itself, a side of carrying and a side of being carried, each word in the end the same as the other, like a coin, differing only in the order of what face came up first on a toss.” The job of carrying becomes pronounced for both Oona and Anders as their parents grow frail and they are tasked with parenting their parents.
When Anders loses his whiteness, he is more scared of telling his father of the change than the change itself. This is since his dad was used to seeing his dead wife in his son. Now when his father sees him, he once again mourns the loss of his wife since “she was nowhere to be glimpsed in him”.
A racial metamorphosis
Each character deals differently with the racial metamorphosis that is taking place. Through Anders, the readers vicariously experience what it feels like to be “othered” overnight. Anders realises that once you are a different colour, the way people act around you changes which also changes who you are. At the gym, he becomes hyper aware of being under constant scrutiny. He tries to “act undeniably like himself” but feels awkward and forced so he instead starts to mirror other people around him “to echo the way they spoke and walked and moved and the way they held their mouths”. This will resonate with immigrants who feel that assimilating in an alien culture would spare them the judgmental stares.
Oona is already grieving the loss of her brother and father. For her the transformation could not come soon enough. It will be an overt indication of a change she already feels inside of her. “She could shed her skin as a snake sheds its skin, not violently, not even coldly, but rather to abandon the confinement of the past, and, unfettered, again, to grow.”
Oona’s mother’s coping mechanism is to align herself with conspiracy theorists who are of the opinion that this transformation is a grand plan to eradicate whiteness. Her obsession with finding online spaces that validate her preposterous beliefs also speak to how during early Covid days, a lot of people found solace in denying the reality of the pandemic and labelling it as a conspiracy.
Loss and mourning permeates the narrative – whether it is a personal one like losing a parent or a collective one like that of whiteness and privilege. Anders can feel his father slipping away and “that impending loss seemed more concrete now, more real, not like air but like a door or a wall, something you could bang against, bang into”. Hamid’s crisp, metaphorical prose makes the grief palpable.
For Oona, her father’s death was preposterous since it happened without a warning. She compares it to a trapdoor beneath each of us which could open anytime and swallow us whole for eternity.
The narrative also explores how the change in the colour of their skin changes the dynamics between people. This also accentuates how “whiteness” and prejudice goes beyond just a skin colour but is in fact a state of mind. When the white people start to dwindle, Anders notes how the gym pulsates with seething tension. The guys there now do not know how to act with others and seem like they are bearing a grudge against each other for being robbed of their whiteness.
Hamid ends the book on an optimistic, albeit naive, note where even the most racist are given the chance of redemption. In its entirety, The Last White Man is a provocative peek into a post racial world where whiteness is a distant memory.
The Last White Man, Mohsin Hamid, Penguin India.