Book review

How will love survive in a world dominated by terrorism, war, and refugees?

A couple flee an unknown city just like refugees. Does their romance accompany them?

In an unnamed city, Saeed and Nadia meet at an evening class and fall in love: instantly for him, gradually for her. The invitation for coffee is turned down, but Nadia doesn’t make it a let-down. But, at this very instant, in a structural quirk that author Mohsin Hamid – writer of the celebrated The Reluctant Fundamentalist – employs throughout his new novel, Exit West, a strange, indistinguishable man or intruder emerges from a closet door in a Sydney townhome and disappears through the bedroom window.

A few days later, when Nadia and Saeed meet for the first time, a man outside a bar in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area feels his hackles rise at the sight of two young Filipinas chatting in Tagalog and on their way to a good time.

Hamid’s novel begins with this mix of an everyday love affair and suggestive simmering violence that, several pages on, is confirmed to be a fabulist allegorical tale. This is evident, to begin with, in the long sentences, mostly lovely, loopy and insistently repetitive in certain word patterns – they seem Hamid’s favoured mode of expression in this novel. Sentences that begin and end by containing, most times, entire stories. This is how Hamid writes of Nadia and her family:

“There was no physical violence in Nadia’s home and much giving to charity, but when after finishing university Nadia announced to her family’s utter horror, and to her own surprise for she had not planned to say it, that she was now moving out on her own, an unmarried woman, the break involved hard words from all sides, from her father, from her mother, even more so from her sister, and perhaps most of all from Nadia herself, such that Nadia and her family both considered her thereafter to be without a family, something all of them, all four, for the rest of their lives, regretted…”

Allegories of a kind

The sentence goes on for a bit longer. Yet this novel isn’t an allegory in the style of JM Coetzee’s recent novels or even some of Italo Calvino’s earlier works. Both writers employ the allegory in a stark, even fantastical way – whether Coetzee in his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus, or Calvino in his celebrated novellas like The Non-existent Knight and The Cloven Viscount – to place essential human dilemmas within an everyday recognisable framework.

This framework, though bare and just about containing life’s necessities, as provided by officials in Novilla, the city in Coetzee’s novel, allows the novelist immense scope in questioning and debating several of life’s important questions – such as those confronting David, the novel’s older character, who faces a choice between abstract “happier” ideals and giving in to baser desires. The two broken halves of Medardo, ravaged in war, in Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount, embody good and evil, and both aspects, Calvino appears to suggest, are essential to what makes us human. For the truly good are, in most instances, unbearable and hard to live up to.

Faced with this sort of “classification”, one can have, as I did, some qualms about the kind of allegory Hamid’s novel is. It can be hard, for instance, to take in a city that remains unnamed, one that is threatened by religious fanatics against whom the government is waging a losing battle, when, on a daily basis, television and other media swamp us with myriad images of violence, most emanating from a west Asia, that for years now, has been ravaged by terrorism and civil war.

“Doors” as metaphors

When Hamid uses the allegorical symbol of a “door” through which refugees pass almost seamlessly from one country to another – as Nadia and Saeed do, from the unnamed city of their birth, to the Greek island of Mykonos, then to London, and then to Marin County, in the San Francisco Bay Area – it is hard not to be reminded of the perilous conditions refugees actually travel in, seeking a better life, but always at the mercy of the weather, of unscrupulous human smugglers and increasingly xenophobic governments in Europe and elsewhere.

But for all that, Hamid’s novel is an allegory and one must read it that way. An allegory of the state of the world we live in at present, and what the immediate future might bring; with parts of the planet abandoned and left desolate in the wake of violence, other portions, all in the West, now swamped, invaded and remade by newly arrived refugees, who number in the millions and more.

Nadia and Saeed find themselves, after crossing yet another door from Mykonos, in a relatively empty, luxurious house in London’s Kensington, but its rooms are soon overflowing with the arrival of more and more refugees in a matter of hours. This leads to attacks by the local population, police-imposed barricades and threats, and the constant surveillance the arrivals are subject to. There is also an army of samaritans which provides them with food and essential medicines.

It’s an altogether swiftly changing world, in Hamid’s novel. In the space of one year, the two lovers, often mistaken for siblings, have left the “city of their birth” to arrive in London and are soon to be homeowners of a kind. But both have their own dilemmas as well. Does one find succour in one’s own community in a time of despair, as Saeed seems to think; or does adapting to, and accepting, a new way of life offer the best promise for survival, as has worked for Nadia?

Religion now provides comfort to Saeed in a new land. When he prayed, he felt an invisible, inviolable communion, with his parents, whom he lost in the unnamed city of his past. It is something he finds hard to share with others, especially Nadia.

Mohsin Hamid. Image credit: via YouTube
Mohsin Hamid. Image credit: via YouTube

Religion, nationality…and love

Religion, or following one, might be, as Hamid seems to suggest, an individual’s personal response, one among many others, to life’s crises. On the other hand, nations, belonging to one, and seeking a national identity, appear to be something entirely different. When do narrow identities subsume themselves into larger ones, again for individuals to survive? The Nigerians in the London house, as Nadia discovers, are truly, not all from Nigeria. They speak different languages, and make themselves understood by a newly formed pidgin and even sign language.

Yet they live together and take decisions in a council (a somewhat vague formation that Hamid doesn’t elaborate on) when faced with the might of the police and possible racist attacks. There’s almost a similar kind of amicable watchful co-existence in the encampments that grow up around London – a part that Hamid calls “London Halo”, where the refugees hope to build their new lives – and later in Marin County.

For Nadia and Saeed, the violence they have escaped from, to reach such places that appear altogether utopian, might be an almost agreeable transition, if not somewhat improbable. An allegory succeeds because it has arguably no definitions to be confined within, only analogies.

Hamid’s allegory is also at certain moments inconsistent. It moves from sharply delineated details of the unnamed city Nadia and Saeed have left behind to the more amorphous tourist brochure descriptions of Mykonos, or the easily placed Google Map descriptions of London and San Francisco.

What happens to their love amidst all this? In a world where the big questions of identity – religion and nationhood – remain somewhat half-resolved, love changes, as it must. What happens to love takes on an inevitable note; one, not related to grand sacrifices, it simply becomes a matter of survival in a “new world”.

Exit West: A Novel, Mohsin Hamid, Penguin Random House.

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