A wry and delicate novel about the ancient human fact of migration.
(Slightly) longer version below…
The tragedy of Europe today, Mohsin Hamid has suggested in his essays and journalism, is an inability to articulate a desirable future. Whether in Discontent and its Civilizations, his collected dispatches from New York, London and Lahore (the three cities he has called home), or his reflections on Britain’s response to refugees, he sees modern nation states as mired in an illusory nostalgia that forgets an ancient history of human wandering and scattering, of border-crossing and diaspora.
So what might the future look like if the free world extended real freedom of movement to the millions of people who choose to (or have no choice but to) leave their homes and seek a life elsewhere? This is the question that underlies his latest novel, Exit West, a thought experiment that pivots on the crucial figure of this century: the migrant.
We are taken into a world in which just one component of reality has been tweaked. Everywhere, mysterious doorways have appeared – in bedrooms, gardens, back alleys – that can transport you to a different part of the globe. The narrative opens with Nadia and Saeed, a young couple in “a city swollen by refugees, but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war”.
The portals that allow entry from poor to rich nations are heavily guarded, but they appear suddenly and unpredictably. So there are short-lived opportunities to pass instantaneously from, say, Sri Lanka to Dubai, or Manila to Tokyo, or Rio to Amsterdam. Sketches of half-imagined figures making these surreal and sudden transitions adorn the main plot like narrative curlicues. And so the book is part pared-down romance, part 21st-century fable for a world of porous borders and new forms of connectivity.
Summarised like this, Exit West sounds as if it might lapse into shop-worn tropes of world literature: a redemptive love story set against generalised violence and apocalypse, or an overbearing political allegory with some hokey magical realism thrown in. But this wry, intelligent novella eludes these and spins out its own narrative shapes.
The opening scenes of a city sliding into civil war are brilliantly managed, precisely because the details are so restrained, and the encroachment of fear blended so unremarkably into the courtship of Nadia and Saeed. They dodge curfews and checkpoints to meet in a Chinese restaurant, or end the day smoking joints on the roof of her flat.
The city’s “freewheeling virtual world” is set against a daily life that is steadily being locked down, until even the internet signal is cut and characters are marooned in their homes. Hamid’s cautious, even fastidious prose makes the sudden flashes of social breakdown all the more affecting. Car bombings are “felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration”, like the bass at rock concerts; one day Nadia’s dealer is strung up from a pylon with his throat slit.
The couple leave through one of the wormholes, but what follows is hardly an idealised story of love in the time of adversity. Rather, we are given two young people thrown together by circumstances before they have become themselves – “a couple that was uncoupling” – and whose fraying relationship must endure the tedium, cramped conditions and anxieties of living in unfamiliar places: first a tented camp in Mykonos, then a squatted mansion in London, and finally a makeshift town near San Francisco.
The magical realist doors are hardly evasions or clunky deus ex machina – quite the opposite. Unlike many press reports on “the migrant crisis”, the narrative machinery here does not fetishize the journey but focuses instead on the destination, and what might happen next. And so it seeks to imagine a future in which the experience of mass migration has become (as it has been at many other moments of human history) an inalienable fact.
In previous novels such as The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Hamid showed a knack for snappy titling, suave narrators and confrontational pronouns. Both are beguiling, sometimes acidic monologues that conjure a “you” – a you that might be a fictional interlocutor but is at the same time always threatening to round on you the reader, wherever you may be in a world torn between failing globalisation and resurgent forms of nationalism, whether Trumpian or Brexitite, Modi-ish or Putinesque.
‘What your fellow countrymen longed for was unclear to me – a time of unquestioned dominance? of safety? of moral certainty?’, says the Princeton-educated analyst whose growing reluctance about the fundamentals of free market economics (and America’s manifest destiny) makes him leave post-9/11 New York and return to Pakistan: ‘I did not know. But that they were scrambling to don the costumes of another era was apparent. I felt treacherous for wondering whether that era was fictitious, and whether…it contained a part written for someone like me.’
In Exit West, this high-intensity narrative performance is set aside for a cooler, more distanced way of telling. Its more fragmentary, mosaic-like structure abandons interiority, individual voice and dialogue to write parts for those less privileged and more vulnerable members of the diaspora: refugees and immigrants rather than expats and emigrants. The non-specificity and formal, almost courtly prose make it a work stripped down to the essentials, perhaps to survive the vicissitudes of travel in the global literary marketplace. This is the price to pay for its geographical range, and the boldness of its thought experiment: imagining a world in which the migrant has been grudgingly accommodated and normalised.
There are, to be sure, outbreaks of ‘nativist’ intimidation in all the host countries. The threat of violence never disappears; drones always hover overhead, monitoring the new kinds of settlement evolving within the story. But at the same time, this immense geopolitical reality of our century is no longer disavowed or deported. After a militaristic attempt to expel those who have inhabited empty mansions in the West End fails, London’s authorities change tack: “Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process.”
Construction starts on the London Halo, a new string of cities in the green belt, “cities that would be able to accommodate more people again than London itself”. Outside the town of Marin, where the story ends at the Pacific edge, another kind of place is emerging. It is something between a work camp, kibbutz, eco-village, food market and music festival; somewhere that is being slowly connected – electrically, digitally, imaginatively – with the nearby metropolis built by an earlier wave of west-bound migrants.
The future of these evolving communities is not assured, but neither is it framed as a perpetual crisis or aberration: “the apocalypse appeared to have arrived, and yet it was not apocalyptic”; “life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief”. Evading the lure of both the utopian and the dystopian, Exit West makes some rough early sketches of the world that must come if we (or is it “you”?) are to avoid walling out the rest of the human race in the 21st century.