Discussed in this essay:
Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. Riverhead Books. 240 pages. $26.
Early in Mohsin Hamid’s remarkable new novel, Exit West, a young couple fall in love in an unnamed city where war is about to break out. The streets and parks are crowded with stunned and dying refugees, but so far the unrest has been limited to “some shootings and the odd car bombing, felt in one’s chest cavity as a subsonic vibration like those emitted by large loudspeakers at music concerts.” Despite the distant crackle of gunfire, Saeed and Nadia, who meet in an evening class on corporate branding, do what humans so often do in such circumstances: they act as though they have all the time in the world.
One moment we are pottering about our errands as usual and the next we are dying, and our eternally impending ending does not put a stop to our transient beginnings and middles until the instant when it does.
Saeed, an employee of a billboard-advertising company, has been trying to design a campaign for a soap company. Having liberated herself, at great emotional cost, from her traditional family, Nadia lives alone in a rented apartment, works for an insurance company, rides a motorcycle, and wears a full-length black robe not as a sign of religious devotion but as a way of dealing with “aggressive men and with the police, and with aggressive men who were the police.” She is far less religious than Saeed, we learn in their first after-class conversation, a difference that will become divisive as the novel progresses.
Over the course of a few weeks, Saeed and Nadia flirt, have dinner, smoke weed, take psychedelic mushrooms. Early on, he suggests they abstain from sex until they are married. She is intrigued by her attractive classmate but determined to preserve her hard-won independence. The tentative advances and inevitable stallings of their courtship might seem more familiar and less urgent if we weren’t so regularly reminded of how doomed their world is.
Our awareness of that doom is intensified by an authorial voice that is simultaneously ironic and elegiac, as Hamid contrasts the relative placidity of his characters’ lives with monitory glimpses of the hell into which they are about to descend. The view from the comfortable apartment that Saeed shares with his parents, for example,
might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict, when it would be squarely in the path of heavy machine-gun and rocket fire as fighters advanced into this part of town. . . . ,, . Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.
The historians prove to be the more prescient. As the worsening conflict between the government and the fundamentalist rebels makes it increasingly dangerous for the couple to meet, Saeed invites Nadia to move in (and live chastely) with him and his parents. Nadia hesitates, until the matter is decided for her; the risks she faces living alone — frightened by the sound of explosions, she barricades her door with a sofa — have become too great, and she worries about Saeed, traveling back and forth to see her.
Even though Hamid has warned us about what is about to occur, it still comes as a shock to the reader — as it does to Saeed and Nadia — when the city turns into a war zone. Or perhaps what’s startling is how quickly a modern society can be reduced to almost medieval chaos. Firefights erupt in disputed neighborhoods. Nadia’s cousin is blown “literally to bits” by a truck bomb. The ponytailed entrepreneur who sold her the shrooms is beheaded “with a serrated knife to enhance discomfort.” The militants occupy strategic territory; people vanish, leaving their loved ones with no idea whether they are alive or dead; drones and helicopters hover overhead; Saeed’s father sees some boys playing soccer with a human head; an upstairs neighbor is killed at home, and his blood seeps through the ceiling. One by one, the ordinary comforts and conveniences — cell-phone service, plumbing, electricity — disappear. There are endless public and private executions, with bodies hanging “from streetlamps and billboards like a form of festive seasonal decoration.” The purges come in waves; after each, there is a brief respite, “until someone committed an infraction of some kind, because infractions, although often alleged with a degree of randomness, were inevitably punished without mercy.”
In this new reality, windows become apertures “through which death was possibly most likely to come,” and doors take on an entirely new meaning: “Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country.” When Saeed and Nadia realize that they can’t survive much longer in their embattled homeland and decide to leave, we learn that these “special” doors are in fact magic portals through which refugees can pass — and miraculously find themselves somewhere else.
These doors are in part a clever literary device that allows Hamid to skip over transitional passages and bypass strict chronology, but they also signal a turn away from scrupulous realism toward something more mythic. It is as though the most basic natural laws — the limitations imposed by time and distance, our notions of causality and probability — have been eradicated along with the social order. As the lovers fail to find a haven, it seems Hamid is suggesting that the dream of liberation, of escape from a global refugee crisis, may be as fantastical as the notion of the doors themselves. In today’s interconnected world, there is no exit.
Saeed and Nadia first wind up on the Greek island of Mykonos, where they live at the edges of vast camps crowded with people like themselves. Passing through a second door, they reach London, where squatters are occupying the palatial homes of wealthy absentee owners. But London is facing its own crisis. The influx of refugees has destabilized society and set off more violence — riots and attacks sparked by nativist rage at the city’s swelling migrant population. To Nadia, it doesn’t seem that different from the disorder she left behind. “She wondered whether she and Saeed had done anything by moving, whether the faces and buildings had changed but the basic reality of their predicament had not.” By now, the refugee population in the U.K. has grown larger and is becoming difficult to manage. The assaults on migrants — who have been restricted to holding camps, fenced off from society at large, and given strict instructions about beginning the process of assimilation — taper off, and an uneasy accord is reached.
After they leave London via yet another door, Saeed and Nadia end up in California, where the influx of the desperate and homeless has transformed whole areas, such as Marin County, from bucolic exurbs into sprawls of squatters’ shacks. Despite the immigrants’ poverty, a spirit of “intermittent optimism” prevails, “perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents had fled.” But even as Nadia and Saeed find a measure of peace in their new home, their love is tested by the cumulative stress of what they’ve endured, and by the divergent ways in which they have come to understand and define their religious, cultural, and sexual identities. Saeed grows more devout and dependent on the consolation of faith. In California, he prays
several times a day, and he prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents, all of us, every man and woman and boy and girl, and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being . . . and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world, and so he prayed as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope, but he felt that he could not express this to Nadia.
As he grows increasingly estranged from his partner, Saeed becomes attracted to the daughter of a local black Muslim preacher who is committed to feeding and sheltering his congregants, and to teaching them English. But it’s Nadia who decides that they should separate, and after she goes to work at the local food cooperative, she falls in love with a female colleague.
Hamid, who was born in Lahore, Pakistan, and has lived in London, New York, and California, has undertaken a project of considerable ambition: a novel about the daunting subject of the global refugee crisis, with a nervy and original structure, nuanced characters, a fast-moving plot, and prose that is consistently poised and precise. It is a mark of his success that the book never makes us feel that we are listening to a lecture about an important sociopolitical phenomenon, a feature that has much to do with the force of the language and the depth of its characterization.
It’s striking how swiftly we come to care about the people in his fictional world. The death of Saeed’s mother, for example, is wrenching, especially given that it’s narrated en passant, a few dozen pages after we’re introduced to her. Already hesitant about moving in with Saeed, Nadia
might have waited much longer had Saeed’s mother not been killed, a stray heavy-caliber round passing through the windshield of her family’s car and taking with it a quarter of Saeed’s mother’s head, not while she was driving, for she had not driven in months, but while she was checking inside for an earring she thought she had misplaced.
It’s the specificity (the lost earring, the fact that the old woman had stopped driving) and the unflinching attentiveness with which the carnage is registered (“a quarter of Saeed’s mother’s head”) that make the sentence so moving. The precision also contributes to our sense that the death was random, of no importance to anyone save her bereaved survivors.
Hamid’s unflappable prose is even more impressive in the scene in which Nadia is assaulted by a stranger while waiting in a panicked crowd of people trying to withdraw money from a bank:
There in the unruly crowd she was groped from behind, someone pushing his hand down her buttocks and between her legs, and trying to penetrate her with his finger, failing because he was outside the multiple fabrics of her robe and her jeans and her underclothes, but coming as close to succeeding as possible under the circumstances, applying incredible force, as she was pinned by the bodies around her, unable to move or even raise her hands, and so stunned that she could not shout, or speak, reduced to clamping her thighs together and her jaws together.
Passages such as this remind us of what fiction can do that even the best reportage can’t — of its ability to render history from the inside. Even as Hamid describes the deteriorating global situation, he never lets us forget that these events are happening to individuals whom we have come to know, and whose fates move us deeply.
Exit West is punctuated with brief, self-contained narratives, seemingly unrelated to the story of Saeed and Nadia, that are so cinematic they seem like treatments for short film noirs. They enhance the steadily building intimations of menace — the feeling that the global can suddenly become local. In the first of these, which takes place in Sydney, Australia, a woman is asleep at home; her husband is away, her house alarm deactivated, and her window slightly ajar. A stranger enters the bedroom, looks around, thinks about how little it would take to kill someone, then slips through the window, “dropping silkily to the street below.” In the next, set in Tokyo, a sinister man follows two Filipina girls leaving a bar, a gun in his pocket. In another, an old man in San Diego finds his house surrounded by men in uniform. “The old man asked the officer whether it was Mexicans who had been coming through, or was it Muslims, because he couldn’t be sure, and the officer said he couldn’t answer, sir.”
The most sustained and dazzling of these apparent digressions begins when militants from Saeed and Nadia’s country, hoping perhaps “to provoke a reaction against migrants from their own part of the world,” massacre innocent people in the streets of Vienna. The next week, a young Austrian woman who works in an art gallery hears that her countrymen are planning to attack a refugee encampment located near the zoo. Heading across town, wearing a peace pin, a rainbow pride pin, and a migrant-compassion pin, she is terrified to find herself in the midst of a bloodthirsty mob of men who look like “her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles,” who stare at her with “undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal.” The men shout at her, push her. She escapes unharmed, though, and continues toward the zoo to join the “human cordon to separate the two sides”:
And all this happened as the sun dipped lower in the sky, as it was doing above Mykonos as well, which though south and east of Vienna, was after all in planetary terms not far away, and there in Mykonos Saeed and Nadia were reading about the riot, which was starting in Vienna, and which panicked people originally from their country were discussing online how best to endure or flee.
As we in the West read Hamid’s novel, it’s difficult not to imagine that we may be standing on the brink of an abyss like the one that threatens to swallow Saeed and Nadia. Despite the brutality of their circumstances and their magical transit through one door after another, they are, after all, “in planetary terms not far away.”