Posts Tagged ‘Mohsin Hamid’
This review was first published at the National.
Saeed works in an advertising agency, lives with his parents, and prays irregularly “as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way.” Nadia, against the wishes of her family, chooses to live alone. She rides a motorbike and wears black robes to ward off predatory men. They meet at an evening class on corporate identity and product branding. They soon become friends, then something more.
Both are trying to build their lives in increasingly precarious circumstances. Saeed’s father is a university lecturer in a country which hasn’t done well by its professional class. He blames himself for not providing for his son: “The far more decent thing would have been to pursue wealth at all costs.”
They inhabit a city “teetering on the abyss”, filling up with refugees and prone to random violence. This could almost be Lahore, where Mohsin Hamid, the novel’s author, was born. But the war, when it arrives, feels like a tale from the Arab counter-revolutions. The encroaching militants behave like Daesh, outlawing music and staging public executions.
So Nadia and Saeed’s hometown could be many places, and this is part of the novel’s point. “Exit West” is formally adventurous despite the initial impression of realism. Set in the near future, or in an alternative and intensified present, the tale twists between magical realism and gentle science fiction.
At its centre is a magical image. Naturally, the war changes people’s relationship to windows, “the border through which death was possibly most likely to come”. But their relationship to doors changes too. Rumours spread of doors closely guarded in secret locations, infinitely dark doors which open onto random distant lands.
If all goes well I will be at Notre Dame University in the US later this month for a conference on the role of Islam in contemporary European literature. I wrote the piece below for the conference.
Salman Rushdie once commented that ‘Islam’, in contrast to ‘the West’, is not a narrative civilisation. This, in my opinion, is obvious nonsense. Beyond the fact that human beings are narrative animals, whatever civilisation they live in, and that Islamic civilisation cannot be isolated from, for instance, Christian, Hindu or Arab civilisations, the Muslim world has a history of influential narratives which is second to none. These include Sufi tales, chivalric adventures, fantastical travelogues, romances and spiritual biographies written in several major languages.
Although the Arabic novel is generally considered to have developed in the early twentieth century from the experience of industrial urbanisation and the penetration of European genres and philosophies, Ibn Tufail’s 12th Century “Hayy ibn Yaqzan”, an inspiration for Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, can reasonably stake a claim to being the world’s first novel. The Arabian Nights (via Don Quixote) is surely another source of the European novel tradition. And Islam the religion – as opposed to the even more nebulous ‘civilisation’ – is a text-based faith. The Qur’an is the religion’s only official miracle; the first word revealed to the Prophet was ‘iqra’ – ‘read’. Those who attempt to draw a distinction between literalist scripture and free and playful literature should pay attention to verse 26 of the Qur’an’s second chapter which, immediately after the first description of heaven and hell, proclaims: “Behold, God does not disdain to propound a parable of a gnat, or of something even less than that.” In other words, the Qur’an is a text unashamed to use metaphor, symbol and a whole range of literary devices in order to point to ineffable realities.
Two reviews, one harsh and critical, one brief and bright.
I met Nadeem Aslam in Southampton, and spent an evening and a morning having wonderful conversations with him. When I told him I’d written a bad review of his latest book (half of it is bad) for the National (in Abu Dhabi) he was not in the least bitter, not even for a moment. I am not such a successful human being. I would have been convulsed with rage and venom for at least three hours, and then ill with it for weeks. He just wanted to know why I didn’t like the book. Well, it’s partly the politics, and quite a lot to do with characterisation. Then my review may be fierce precisely because I think he’s a major writer, and therefore fair game. (But I don’t think he’s fair game after meeting him, such a lovely man he is; I hang my head in shame). The negativity of the review may also have something to do with me responding to my own perceived failures as a writer.
And damn, they pay you to squeeze out an opinion, so opinionate is what you do.
The problem with writing a book review after you’ve had a book published is that it seems as if you’re suggesting you could outwrite the writer you’re criticising. Ironically, now that I should be more qualified to write about novels, I feel less qualified. Or at least worried that I’m setting myself up. Anyway.