Editor's note: Up to 13 September, when the Man Booker Prize 2017 shortlist will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing all 13 books on the longlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders, and which ones you should read.
For at least a couple of years now the most striking images that become the tableau of social media warriors come either from the conflict in Syria or in the footsteps of those trying to escape it. The recurring question beneath this growing cascade of images that shock and at times awe, is that of the humanity of those in it, whether alive or dead.
For years now, Mohsin Hamid has given voice to many such images. He has given the people in them language, a heart, a story, some love and most importantly some humanity, their capacity to grieve for something other than what we assign to them. Hamid’s Exit West, which has made it to the Man Booker Prize longlist for 2017, is easily his most experimental, though not necessarily his most convincing novel. Through Exit West, Hamid brings to the narrative of refugees and migration a touch of magic realism, the immediacy of spare prose and a convex view of conflict — while he speaks of it, he rarely ever invests in its physical torments.
Exit West tells the story of Saeed and Nadia, both of whom live in an unnamed war-torn city that people are waiting to flee. In refusing to give the protagonists a location in the first half of the book, Hamid in a way universalises the context, and leaves much to the imagination to construct rather than relate to everyday images that are now norm; in a way abandoning the idea of the reader finding identity in location. Hamid leaves his protagonists to grapple with that question alone. “It was the sort of view that might command a slight premium during gentler, more prosperous times, but would be most undesirable in times of conflict," he writes of a view from a flat. Migration and displacement are of course key to Exit West. While both Saeed and Nadia are given to differing opinions, interests, desires and freedoms, their idea of home is in more ways than one linked to each. “Location, location, location, the estate agents say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians,” Hamid writes.
Saeed and Nadia’s restrained love for each other, and their desperation to find sanctuary where it may survive drives them to use so-called “doors” that are gateways to other places, far from the conflict of home. The two end up on a beach in Greece. While the first half of the novel delves somewhat into the everyday violence of bombings and murder, Hamid rarely invests in translating the physical experience of violence into the book. Though he counts down bodies, and choreographs their ends, they appear only as qualifiers and seldom as experiential candidates for the purpose of reading from. By the middle of the book Saeed and Nadia are through the door and onwards to others, each having left something behind either in terms of people or things they cared for. While Saeed remains rooted in the past trying in vain to build from it, Nadia is adventurous, yet the more delusional and directionless of the two.
Hamid’s creation of a perpetual criss-crossing stairwell at each end mouthed by a door through which refugees — or rather people whose homes and therefore identity, has been snatched from them — spill, feels both magical and distant. And within the margins of this osmotic movement, this magical portal, Hamid runs the small risk of undermining their journeys. The story of the refugee is inextricably linked to the story of land and sea; to that of travel, sun, rain, heat, cold, food, water and the endurance of men and women faced with the inevitability of borders. “In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was”, Hamid writes. Though Hamid iterates a sense of commonality among those, for whom displacement is the least unique thing about them, there is still the veritable risk of having denied the toil of their journey its importance. Is it because people with no home, and no identity, on a journey to wherever possible, will want to forget, let alone relive it? Perhaps, Hamid wants the readers to surf for his protagonists’ ability to reconstruct rather than remember, even though, the latter seems more likely.
In Saeed and Nadia’s relationship Hamid does try and answer some questions. While they are mobile and despite everything, still together theirs has been a journey of loss. The world has begun to shape each to his own method of surrender. While Saeed is the more reluctant of the two, Nadia is more accepting of that fate. Hamid — before he creates a magical, porous world for people seeking refuge — proceeds from a restrained glimpse of conflict, to a more humanising tale of love, grief and belonging. In doing so, he gives up the immediacy of circumstance in favour of the slow, sombre, development (or disintegration) of personality.
Exit West has a lot going for it. Saeed and Nadia’s relationship pockets conflict into the story of two people and delivers its humanity. But to discount the influence of the arduous journeys it takes for Hamid’s magical doors to function, let alone flourish, might come across as crass — even perverse. In prose, Hamid is clear, hardly over-sensitising and rarely ponders or hastens his rhythm. By the end, both, the book and the lives of Saeed-Nadia, are middling, slow, stuck as if trying to rewrite or imagine other ends. But what are lives without family, roots or identity? “When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind,” Hamid writes.
Published Date: Aug 12, 2017 07:04 pm | Updated Date: Aug 13, 2017 12:08 am