Novels are, or should be, written in defiance of the now, in an imaginative sedition against an overweening present. For the bold novelist, “the way we live now” is rarely as fertile as the way we don’t. The realist can too often be kin to the journalist, content with obedient representation, staid reportage. But the fabulist, striving for the extraordinary, can be kin to the psalmist, the satirist, the seer.
The Pakistani-born Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel, “Exit West,” takes the current Middle Eastern migrant crisis and injects a wizardry, an allegorical urgency, that declares this book’s intention to be art. In an unnamed city about to be wrecked by war — you will think Mosul or Aleppo — two students, Nadia and Saeed, begin a romance. With its decisive rhythm, its faint suggestion of mythos, the first line sets the pitch of this novel: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”
Soon there are killings, curfews, battles at the periphery, the privations and asphyxiations of life under militant rule. Soon there are rumors, too, of otherworldly doors that can deliver you elsewhere, to possible havens in Europe or America. Like all doors, these doors have their keepers; like all keepers, these keepers have their price. They will smuggle you to the rooms that contain the doors: Blake’s doors of perception in that they are doors of deliverance, makeshift wormholes, conduits that are “both like dying and like being born.” Birth and death do not work backward, not even in Hamid’s traumatized fantasia. Nadia and Saeed escape knowing they will not return. Refugees are pilgrims in reverse. Home becomes a haunt in the recurrent murk of dreams.
The novel’s Marquezian title might have been “Love in the Time of Migration,” though this magical love story is, like most love stories told in full, a loss-of-love story — love abraded by the pitiless stipulations of living. As they arrive on the Greek isle of Mykonos, and then in London and finally in Marin, California, Nadia and Saeed must contend with the myriad hazards posed both by natives and other refugees, the opposition out to con or kill them, or return them to a homeland strafed into moonscape. They must contend, too, with a fanged grief for what they have lost and with Saeed’s dauntless religious faith when it rubs against Nadia’s reason.
Hamid has been much laureled for the lucent beauty of his prose. The sentences of “Exit West” are persuasively stressed with a fairy-tale frankness and its sinister undertow. If his ear betrays him with “impending ending” and “insulating glazing,” it rewards him with “labyrinthine gloom” and “seaside villages gasping beneath tidal surges.” If he is too frequently fond of the dead pair — “free spirits,” “hushed tones,” “vast majority” — he is also fully in command of the conquering image: “She had shuffled off the weight of her virginity with some perplexity but not excessive fuss,” or: “Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.” Writers should be wise, and Hamid is wiser than many — an unobtrusive wisdom born in wry counterpoint to ruin: “The end of the world can be cozy at times,” or: “Alone a person is almost nothing.”
In these pages you will find no indictment of the scurvy factors that created the wars and displacement of millions, nor will you find a secularist’s contempt for Saeed’s exhausted religiosity. Nadia’s unbelief, her indifference to prayer, her self-protective donning of a black robe: They exist not in modish irony but in hushed earnestness. Hamid understands that the novelist is no pamphleteer, no bitter soap-boxer. Writers of imaginative prose have a responsibility only to their own story, to whatever beauty and wisdom that story demands, and to the moral pulsing manifest in their sensibility, their style. When Hamid writes that “people are monkeys who have forgotten that they are monkeys,” he is not assenting to an easeful nihilism or to humankind’s bestial cravings, but rather offering the necessary reminder that people “have lost respect for what they are born of.” Lose respect — lose mercy — for what we are born of, for the natural world and our commonality within it, and we become partner to the most degenerate deeds.
No novel is really about the cliché called “the human condition,” but good novels expose and interpret the particular condition of the humans in their charge, and this is what Hamid has achieved here. If in its physical and perilous immediacy Nadia and Saeed’s condition is alien to the mass of us, “Exit West” makes a final, certain declaration of affinity: “We are all migrants through time.”
William Giraldi reviewed this book for The Washington Post.