Location, location, location, the estate agents say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.
~from Exit West
Citizenship in Western liberal democracies is the modern equivalent to feudal privilege—an inherited status that greatly enhances one’s life chances.
~Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration
Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by nostalgic visions, violently nostalgic visions.
`Mohsin Hamid, New Yorker interview
Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West features on the 2017 Booker longlist, and I have previously read, and highly enjoyed, his The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Exit West shares the same prose style — a forensic simplicity — which I really appreciated, and the themes in this novel are highly topical and explored from a powerful and new angle.
Hamid’s focus is mass migration, the inevitable result over the coming decades of economic patterns, climate change and population imbalances. His unique conceit — one that shares certain similarities with the also longlisted The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead — is that doors open up allowing people to be instantly transported from one part of the world to another.
This device gives a fabulist, magic realism type feel to the novel, but also allows the author to focus more on the effects of migration, particularly on the migrants, rather than the mechanics of travel, which otherwise command so much attention.
The doors felt quite real to me when I was writing them. I could imagine them existing. And they allowed me to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.
People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn’t a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.
~interviews with The New Yorker & Lit Hub
Overall, definitely one for the shortlist for me, a novel worthy of the Booker itself.
Exit West starts by introducing us to Saeed and Nadia, whose relationship lies at the heart of the novel, two young people living in an unnamed 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. For many days. His name was Saeed and her name was Nadia and he had a beard, not a full beard, more a studiously maintained stubble, and she was always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe. Back then people continued to enjoy the luxury of wearing more or less what they wanted to wear, clothing and hair wise, within certain bounds of course, and so these choices meant something.
It might seem odd that in cities teetering at the edge of the abyss young people still go to class—in this case an evening class on corporate identity and product branding—but that is the way of things, with cities as with life, for 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.
He watched as she walked out to the student parking area and there, instead of covering her head with a black cloth, as he expected, she donned a black motorcycle helmet that had been locked to a scuffed-up hundred-ish cc trail bike, snapped down her visor, straddled her ride, and rode off, disappearing with a controlled rumble into the gathering dusk.
When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saeed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black robe.
“If you don’t pray,” he said, lowering his voice, “why do you wear it?”
They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screens-down between them, like the weapons of desperadoes at a parley.
She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.
“So men don’t fuck with me,” she said.
The reference to smartphones in the above is typical of the novel; indeed Hamid has said the inspiration for the idea of doors was the way he saw people in Lahore (the city on which the city in the story was loosely based) using the screen of their phones as portals to get a glimpse of life elsewhere.
The first part of the novel tells of the couple’s developing relationship, one made difficult not just by the conservative social mores, but by the increasing approach of the civil war in their country as a fundamentalist militia increasingly encroaches on the city. Hamid describes effectively how normal life is gradually overturned, for example describing Saeed’s parents flat:
It was the sort of view that might command a 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 town: a view like staring down the barrel of a rifle.
First they find refugees moving to their city:
Some seemed to be trying to recreate the rhythms of a normal life, as thought it were completely natural to be residing, as a family of four, under a sheet of plastic propped up with branches and a few chipped bricks. Others stared or at the city with what looked like anger, or surprise, or supplication, or envy. Others didn’t move at all: stunned maybe, or just resting.
Normal life increasingly ceases, for example work:
At Nadia’s office the payroll department stopped giving out pay cheques and within days . . . a sort of a calm looting, or payment-in-hardware began.
But the militants eventually capture the city and Saaed and Nadia find they need to become refugees themselves. The novel to this point has been interspersed with vignettes describing people travelling globally through the doors, and as people search for an escape route from the besieged and then occupied city, rumors of the doors reach them as well. Although their use is not without danger — the militants would rather keep the population under their control and instead use the doors themselves to mount terror attacks elsewhere:
Any attempt to use [a door] or keep one secret had been proclaimed by the militants to be punishable, as usual and somewhat unimaginatively by death.
Naeed although excited to see the world, does not want to leave permanently while she is excited but Nadia, although worries about “dependence […] that they might be at the mercy of strangers, subsistent on handouts, caged in pens like vermin, she had long been, and would afterwards continue to be, more comfortable with all varieties of movement in her life than was Saeed, in whom the impulse of nostalgia was stronger, perhaps because his childhood had been more idyllic, or perhaps because this was simply his temperament.”
This all comes early in their relationship — indeed their relationship is rather accelerated by the turmoil they experience — and the different aspirations of the initially star-struck lovers, and the gradual cooling in their relationship, is one of the books interesting sub-themes.
They eventually find an open and unguarded (at least by the militants) portal, paying money to armed intermediaries and step through it:
It was said in those days that the passage was both like dying and like being born, and indeed Nadia experienced a kind of extinguishing as she entered the blackness and a gasping struggle as she fought to exit it, and she felt cold and bruised and damp as she lay on the floor of the room at the other side, trembling and too spent at first to stand, and she thought, while she strained to fill her lungs, that this dampness must be her own sweat
Everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was. Nadia and Saeed quickly located a cluster of fellow countrywomen and -men and learned that they were on the Greek island of Mykonos, a great draw for tourists in the summer, and, it seemed, a great draw for migrants this winter, and that the doors out, which is to say the doors to richer destinations, were heavily guarded, but the doors in, the doors from poorer places, were mostly left unsecured, perhaps in the hope that people would go back to where they came from – although almost no one ever did – or perhaps because there were simply too many doors.
Their next port of call is London where they find themselves in a mansion on the cherry-tree lined Palace Gardens Terrace, super-prime London real estate. Many follow them from all over the world and occupy the properties as squatters. Remarkably presciently, Hamid remarks that “unoccupied mansions in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea were particularly hard-hit, their absentee owners often discovering the bad news too late to intervene,” with the Leader of the UK Opposition recently suggesting such properties be requisitioned to house those made homeless from the terrible Grenfell Tower fire.
But the migrants encounter firm resistance from nativist movements, a reaction that Nadia understands better than Saeed:
“Millions arrived in our country,” Saaed replied, ‘When there were wars nearby”
“That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.”
The migrants tend to congregate on ethnic and religious lines, but others argue that they need to come together to resist the nativists:
What did those divisions matter in a world full of doors, the only divisions that mattered now were between those who sought the right of passage and those who would deny them passage.
They move on from London to California, allowing Hamid to provide his take on the foundation of modern day America — a theme common to The Underground Railroad and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, both also on the booker longlist — the “that had occurred in their lifetimes” and “those who others thought” in the below typical of the scalpel-like pen he wields:
In Marin there were almost no natives, these people having died out long ago or been exterminated long ago
[…] and yet it was not quite true to say there were almost no natives, nativeness being a relative matter, and many others considered themselves native to this country, by which they meant they or their parents or their grandparents or the grandparents of their grandparents had been born on the strip of land that stretched from the mid-northern Pacific to the mid-Northern Atlantic, that their existence here did not owe anything to a physical migration that had occurred in their lifetimes.
A third layer of nativeness was composed of those who others thought directly descended, even in the tiniest fraction of their genes, from the human beings who had been brought from Africa to this continent as slaves.
Their own personalities and hence their relationship develop as they themselves respond in different ways to their new situation:
Personalities are not a single immutable colour, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us. So it was with Saaed and Nadia, who found themselves changed in each other’s eyes in this new place.