In Review Books

'Exit West' is a modern take on the refugee crisis

Published Oct 20, 2017 02:14am

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Syrian refugees await registration of their names after arrival at a camp in Jordan, 2013 | Reuters
Syrian refugees await registration of their names after arrival at a camp in Jordan, 2013 | Reuters

"Storytelling offers an antidote to nostalgia,” Mohsin Hamid wrote in an article published in the Guardian earlier this year, at around the same time as the launch of his latest novel, Exit West. Novelists, he noted, aspire to be “the start-ups of the storytelling world, the crazy solo inventors in the R&D department of humanity’s narrative imagination”. But to do this, he suggested, they must invent an exit out of nostalgia.

Nadia and Saeed, the couple at the core of Exit West, meet at “an evening class on corporate identity and product branding”. He works in advertising; she is an insurance agent. Events in their nameless city turn them into refugees driven to enter and escape one city after another. The novel charts not only where they are going but who they are becoming.

It is Nadia who begins the many exits this novel orchestrates, even before she couples up with Saeed and flees their “refugee-swollen” native city. Before war begins, she has already left her family home and become ‘single’ without family — a survivor in the place she calls home. Saeed is “an independent-minded, grown man, unmarried, with a decent post and good education” who lives with his parents. The narrator notes that this is typical, that young men do not need to leave home to become independent or adult. Saeed’s home is a genteel middle-class residence, “handsome” though “crumbling”, and his scholarly parents are anchored to each other and to their city by firm bonds of nostalgia, custom and kinship.

At the beginning of the novel, Saeed looks up at the stars through a telescope in the living room of his parental home. His father calls this “time travelling”. Saeed promptly checks the planet Mars above him against the Mars on a phone app that identifies celestial bodies, “a Mars from another moment, a bygone Mars”. On their first date, he and Nadia talk of travelling; they name the places they wish to travel to, and Saeed’s features are “tinged with wonder”.

In a subtle irony that slowly infuses and eventually saturates the narrative, Saeed is shown to be an uneasy traveller, in time as well as in space. He sees each new appearance through older lenses, can only name the new Mars – the god of war – that he sees by comparing it with the old planet. But travel is Nadia’s element.

As the novel draws to a conclusion, Saeed looks backwards and his losses “combine into a core of loss, and in this core, this centre, the death of his mother and the death of his father and the possible death of his ideal self… were like a single death that only hard work and prayer might allow him to withstand”. The narrative arc brings Nadia and Saeed to a point where they prefer to abandon London to revealing their changing selves to each other.

Exit West navigates, not always successfully, two perspectives: the possibilities of mobility in a global age of itinerants, and the reality of refugees hemorrhaging from cities resembling wounds. To be sure, mobility here is not upward but lateral, not on planes but through mysterious doors that grant difficult but seemingly instantaneous passage from one city to another that, in another universe, could also punctuate the itineraries of global jet-setters.

Syrian refugees crossing the northern Iraq border in 2013 | Reuters
Syrian refugees crossing the northern Iraq border in 2013 | Reuters

The arrival of this undoubtedly accomplished novel on the Man Booker shortlist appears to settle the question of its political status too easily. It has been called the “first great post-Brexit” novel. It offers a vision of a nativist London up in arms against the refugees usurping its affluent districts that ends optimistically but also rather weakly.

An aggressive campaign to remove migrants by any means subsides into a withdrawal prompted by “decency… and bravery” but without enough moral or political complexity to occupy the story for long. If, as Hamid wrote in the Guardian, “radical, politically engaged fiction is required” in these times of mass migration, there is perhaps not enough politics in this novel to meet this requirement. The doors – which grant exiteers passages that feel “like dying and like being born” – also make invisible the messy business of fragile bodies trying to slip past borders. These magical doors feel like apertures in sealed off spaces – closed off as if by impermeable membranes – that expel the desperate citizens of one city into another. Passages through doors are enabled by Hermes-like guides and middlemen, though this novel, unlike Hamid’s earlier ones, is not too interested in their own stories.

Hamid’s descriptions of a city descending inexplicably into violence are finely tuned to the suddenness and randomness of the arrival of violence, how it changes geography and even gestures of intimacy, and how it erases home even for those who continue their physical existence in the same place. The novel draws on a global archive of images of war and violence heavily populated by the news media. There are some glimpses of horrific violence – a body hanging by a shoestring, a head used as a football – but by and large the narrative voice practises restraint.

The relationship between Nadia and Saeed reveals the more fascinating depths of the novel. It is a compelling reflection on the changing nature of attachment in a world where humans are repeatedly torn from their moorings, even if those moorings do not quite constitute roots. “Every time a couple moves,” writes Hamid, “they begin, if their attention is still drawn to one another, to see each other differently, for 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.”

The image of the screen appears often in the novel, marking the simultaneity of modern virtual existences. Surveillance is a constant, not just of migrants by hostile natives but, through apps and social media, of everyone by everyone. Interspersed slide-like throughout the main narrative, there are some arresting stand-alone vignettes about anonymous people entering and exiting cities through the doors. They coexist with the main story in a fragmented, episodic “adjacency”, to use Hamid’s own word.

Saeed’s and Nadia’s lives are also depicted in a kind of adjacency – they never have sex though they are intimate, are always side by side, touching – that never becomes ‘union’ but drifts off into separation. But this drift is also towards a future of indefinite promise. Nadia comes to realise that “she had been stifled in the place of her birth… that its time for her had passed”. Saeed travels, by her side, a different path, to become gripped by, not liberated from, nostalgia. It becomes, for him, a sense of loss that unites humanity, a sense of “the temporary nature of our beingness” and of the orphaned condition of humankind. He prays “as a lament, as a consolation, and as a hope”; he seeks community, not a triumphant but a melancholic community.

Among those trying to exit west are also many trying to exit the west as a spiritual and cultural destination. They have no use for what Edward Said, in his essay Reflections on Exile, called an “irremediably secular and unbearably historical” exile. In the same essay, Said noted that “exile is predicated on existence of, love for, and bond with, one’s native place; what is true of all exile is not that home and love of home are lost, but that loss is inherent in the very existence of both”. Exile presents an “alternative to mass institutions that dominate modern life”. Is this alternative available today? Or is it better seen as just another version of nostalgia? This novel may be one place to begin to pose this question.


This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


The writer is a co-director of the Arzu Program for Language and Literature, and an assistant professor at the School of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Habib University.