You know, those of us who leave our homes in the morning and expect to find them there when we go back – it’s hard for us to understand what the experience of a refugee might be like
~ Naomi Shihab Nye
In an unnamed country (in the Middle East mostly), Saeed and Nadia are trying to build a foundation of their relationship, while hoping the foundations of their respective houses remain intact – Nadia, a rebellious, independent non-believer and Saeed, a docile, gentle believer. When their country goes from an occasional eruption to a full-blown war- zone, they have to decide whether to continue to survive in the same country or to “exit”. We know they exit, to the west – “Exit West” – through the ravaged terrains of their country to Mykonos, to London and then to San Francisco. Will their relationship survive? Will they survive?
This was my first Mohsin Hamid and I didn’t go into it with any expectations. What struck me was the style of writing! It is lyrical, flowing, repetitive, jumbled, sometimes bordering on incoherent what with the little dash of magical realism and symbolism. Long sentences that sometimes become full paragraphs, and recurring usage of conjunctions, especially ‘and’, come out strongly as techniques for emphatic impressions. There is a rhythmic movement of words. Like this:
“In the late afternoon, Saeed went to the top of the hill, and Nadia went to the top of the hill, and there they gazed out over the island, and out to sea, and he stood beside where she stood, and she stood beside where he stood, and the wind tugged and pushed at their hair, and they looked around at each other, but they did not see each other, for she went up before him, and he went up after her, and they were each at the crest of the hill only briefly, and at different times.”
Occasionally, there are two subsequent statements absolutely unrelated to each other, looped together, combining shock and mundane, awkwardly, but interestingly. While one line may talk about the most nuanced philosophy, the next line could be a random observation of the shapes and sizes of the objects around.
Hamid’s writing makes a shattering tragedy sound like just another event of life, as if the war didn’t even count as anything unusual.
“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.”
“Saeed went with his father to pray on the first Friday after the curfew’s commencement, and Saeed prayed for peace and Saeed’s father prayed for Saeed and the preacher in his sermon urged all the congregants to pray for the righteous to emerge victorious in the war but carefully refrained from specifying on which side of the conflict he thought the righteous to be.”
“The agent spoke softly, almost sweetly, his whisper bringing to mind that of a poet or a psychopath.”
I feel “symbolism” is a hugely underrated and underused technique by contemporary authors. Hamid has used it but there was something lacking that I couldn’t put a finger upon. Doors and windows are largely objects which represent the exits. Could Hamid have done without those? Yes, he could have but that would mean showing the literal movement of the refugees, which might have shifted the focus from the refugees to the logic of passageways. After all it is not an escape story. It is the story of escapees.
“ONE’S RELATIONSHIP to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come.”
Hamid has also touched upon the complexities of sexuality amidst chaos of displacement of people with utmost esteem. Apart from Nadia and Saeed, some other characters appear and disappear, during the same time zones in other part of the world, making it a study of how humdrum one part of humanity can be when the other part is shattering to pieces. And yet again aren’t we all cut out from the same cloth?
“Everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.”
I shall recommend “Exit West” because it is unusually interesting. It can bore you one minute and curious the other.