The real question raised by the refugee crisis of 2015, Mohsin Hamid wrote at the time, is ‘not whether the people of the countries of Europe wish to accept more refugees’. The real question is whether ‘they wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration’:
Simply hardening borders and watching refugees drown offshore or bleed to death on razor wire will not be enough. Europe will have to drastically reduce its attractiveness to refugees. Those who look like refugees will need to be terrorised. They will need to be systematically beaten, rounded up, expelled. Some will need to be killed. The avenues of advancement of those who are not native-born will need to be curtailed by law and by custom – a system of apartheid will need to be instituted. To be of apparent migrant origin in a European country will need to become a fate worse than living in a town or village overrun by bloodthirsty fanatics, by rapacious warlords and thugs … In such a Europe, the essence of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich will not have been defeated; it will merely have suffered an interruption that lasted a few decades.
In articles and interviews, Hamid has repeatedly expressed the view that migration on a ‘vast scale’ is coming to the developed world no matter what, and that this is not something that it would be reasonable or desirable to resist. Instead, he suggests, developed countries should look to their state of mind. Their thinking is dominated by fear of migrants and the future they represent, and by ‘violently nostalgic visions’ of taking back control, of making America great again, and so on. This, he thinks, is a failure of the imagination: ‘The time has come to reverse our perspective, to recognise that visions of a desirable future have been eluding us because we have failed to consider that migrants are not a nightmare.’
Exit West, Hamid’s latest novel, is clearly inspired by the events of 2015. The book replays much of the news imagery of that year and the year before: great cities overrun by militants; migrants in their thousands on tourist beaches, in island camps, appearing suddenly in European cities. It’s a strange, dazed book, which flirts with the contemporary vein of apocalypse, and rejects it in favour of what, echoing Hamid’s journalism, it calls a ‘plausible desirable future’ – all in the space of two hundred or so widely spaced pages. Its effects are hard to read: explicitly political arguments are mixed in with a vein of mysticism. Like his last two novels, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) and How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013), it combines a hardnosed, realistic perspective – a good dose of historical materialism – with something offbeat and jarring. In this case, that involves ‘relaxing the laws of physics’, as Hamid has put it, ‘in just one, specific, particular way’: in this fictional world, doors open up all over the globe, allowing immediate passage from one place to another.
The story begins: ‘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.’ The young man, Saeed, is a dutiful son who lives with his parents. The young woman, Nadia, is strong and independent, and has cut ties with her family. She is ‘always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe’ – not out of devoutness, but, as she explains, ‘so men don’t fuck with me’. The city is unnamed, though it is clearly in Asia and predominantly Muslim. It is presumably a version of Hamid’s native Lahore, though events are going the way of Mosul or Aleppo. At first it is ‘teetering at the edge of the abyss’: militants encroach and then gradually take over. Roadblocks and car bombings give way to aerial bombardments and rebel occupation. The tone of the writing is curious. There are elements of fable or allegory in the lack of specificity: only Saeed and Nadia are named; the militants are simply ‘militants’, with little further explanation; the diction is sometimes archaic (‘thrice’, ‘ere’). Yet the detail is often modern and precise: they meet at ‘an evening class on corporate identity and product branding’. Their love affair is conducted to a large extent by email and mobile phone; their dates take place in a Chinese restaurant.
The main narrative is interspersed with short vignettes in which migrants suddenly emerge in, say, a Sydney suburb or a Dubai hotel: a dark-skinned man is seen pushing his way through a closet doorway – ‘a rectangle of complete darkness’ – into a bedroom where a pale-skinned woman lies sleeping, before ‘trembling and sliding to the floor like a newborn foal’. Saeed and Nadia hear rumours of such doors, and, as life becomes increasingly intolerable in their city, they make the decision to leave. After paying money to a menacing, softly spoken ‘agent’, they find themselves in an abandoned dentist’s clinic, where the door to a supply cabinet has turned into a portal to another place:
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.
The door leads to a public toilet on a beach on the island of Mykonos; nearby they find a refugee camp. Mykonos proves to be at best an uncomfortable limbo for the refugees, and at worst a trap: their days are ‘full of waiting and false hopes’, with the constant threat of violence at the hands of other refugees or of groups of local men. Eventually, though, they find their way to another door, which leads into a luxurious villa in Notting Hill – all ‘pale woods and cream rugs and white walls’, with towels ‘so plush and fine’ that Nadia ‘felt like a princess using them, or at least like the daughter of a dictator who was willing to kill without mercy in order for his children to pamper themselves with cotton such as this’. The house is empty when they get there – it seems to have a foreign absentee owner – but soon there are other new arrivals: ‘A dozen Nigerians, later a few Somalis, after them a family from the borderlands between Myanmar and Thailand.’
In one respect, the metaphor of the doorways is a fairly simple one: it’s a figure for a world in which distance has grown smaller and travel easier. It exaggerates the current situation so as to throw light on it, positing the inevitability of mass migration and the curious custom of treating human beings as belonging to a sub-species just because they have, as it were, walked through a door. The metaphor seems to be an extrapolation from those other rectangular portals through which the characters are constantly travelling: their smartphones. ‘In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near.’ It also allows Hamid to sidestep the old standby of migrant stories, the harrowing journey across the Mediterranean or the Sahara.
In London, the novel takes an apocalyptic turn, mixing satire and survivalist excitements. The house becomes a kind of globalised squat, one of many. There are one or two million new migrants in London, it transpires, many camped out in the ‘unoccupied mansions in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea’. Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens fill up with tents. The ‘native’ population leaves: the local authorities cut off the electricity, and the area between Westminster and Hammersmith becomes known as ‘dark London’; it is described by the newspapers as one of the ‘black holes in the fabric of the nation’. There are soup kitchens catering to the new arrivals, but also ‘nativist’ mobs running wild. A cordon around the migrant-dominated areas is patrolled by soldiers and armoured cars, helicopters and drones. There is ominous talk of ‘holding camps’ in the green belt. Ultimately, though, ‘the natives and their forces’ step back from the brink:
Perhaps they had decided that they did not have it in them to do what needed to be done, to corral and bloody and where necessary slaughter the migrants, and had determined that some other way would have to be found. Perhaps they had grasped that the doors could not be closed, and new doors would continue to be open, and they had understood that the denial of coexistence would have required one party to cease to exist, and the extinguishing party too would have been transformed in the process, and too many native parents would not after have been able to look their children in the eye, to speak with head held high of what their generation had done.
The final section of the novel, probably its weakest, sketches out the alternatives to genocide. A new city bigger than the original, the London Halo, is built around the capital, constructed by the new arrivals. In return, ‘migrants were promised 40 metres and a pipe: a home on 40 square metres of land and a connection to all the utilities of modernity’ – the 21st-century version of General Sherman’s forty acres and a mule. A ‘time tax’ is enacted, so that ‘a portion of the income and the toil of those who had recently arrived on the island would go to those who had been there for decades.’ Saeed and Nadia eventually move to northern California, via another portal, where there are new cities made of shacks with solar panels: a not unattractive new world explicitly compared to a music festival. And then there is Exit West’s keynote speech:
It has been said that depression is a failure to imagine a plausible desirable future for oneself, and, not just in Marin, but in the whole region, in the Bay Area, and in many other places too, places both near and far, the apocalypse appeared to have arrived and yet it was not apocalyptic, which is to say that while the changes were jarring they were not the end, and life went on, and people found things to do and ways to be and people to be with, and plausible desirable futures began to emerge, unimaginable previously, but not unimaginable now, and the result was something not unlike relief.
Hamid has a weakness for clever ideas that, on closer examination, seem a little callow: The Reluctant Fundamentalist was based on a not very compelling equation between Islamic fundamentalism and the free market kind. Similarly, the new novel gives the impression that whizzy rhetorical solutions are being offered to intractable real-world problems. Exit West occasionally exhibits a technological optimism reminiscent of a TED talk or, at its worst, an uplifting telecommunications advert. In one particularly saccharine insert, a man falls in love with another halfway round the world, thanks to the opening of a new portal. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ the reader is solemnly informed. Where the novel is most explicit it is least convincing, its tone of glassy generalisation tipping over into liberal wish fulfilment:
The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.
But as always with a Mohsin Hamid novel, there’s a lot going on, even if you don’t exactly buy into the central premise. Saeed and Nadia’s unorthodox love story is subtly affecting. The personal meanings of migration are evoked more persuasively than the wider political ramifications. The most memorable line comes at the end of a wrenching departure scene: ‘When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.’ Hamid’s prose is always intriguing. Decorous, formal and restrained, it moves seamlessly between the language of the fable, the human rights report and the prayer. It makes for a powerful fantasy.