Some will need to be killed

Theo Tait

  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
    Hamish Hamilton, 229 pp, £12.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 0 241 29008 8

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.

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