Reading Mohsin Hamid’s acclaimed new novel, Exit West, as a window on the current global migration crisis is a mistake. The world imagined by the Pakistani-born Hamid is not one facing a migration issue – migration is the environment in which all its characters swim. It’s not a problem to be addressed; it is in the nature of being human.
You can draw your parallels to contemporary events. Syria seems the most likely candidate for the unnamed Muslim country undergoing a civil war where Nadia and Saeed begin their relationship and their journey. But the lens Hamid offers us is gauzy enough to allow the details of the place to move to the edges. His is a land of universals and lasting truths.
The couple is intriguing, mostly because they never entirely connect with each other. They meet in an evening class on “corporate identity and product branding” (3), a topic that comes to seem as relevant as advanced semiotics as the country deteriorates into conflict. Saeed lives with his parents and is faithful in his prayers, though not militant in his beliefs. Nadia dresses the part of a conservative Muslim girl, but she is much more independent, living on her own, willing to break with the norms she has been given. He wants to marry her and eventually does bring her to live in his family home. She is wary and hesitant about committing to him.
Nonetheless, they depend on one another and when mysterious doors begin to appear that transport people instantly across the world, they determine to leave together. Their doorway leads them to the Greek island of Mykonos where they find a camp that acts as a way station before migrants leave for other places. Eventually, Nadia makes a new friend who leads them to another door that opens the way to London, where many thousands of displaced people are beginning to collect.
The magical realism introduced into the novel by the doors adds to the disorientation of the story. Even when we are in named places, like Mykonos and London, (and later Marin, California), the presence of the doors destabilizes what we think we know. Hard boundaries disappear and a general anxiety grows.
In London it takes the form of a nativist backlash against the migrants. The military and paramilitary groups push the migrants into ghettos and disconnect services. There is violence and the threat of genocide.
Saeed and Nadia sit on a bed in the darkness and discuss “the end of the world” and whether their story will end here.
“I can understand it,” [Nadia] said. “Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.”
“Millions arrived in our country,” Saeed replied. “When there were wars nearby.”
“That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose.” (164)
That’s about as deep as the overt reflection on migration issues gets. Of course, you feel the resonance with nativist movements everywhere, including the US. But this is not a book that moves you to visceral reaction. There is an ocean of understanding here for all sorts of peoples.
Understanding, yes, but never real connection. In this world of doors, which allows people to slip away from each other so easily, the characters are always seeking something other than what they have. Vignettes tell of parents struggling to understand children who come and go through doors, of two old men who find an unlikely common bond because of a doorway between Amsterdam and Brazil, and of an old woman in Palo Alto who sees all the changes and understands that “she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. Everyone migrates through time.” (209)
There’s a prevailing sense in the book that technology is partly to blame for the disorientation. Drones fill the sky and we’re never sure to what purpose – benign or ill. And people disappear figuratively into their screens as easily as they move through the doors, something that is not magical realism at all, as we all know. Nadia and Saeed have several moments when they occupy the same space, but are miles apart because of their separate wanderings on their smartphones.
In the end there is a veil of melancholy and uncertainty over this book that matches the present mood in which so many people feel that their circumstances are limited and the old ways have failed. Hamid offers for encouragement only the reduced dreams of Marin, the coastal California town where Nadia and Saeed end up.
Marin was overwhelmingly poor, all the more so in comparison to the sparkling affluence of San Francisco. But there was nonetheless a spirit of at least intermittent optimism that refused entirely to die in Marin, perhaps because Marin was less violent than most of the places its residents fled, or because of the view, its position on the edge of a continent, overlooking the world’s widest ocean, or because of the mix of its people, or its proximity to that realm of giddy technology that stretched down the bay like a bent thumb, ever poised to meet the curved finger of Marin in a slightly squashed gesture that all would be okay. (195)
Here on the tail end of the Delmarva peninsula, I live on the other curved finger of American geography where the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay prevents the closed circle gesture to signify that things are okay. Hamid exits west to the place American dreamers have always gone. We look east here – to where our old stories emerged and to where new suns rise each day. The longing is the same. To know our place beneath the stars.