Magic persists even in the most evil situations. This, I think, is the message of Mohsin Hamid’s startling new novel Exit West. Consider Hamid on the smartphone. A humble and ubiquitous gadget these days, Hamid makes us see the device as a new thing again:
Nadia and Saeed were, back then, always in possession of their phones. 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, and to places that had never been and never would be. For many decades after independence a telephone line in their city had remained a rare thing, the waiting list for a connection long, the teams that installed the copper wires and delivered the heavy handsets greeted and revered and bribed like heroes. But now wands waved in the city’s air, untethered and free, phones in the millions, and a number could be obtained in minutes, for a pittance.
And there’s a later passage, when Nadia and Saeed find themselves in a polished London home:
They lay still, hoping not to be discovered, but it was quiet, so quiet they imagined they must be in the countryside – for they had no experience of acoustically insulating glazing – and everyone in the hotel must be asleep.
In both these extracts Hamid makes us see the known magic we take for granted, and brings visibility to the unobtrusive. Skype and soundproofed walls would have seemed like fiction, at one time – technology from pulp fables about space adventures and genetic mutants and variants of the apocalypse. In the twenty first century the technology is real, and the apocalypse is real, too – it’s just not happening in our country, at least not yet. Civilisations fracture into violence and chaos, and they don’t need an alien invasion or super plague to achieve it: in most cases, religion and politics and barrel bombs will get the job done well enough.
As Saeed and Nadia meet, fall in love, and build a relationship, the city where they live collapses around them. And again Hamid is brilliant on the little signs of end times, that jerk us out of our personal dramas and make us see the world around us for a moment. Checkpoints are thrown up, and curfews imposed. The internet goes down, then the water, and electricity. People stop paying in notes and coins and start bartering in food and cigarettes. Entire neighbourhoods are claimed for this or that sectarian militia, and gallows start appearing in the public parks. Hamid writes: ‘A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with the view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.’
Here Hamid introduces his central conceit. Just as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad brought actual secret railways into the antebellum south, so Hamid builds magic doors into his failed states. You can walk through and end up in Colchester or San Andreas or Paraguay. Although the revolutionary guards try to block as many of the exit doors as they can (for authoritarians build walls just as much to keep their subjects inside as to keep migrants away) Saeed and Nadia are still able to bribe their way through a portal. The idea of teleporting immigrants is a border force’s nightmare, and just as every world at Whitehead’s station stops is defined, in some way, by racism and slavery – so every journey Hamid’s lovers make is to somewhere shaped by migration control. Governments endeavour to keep the more desirable doors – those leading to the rich nations – under armed guard, and encourage migrants to return home or elsewhere through another ‘poor door’. Mansions of Kensington and Chelsea are squatted en masse by refugees, and the state meets them with drones and riot police.
But the doors keep popping up. Hamid includes several unrelated vignettes of men and women in random countries discovering doors in their homes, in their apartment buildings, in cellars and attics. Exit West is a story about place, but it’s also a story about time. Saeed and Nadia are constantly stargazing at planets from light years away, and in one settlement they have to pay a ‘time tax’ – a tax on new arrivals, which over time becomes a subsidy for natives and more settled migrants. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid writes.
Exit West is a short, lovely, meandering novel, compassionate but never handwringing, a tribute to multiculturalism without multicultural pieties, a story of mass migration that never forgets about the practicalities. ‘Geography is destiny,’ Hamid says near the beginning of the novel. The rest of his story shows that this need not always be so.