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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Exit West

"We are all migrants through time," writes Mohsin Hamid in his melancholy novel Exit West, which uses a bit of science-fiction to express the viewpoint of the refugee, who are now used as political footballs when they just want to be safe.

In an unnamed country that could be Syria, Saeed and Nadia fall in love. Even though she wears a black robe, she's the one who smokes joints and initiates sex. He refuses, saying they should wait until marriage. "Are you fucking kidding me!" she screams.

The tension in the city is palpable, as militants are girding for war. Eventually it is a war zone, with death around ever corner. But then something miraculous happens: "Rumors had begun to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere, often to places far away, well removed from this death trap of a country. Some people claimed to know people who knew people who had been through such doors. A normal door, they said, could become a special door, and it could happen without warning, to any door at all. Most people thought these rumors to be nonsense, the superstitions of the feeble-minded. But most people began to gaze at their own doors a little differently nonetheless."

Saeed and Nadia decide to take a chance. They go through a door, not knowing if they will be alive on the other side. But they are--they end up on the Greek island of Mykonos. There are many other "door refugees" as well, who live in a camp outside the old town. This is the plight of a refugee--no matter being removed from a dangerous place, they end up in a place where they are not wanted.

They move on to London, where they squat in an abandoned house with dozens of other refugees, mostly from Nigeria. The "natives," as Hamid refers to them, don't want them there, and the danger is there again. The house becomes something of a place of horrors: "The dead neighbor bled through a crack in the floor, his blood appearing as a stain in the high corner of Saeed’s sitting room, and Saeed and Nadia, who had heard the family’s screams, went up to collect and bury him, as soon as they dared, but his body was gone, presumably taken by his executioners, and his blood was already fairly dry, a patch like a painted puddle in his apartment, an uneven trail on the stairs."

The couple start to drift apart, finding other partners, but move on through another door, taking them to just outside San Francisco, where they camp with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually they uncouple, a bittersweet ending.

I liked Exit West okay, but it didn't grab me. The prose is very simple, with mostly declarative sentences and limited descriptions. The resolution of the book makes sense, thematically, but left me unsatisfied. But it does raise interesting questions about just what one's homeland is, and why many people have a resistance to others living in their country. Nativism is nothing new, even in a nation of immigrants like the United States. It's somewhat telling that Hamid paints England as the country of violent resistance, while the couple seem to live in peace in the U.S.

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