Migration novel by mohsin hamid: a world full of doors

Author Mohsin Hamid uses fairy-tale elements in "Exit West." He sends his protagonists on a trek across continents.

Hamid at a literary festival in 2014 Photo: imago/Fotoarena

It starts out like a random "boy meets girl" story. Perhaps not so random from a comfortably European perspective, as Saeed and Nadia, the couple who have yet to become one, live in a city preparing for civil war. In a city where customs are so strict that Nadia, who lives alone, has taken to always wearing a voluminous full-body robe to keep quiet from men. Slowly, the two get closer to each other and eventually become a couple.

Further development is accelerated by the civil war that has begun in the meantime. Saeed’s mother is killed. A bomb destroys Nadia’s apartment. When life in the war finally becomes unbearable, Nadia and Saeed decide to leave. They have heard of a door through which one only has to pass to enter another world.

Mohsin Hamid tells the story of Saeed and Nadia’s migration without the actual escape. He omits the path from unbearable A to dangerous B to promising C, the great, life-threatening and perhaps life-deciding adventure of the forbidden path. His protagonists simply pass through "doors." The first door in the – nameless – hometown of Nadia and Saeed is in a former dentist’s office. After passing through, the lovers find themselves on the island of Cyprus, where they live for a while in a refugee camp.

But they do not hesitate to go through another door that leads them to London. And there, too, there are other doors that open the way to other places. As a child, Mohsin Hamid devoured the "Narnia" stories by British author C. S. Lewis. There, the child heroes pass through a closet into another world full of fairy-tale adventures. The story of Nadia and Saeed also bears traits that point toward the fairy-tale-like, sometimes even the dystopian. A light, shimmering veil of the surreal lies over the entire narrative, especially the London chapter.

Lahore or Damascus

The London of the novel shares familiar urban geography with the real contemporary metropolis, but it is primarily the scene of an increasingly violent confrontation between masses of illegal immigrants who occupy entire neighborhoods and the country’s military, which is increasingly brutal against them. (A somewhat disconcerting vision, by the way, and probably not very different from the fear fantasies of British right-wing extremists).

Mohsin Hamid: "Exit West." Translated from English by Monika Kopfer. Dumont, Cologne 2017, 223 pages, 22 euros.

In the course of their protracted trek across continents, with each new door they pass through, the lovers change – as a couple and as individual personalities. While Nadia discovers the other strangers in the foreign land, Saeed feels more threatened by their otherness and seeks the company of former compatriots – even if they close themselves off to the outside world in a small-minded way that he would once have despised. But before the young couple’s relationship threatens to break down over such differences, they’d rather walk through the next door.

Mohsin Hamid has not written a novel about the current "refugee crisis" in Europe. The author lives in Pakistan, a country from which liberal-minded intellectuals have always been happy to migrate away, and keeps in touch with friends all over the world from there. The fictional city from which Nadia and Saeed leave because armed ultra-religionists unleash a civil war could probably just as easily be Lahore as Damascus. This is the perspective from which "Exit West" should be seen.

But this novel is not (anymore) about arriving somewhere, about finding one’s way as a stranger in another world. The protagonists’ flight has a point of departure, but no destination. It is the migration itself that shapes the characters, that on the one hand promotes their couple relationship, on the other hand impairs it. And perhaps it is even the strange in-between existence in the constant wandering that makes the true essence of people emerge more strongly than would have happened if they had remained in one place. But who knows?

Perhaps the wanderings of Nadia and Saeed, which Mohsin Hamid tells about, ultimately take place in one and the same place, in a Narnia of migration, as it were. The world behind the next door is again only an intermediate realm. And man is in truth nowhere at home anyway; not even in twos. Mohsin Hamid tells this melancholy insight like a modern fairy tale in which love wanders until it disappears.

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