Jan Brueghel the Younger. Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld, ca. 1630, oil on copper.
I have always found the ancient practice of placing a coin in the mouth of the dead very striking. The term for such a coin is Charon’s obol (the obol being a classical Greek denomination with a uniquely unimpressive name), and its purpose was to pay the toll for passage to the afterlife. It’s sort of charming how literal it all was, and a nice reminder of how much a metaphor can weigh, how it can warp the scaffolds of our imagination and the things we rest upon them.
The metaphor at the center of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West (Riverhead, March 2017) serves a similar purpose. It takes the form of a door, through which our protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, flee their home. However, this is not a standard door. Nadia and Saeed walk through it in a building in an unnamed city that’s cracking in the vice of war, and they walk out of it onto the island of Mykonos, in the Cyclades, off the southeast coast of Greece—”It seemed miraculous, although it was not a miracle, they were merely on a beach.” That door, and the other doors that follow, are the only extraordinary things in the book (discounting the war they flee, the gigantic community of migrants they find themselves a part of, the reshaping of the world in turn—which seem somewhat less extraordinary these days). This is not a criticism, though.
An ancient body dug up in Olynthus, or wherever, is striking only for having a coin in its mouth, which is another way of saying all that intermediary time. Less a person, those bones around the coin, than an object or idea. We don’t put people in museums. We think of those at great remove from ourselves, through space, experience, history, whatever, as wholly alien. That is the imaginative failure that renders in much of the American consciousness whole countries, whole continents, into phantasmagoric wastelands, literal and ethical. And so refugees, from Syria, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Sudan, Venezuela, Somalia, Colombia, are denied a basic humanity, because we simply cannot extend our experience to overlap with theirs. Their lives are hyperbolic, unfamiliar. Or that, at least, is how they come to seem when viewed primarily through the camera lens, which can have, somewhat perversely, a dehumanizing power equal to anything else we’ve dreamed up.
All that aside, I’m sure it will be said repeatedly that this is a novel about the refugee crisis, which is true in the same way that Pnin is a novel about being a professor. Exit West is a love story, a tragic one—a couple meets, grows together, grows apart. The particular circumstances of war and refugee life induce a lot of strain, of course. But there’s nothing extraordinary about two people growing in different directions until the time comes that they’re better off apart, a trajectory the two would probably have found themselves on with or without the war. Such is life. And that is the point.
The inextricable tangling of the personal and political is central to Hamid’s work, obvious most famously in his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and probably something to do with its massive success. An unfortunate tendency to approach the two as an either/or proposition is the source of a lot of myopia in contemporary fiction, as their pull back toward one another requires constant effort to combat. Hamid’s novels are anchored firmly in the world but largely free of trivial stuff that doesn’t keep—the brand names and catch phrases—and the result, across the board, are novels firmly of their time (the first atomic weapons tests of India and Pakistan, the years bookending 9/11, the frantic late-capitalist entrepreneurial explosion in Pakistan and elsewhere) that retain the character of myth. And this latest is no exception.
In xenophobic times, imagination is less important than its opposite; a universal quotidian. The result is that the novel’s most fantastic element reads as an authorial intrusion that streamlines the progression of things, preserving the tremendous pace and fluidity Hamid cultivated in his prior novels, but in so doing excising the migrating itself, which is, as recent years have made abundantly obvious to even the most callous observer, no small thing. A high diction, self-serious and occasionally stilted, doesn’t help (“A mutually agreed time tax had been enacted, such that a portion of the income and toil of those who had recently arrived on the island would go to those who had been there for decades…”). But these are quibbles around the margins, really.
Exit West is about the ways children love their parents, and vice-versa. The arguments they have, the ways they try to please each other, and how they succeed and fail, sometimes unpredictably. Also, there’s the ability we have to find joy in another person, and comfort, and how two people speaking “quietly under the clouds, glimpsing occasionally a gash of moon or of darkness,” can find themselves suddenly, and without really noticing how, in love. It’s also about their ability to go looking for that feeling again after they have lost it—the tremendous capacity we share to erect walls around the self, and the equally tremendous capacity to hurdle them. There is nothing inherently different about a refugee, and nothing new or particularly perceptive in saying so. And yet it remains, to our undying shame, extremely necessary to point that out.
The contours of tragic romance are familiar to us all, regardless of the where and when and who. But the sky that hung over that other pair of star-cross’d lovers, to take one example, has become somewhat more dynamic. Those are satellites glowing up there now, and drones, and the twinkle is found in the eye of a distant twenty-something, hand steady on the joystick despite an overload of caffeine. This is an astrology not of the planets and stars but a constellation of weapons, literal and psychological. More human but equally inscrutable, and so more tragic, because we have a choice.
Exit West is a reminder of what, exactly, that choice is about.