‘We are all migrants through time’

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £16.99, ISBN 9780241290088

reviewed by Michael Duffy

Exit West will perhaps be termed a ‘refugee novel’, such is its immediate relevance to the global humanitarian crises that are simultaneously shaking and reinforcing the rhetorical significance of Western borders in relation to ideas of sovereignty, nationhood and identity. Since the 16th century, considerations of sovereignty have been largely predicated on the existence and maintenance of clearly delimited and enforceable national borders. In this slim novel, the focus of Mohsin Hamid’s reading of the nation-in-crisis is shifted from the border to the refugee, that stateless and rightless category of persons identified by Hannah Arendt as ‘the most symptomatic figure of contemporary politics’ back in 1951.

The borders are collapsed in Exit West by its magical realist conceit: portals are opening up in disused doors around the world through which a person can step and cross the planet in one breathless moment. At first the doors to wealthy nations are heavily policed, and those to the Global South are generally left alone. In time, however, the proliferation of intercontinental portals begins to outpace ‘nativist’ attempts to close them, leading to a new pseudo-borderless world. Hamid’s fourth novel is a short one but one that represents the great formal ambition the Pakistani author has been displaying since his first novel, Moth Smoke, published 17 years ago. The utilisation of magical realism – a term I use because of Hamid’s use of the fantastic doors and also because of the novel’s stark and often painful realism – is a new discovery in Hamid’s work, and it allows this novel about movement of people to focus on the point of entry rather than the arduous journey.

At a formal level, the doors add engaging tangential narratives to the novel. There is a rich vein throughout the book of miniature, page-long narratives of migration as families and individuals step out of the doors around the world. These story fragments transport the reader across the world in an instant, serving as diverse interruptions to a central narrative that reflects the common pathway of the Syrian migrant through Greece towards central Europe. Hamid’s narrative returns to the ‘main’ story just as quickly as it departs, but the author refuses to departicularise the disorienting experience of migration and statelessness or draw it with a broad brush.

The novel is focalised through a young couple from an unnamed city – plausibly Lahore – as Hamid imagines an Islamist insurgency transforming metropolitan life. Those with money and status are able to escape through ordinary means, but for those who are left behind the rumoured magical portals are an elusive and sought-after means of exit. Nadia and Saeed fall for each other quickly and believably in this prelapsarian city. As drones circle silently overhead, Saeed must don black robes to meet his new girlfriend and enter her single-living apartment to pursue their romance and smoke weed. Saeed’s faith leads to some minor complications, but these are dwarfed as the city begins to fall to Islamist militants. Checkpoints are set up, first by the state and then the militants as they tighten their grip over different districts of the city. Slowly, the state begins to strike on militant strongholds and districts that have a perceived sympathy to the group or a disloyalty to the state. Thus the autoimmunity of the insurgency comes full circle as the city begins to attack itself.

This image finds a mirror as Hamid’s protagonists find themselves in Kensington. Portals are opening in the unused doorways in the unoccupied, palatial second homes of West London. In this novel’s near future, the sheer numbers of stateless refugees appearing in major cities is met by a ‘nativist’ backlash as far-right groups battle for the ideological frontiers of their nation. Groups with knives and crowbars descend methodically on the boroughs of London with lower concentrations of migrants, a city-wide kettling that Hamid’s narrator implies is not distinct to his imagined London. The dangerous similarities between the Islamic insurgents and the British far-right are striking, but the new cities still offer relative safety compared to the certain death of home. It is distressing to read the image of Hamid’s ‘natives’; their slogans bring to mind those of the right across Britain and Europe at the moment, reminding us that as the real frontiers between nations become more less distinct, the ideological frontiers of nationhood are reinforced to create an inverse curve.

Throughout the representation of this curve, however – the unimaginable plurality and scope of migration in Europe, presented in the spaces of Mykonos, London and San Francisco – Hamid’s narrative focuses closely upon the human experience of his central couple. It asks us to consider how a family can turn a room, or floor, into a home; how overlapping communities and sovereignties are established within the refugee camp; how refugees react to seemingly inevitable physical violence and fear; and how one can go from a successful job in one city to foraging for food in another. At one point Nadia and Saeed are left trying to rationalise the violence that greets them wherever they go:

‘I can understand it,’ she said. ‘Imagine 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 much to lose.’

The exchange is one of a number of passages that hints at a frustration with the rhetoric surrounding migration in Europe and North America that privileges the point of arrival and all but obscures any other factors. Hamid has written before of his rejection of the term ‘immigration’ for this same reason, as the wide-ranging historical events leading to economic or enforced migration are elided under nationalist rhetoric. Although these sentiments are frequent, they are not proselytising. On the contrary, they are expressed from different points of view, in earnest and original ways.

The novel is short, but in its brevity it strips the act of migration from the migrant crisis. The magical conceit draws the focus onto characters who now have a new world to adjust to, and as the mass movement in the novel is able to dwarf that of our real world, it also asks how we as citizens of wealthy nations are going to adjust to this changing world. Towards the climax of the novel, Hamid’s narrator declares ‘we are all migrants through time’. As we grow older, the world around us changes, and even if we live in the same house for our whole lives, we are migrants in the city outside of its front door. There is a redemptive note to Exit West as governments relent to the new world and states accept their new lack of delimited and enforceable borders. Schemes are orchestrated and dwellings are built in ‘Haloes’ around major cities that double their size. In this new world there is still terror and violence, but these attacks from extremists and natives alike are a defining feature of a post-September 11th world. They bring to mind acts of violence in Germany by and against refugees, and a rising anti-migrant sentiment across Britain after the European Union referendum.

Exit West cannot supply us with answers as to how to resolve a global refugee crisis, but it dwells briefly on moments of interface between migrants and ‘natives’ in a way that makes clear the importance of respect and humanity within our international political landscape. The magical portals of the novel offer us a way to think about how migration works, how borders figure into our thinking about identity, and how the stateless are once again becoming the yardstick by which we measure our society’s capacity for humanity.