Mahsin Hamid’s brilliant and wise Exit West is a story of love and its dissolution and a meditation on migration.
Saeed and Nadia meet in a city “swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace” (3) in a country embroiled in civil war. Nadia is an independent woman who has cut ties with her family to live on her own. Saeed is a kind and dutiful son who finds strength in tradition and piety without the need to inflict his rectitude on others.
Exit West is for the most part realist fiction, narrated by a precise, omniscience tone that recalls Tolstoy’s novellas. The one exception to the realism are the magical doors which people climb into, then emerge, reborn into another part of the world:
Saeed and Nadia meanwhile had dedicated themselves single-mindedly to finding a way out of the city, and as the overland routes were widely deemed too perilous to attempt, this meant investigating the possibility of securing passage through the doors, in which most people seemed now to believe, especially since any attempt to use one or keep one secret had been proclaimed by the militants to be punishable, as usual and somewhat unimaginatively, by death, and also because those with shortwave radios claimed that even the most reputable international broadcasters had acknowledged the doors existed, and indeed were being discussed by world leaders as a major global crisis (87-8).
World leaders see the doors as a global crisis. It is a curious judgment. Why are the doors the crisis, rather than the war? Migration is often discussed using the language of crisis. But migration crises are often manufactured ones, characterized not by people moving but by politicians and states deliberating turning their movement into tragedy. We have smuggled refugees drowning in the Mediterranean because Europe refuses to allow them to otherwise apply for asylum. Millions live without authorization in the United States because there is no process that would allow them to regularize their status. Moreover, states devote a fraction of resources to supporting refugees that they do to purchasing arms and waging war – a small percentage of these funds could turn crises into challenges to be managed.
It is perhaps this curiosity that helps explain a puzzling feature of the novel. In what is mostly a carefully observed realist novel, why does Hamid resort to magic? Why mysterious doors as opposed to a journey smuggled out of the country by car, a trek through the desert, a desperate boat ride toward Europe? The answer, I suspect, is that the magic helps alert us to our predicament by making it strange.
The news in those days was full of war and migrants and nativists, and it was full of fracturing too, of regions pulling away from nations, and cities pulling away from hinterlands, and it seemed that as everyone was coming together everyone was also moving apart. Without borders nations appeared to be becoming somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play (158).
We live in a deeply interconnected world in which many people do everything in their power to rebel against these connections. The doors are a metaphor for the many ways in which people, money, and ideas flow, joining people and places, but also driving wedges between them. In many cases, the attempt to separate or break apart is as much a reaction to unavoidable contact – nationalism and fundamentalism only occur as an attempt to reject the fact that neither makes much sense in a world connected by satellite and intercontinental travel.
The refugee camp serves as a microcosm of a globalized world:
In this group, everyone was foreign, and so, in a sense, no one was. Nadia and Saeed quickly located a cluster of fellow countrywomen and – men and learned that they were on the Greek island of Mykonos, a great draw for tourists in the summer, and, it seemed, a great draw for migrants this winter, and that the doors out, which is to say the doors to richer destination, were heavily guarded, but the doors, in, the doors from poorer places, were mostly left unsecured, perhaps in the hope that people would go back to where they came from – although almost no one ever did – or perhaps because there were simply too many doors from too many poorer places to guard them all (106).
Rich countries do everything in their power to prevent migration, to keep migrants away from their borders where their avowed commitment to international law and their own legal system would obligate them to give asylum seekers a hearing. One of the harsh ironies is that poorer neighboring countries host most refugees, often with far more generosity than richer countries.
And with the doors, comes the nativist reaction:
They sat on their bed and watched the rain and talked as they often did about the end of the world, and Saeed wondered aloud once again if the natives would really kill them, and Nadia said that the natives were so frightened that they could do anything.
“I can understand it,” she said. “Imagine if 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 as much to lose.” (163-4)
The tunnels are not only a way of reflecting on politics. The passage through the doors recalls birth – migrants struggle through the journey, emerging spent and disoriented on the other side. Migration is indeed a type of rebirth. But birth is accompanied by death, both of one’s former self and as the younger generation inherits and the older generation passes away:
Saeed’s father then summoned Nadia into his room and spoke to her without Saeed and said he was entrusting her with his son’s life, and she, whom he called daughter, must, like a daughter, not fail him, whom she called father, and she must see Saeed through to safety, and he hoped she would one day marry his son and be called mother by his grandchildren, but this was up to them to decide, and all he asked was that she remain by Saeed’s side until Saeed was out of danger, and he asked her to promise this to him, and she said she would promise only if Saeed’s father came with them, and he said again that he could not, but that they must go, he said it softly, like a prayer, and she sat there with him in silence and the minutes passed, and in the end she promised, and it was an easy promise to make because she had at that time no thoughts of leaving Saeed, but it was also a difficult one because in making it she felt she was abandoning the old man, and even if he did have his siblings and his cousins, and might now go live with them or have them come live with him, they could not protect him as Saeed and Nadia could, and so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind (97-8).
When we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind. We also murder a part of ourselves. This murder sometimes takes the form of liberation – by killing a part of who we are, we can become something new. Schumpeter’s phrase “creative destruction” is apt, except what we destroy is not so much modes of production or ways of doing business, but souls. Sometimes the result is simply loss, a loss many people do not recover from. What is miraculous is how many people do remake themselves and live. Ultimately, Exit West points beyond refugee crises to a world where people, cities, and countries can remake themselves into something better. In an interview in the New Yorker, Hamid writes:
Part of the great political crisis we face in the world today is a failure to imagine plausible desirable futures. We are surrounded by nostalgic visions, violently nostalgic visions. Fiction can imagine differently. Wrenching climate change will happen. Mass migration will happen, on a vast scale. But maybe our children and grandchildren can still inhabit a world where they have a chance at hope and optimism.
Fiction can arouse our sympathetic imagination and I know of no book more apt for our time than Exit West. Sadly, people who most strongly oppose refugee flows and would most benefit from following Nadia and Saeed’s journey are probably the least likely to read it. It is too early to know if Exit West is a great novel – its very timeliness is likely to cloud our judgment. Regardless, it is remarkable achievement.