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Mohsin Hamid reviewed: why the word “Muslim” is persistently omitted from Exit West

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is preoccupied with time and an anxiety about the future.

Mohsin Hamid’s fourth novel opens as it means to go on. The twentysomething Saeed invites Nadia, a fellow student at his evening class (in “corporate identity and product branding”), for coffee. Discovering that she doesn’t pray, he lowers his voice to question why she wears a flowing black robe. Nadia’s reply is simple. “So men don’t fuck with me.” Her response sets the tone for their ensuing relationship and presents in micro Exit West’s premise: that people are hybrid beings with contradictory identities subject to flux. Along with globalisation’s brutal consequences and the corresponding hyperbolic nationalism, this is prime territory for the celebrated transnational author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Giving neither year nor country, Exit West opens on the cusp of two changes: the pair’s burgeoning relationship and the onset of a bloody, internecine war. The timorous Saeed, with a good education and a job at an advertising agency, lives amicably with his parents; Nadia’s family severed all ties when she took independent lodgings and employment at an insurance company. But their happiness – aided by joints and psychedelic mushrooms – is short-lived.

Militants begin taking over sections of the city; curfews and food rationing follow. Nadia buries money and gold in her potted lemon tree. The civil disintegration is terrifyingly swift. A neighbour’s blood seeps through Saeed’s ceiling, his throat slit because he had the wrong surname. Elsewhere, teenagers play football with a human head.

With visas impossible for the non-rich, rumours abound of extraordinary escape routes. Undetected by circling surveillance drones, ordinary doors are metamorphosing into “special doors”, offering immediate exit to other countries. Disbelieving yet desperate, Nadia and Saeed pay money to a door agent, taking their chances on a dentist’s door that previously led to a supply cabinet. They walk through, Nadia experiencing a “kind of extinguishing” and a “gasping struggle” to arrive in Greece on Mykonos. Soon, the island is swelling with migrants and the doors’ presence becomes official, springing open (and shutting) from Sydney to Tokyo, San Diego to Dubai. Using these portals, the couple undertake a perilous journey between Mykonos, London and Marin, a new city near San Francisco.

As the planet experiences a seismic shift, huge numbers flee cracking plains, tidal surges, bulging cities and war zones. The native backlash is dire. In London, a “Britain for Britain” campaign barely pulls back from a massacre of migrants. Against this fraught geopolitical backdrop, the co-ordinates of Nadia and Saeed’s relationship shift as they do. Living in the diaspora affects – and suits – them differently.

For Nadia, the flipside of globalisation is self-reinvention, including attraction to women. Saeed, nostalgic and praying three times a day, is increasingly drawn to people from his country of birth: “It seemed to Nadia that the further they moved from the city of their birth, through space and through time, the more he sought to strengthen his connection to it, tying ropes to the air of an era that for her was unambiguously gone.” Despite this, even as their ardour cools, they honour a loyalty to each other.

At the novel’s kernel lies a preoccupation with time and an anxiety about the future, perhaps best illustrated when technology is aligned with naturalism. A flock of helicopters “filled the sky like birds startled from a gunshot, or by the blow of an axe at the base of their tree”. When a drone crashes, its immobile, “iridescent body the size of a hummingbird”, Nadia and Saeed offer it that most human of farewells: a burial.

Hamid’s prose has the ability to glide deftly, meshing erudition with empathy. Yet as the novel progresses, sentences run to a page long and a past tense compounds the omniscient narrator’s ruminative, sermon-like cadence. The author’s last book, Discontent and Its Civilisations, was a work of non-fiction, collecting his foreign correspondent despatches on life, art and politics from London, Lahore and New York. Exit West reads very much as a natural extension of that book, yet fiction invariably suffers by becoming a siphon to polemic.

In a novel rife with ideas, the unsaid rings loudly: the word “Muslim” is persistently omitted from Exit West’s pages. Such absences require acts of co-creation between author and reader. And the presence of instant doorways reminds us, urgently, that the only thing that divides us is opportunity, not geography. To borrow a phrase from one of Hamid’s essays, “each individual human being is, after all, a minority of one”. 

"Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid is out now.

Rebecca Swirsky is a short-story writer and arts critic.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon