Daily Archives: October 16, 2019

Exit West: Read from September 30 to October 16, 2019

The next time someone asks me for a recommendation about a book involving time travel, wormholes, high technology, and something resembling a dystonia, I would recommend this book. Not because this book is a science fiction book, but it uses elements of science fiction (or you could call it magic realism, though I think sci-fi is more appropriate) to tell the story of the times we live in, how technology, science, communications, war, and refugees all play a role in the dramatic events of the world we live in. In other words, this is a science fiction novel that genuinely explores who we are as a people living at the edge of an uncertain future.

And the paradox is that this story is also timeless because all through history humanity has lived on the edge of an uncertain future. We carry the past with is as we go about our present lives as we plan for the unknown future. We exist in three different states: the past, the present, and the future, and these three states are always converging back in on themselves. The future influences the present because we must plan for it, and the past influences the present because it informs us of who we are (which we rely on to plan for the future). Space time is, after all curved, so perhaps time itself is trying to fold back in on itself?

The heart of the story, however has little to do with anything science fiction because this is a work of literary fiction and it deals with the lives of twp people, Nadia and Saeed, two people who are very different, but who have converged in a particular place (an unnamed country which experiences a civil war from which they flee), and we follow them as they make their way further and further west, first on a Greek Island, then the Island of Britain (London), and finally Marin, California on the shore edge of the frontier of the New World. How they get tho these places is immaterial – literally, since it seems a sort of wormhole created from the past, present, and future collapsing in on themselves have allowed for travel anywhere in the world.

Yet the wormhole idea is only a way to explain how the whole world is experiencing the vast migrations of people, many of whom are refugees from war torn countries and now find themselves in western countries who are full of people who are anxious about them being there. One element which jumped out at me, and which Hamid explores a few times, is how the “nativists” (as he usually calls them) would stir up trouble under the guise of it being caused by the refugees in order to exacerbate anxieties and tensions in order to make the refugees pariahs. This is not to say Hamid makes everyone of the refugees out to be saints, but he is pointing out how difficult it is for someone who no longer has a home to find a new home. And it’s not like refugees are unaware that they are living in a new place and that if the roles were reversed they might also be anxious about a bunch of foreigners showing up in their homes.

And what this book is ultimately doing is humanizing the refugees. Saeed and Nadia are the “every-people” who represent all those nameless and faceless refugees we see on the news. Hamid gives them a story, gives them a life, and he allows us to see their humanity, to feel as they do, which is to say that they are no different than we are in the most important ways: that we are all human. And Hamid is also saying that we are going to have to deal with the future being a state of unknown change and that it’s going to go better if we work together more instead of fighting with each other. This might seem idealistic, but the counterpoint is one of civil war and violence.

Because in the end our time, the time for each of us as individual humans, will come to and end. We will lug our past so far into the future that the future will no longer have time for us and we will be cast out. The best we can hope for is to not have done too much damage to ourselves and each other and perhaps leave something of ourselves behind, perhaps in the form of children, or at least in the the kindness we show others.

Brilliant novel!

page 230 of 231 of Exit West

Beautiful ending, the two of them sitting at the cafe, 50 years later, and still able to “find a rhythm together, and they grew younger and more playful as the coffee in their cups diminished”. They are the past alive in the present awaiting the future, but “did not know, then, if that evening would ever come”.

page 223 of 231 of Exit West

And that’s the end of their relationship, “eventually a month went by without any contact, and then a year, and then a lifetime” and so life goes on, the globe keeps spinning (though the fast changing seasons makes it feel as if time is speeding up – which it sort of does the older you get). People are connected and other are disconnected (but still connected in a way, at least through memory and time).

page 222 of 231 of Exit West

Nadia is discovering her new sexuality and Saeed seems a little less conservative sexually in being with the preacher’s daughter. I like how Nadia and Saeed still meet, however. They meet on the shore, that liminal space that is not well defined, just as they :lonely and somewhat adrift in this new place”.

I wonder what the thimble that allows a person’s vote to be counted once is all about?

page 209 of 231 of Exit West

Nice little story about the Chinese lady who lived her whole life in the house in Palo Alto but still felt as if she had migrated without ever moving from her house. “We are all migrants through time” is more true than we realize since we can’t help but arrive in the future as strangers and tourists from the past and the people we find in the future are all new and different than us, but they’re migrants too.

page 205 of 231 of Exit West

The tiny, hummingbird sized drone that crashed and that they buried is a beautiful scene. To say this is a simple image would be a lie – that drone represents fear, the media, technology, artificial life which sort of mirrors how their relationship has become, maybe not artificial, but different, changed.

page 203 of 231 of Exit West

“We are all children who lose our parents … and this loss unites humanity, unite every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow”. He’s right, of course. The only thing really separating us is life and death, but even with prayer we are still connected through remembrance and ritual. Nothing is forgotten as long as it is remembered.

page 202 of 231 of Exit West

Saeed’s praying is like earlier when Hamid describes the cell phone’s “antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near” (39) – a way of connecting without being present. For Saeed, praying is the connecting to his idea of being a man, of honoring his parents.

page 198 of 231 of Exit West

I wonder if he’s playing with the idea of cultural relativism as also being related, as in a relative. Aren’t all humans related? Aren’t all our experiences relative to each other in that they are related because we all think and feel the same? Something being relative does not have to mean distinct, it could also mean related. That’s the trick of English, anyway.