Hamid's Collection of Essays on Life, Art and Politics Sparkle With the Magic of His Prose

by Hans Rollman

1 April 2015

The essays in Discontent and its Civilizations treat their subjects with skill and beauty; sharing an idea or insight and then leaving it to the reader to nurture the thought further.
 
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Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches From Lahore, New York, and London

Mohsin Hamid

(Riverhead)
US: Feb 2015

Literary fiction and social-political journalism used to be a well-worn combination, but it’s increasingly difficult in this day and age to find writers who effectively balance the two forms. The aspiring George Orwells and Arthur Koestlers of today who are masters of one of these genres invariably wind up producing, out of the other, either well-informed yet psychologically hollow fiction, or evocatively written bubbles of hopelessly unrealistic geopolitical analysis.

Mohsin Hamid is one of the writers who manages to keep the authentic tradition alive. Equipped with the ability to produce a heart-skipping metaphor when the moment calls, he’s equally capable of analyzing the impact of drone warfare in south Asia. The award-winning author of three novels and numerous short stories takes a break from fiction with his latest book, which offers a collection of short essays previously published in slightly different forms in various newspapers and magazines over the past decade. Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London is divided into three sections which offer readers a sampling of Hamid’s reflections on ‘Life’, ‘Art’ and ‘Politics’.

The essays in the opening section ‘Life’ offer reflections on Hamid’s own personal background, shifting restlessly between the three orbs of his world: New York (where he lived as a student, and worked while struggling part-time with his fiction); London (where he made the transition to writing novels full-time, got married and started a family) and Lahore (the family home to which he regularly returned during his years of living away, and to which he and his young family eventually settled in 2009).

A fourth locale makes felt its presence as well: that liminal sphere of transnational airports, transit hubs, border lines and customs interrogations. As a Pakistani who for much of his life has felt more at home in New York and London than Lahore, the shifting nature of his experiences in this in-between land of borders and suspicious gazes reflects the changing world and our different places within it just as tellingly as the destinations to which he travels.

His life is lightly sketched out in this section, and so too the world that has shaped him. It’s a world contoured by identity, in which he sits nervously beside a bearded Muslim on the Tube following the London transit bombings, and in which he is expected to produce notarized letters from his girlfriend attesting to their romance in order to get a visa to enter Italy. But it’s also one of places and people. He reflects on the changes in Pakistan since his childhood, the fears and worries he has for its future, but also the sense of hope that its energetic campuses full of enthusiastic and optimistic students fill him with.

He returns to Pakistan, politics and identity in the final section, ‘Politics’, which offers a glimpse at some of the reporting he’s done in his own country as well as his hopes for its future. “Pakistan matters” he writes in the introduction, “because Pakistan is a test bed for pluralism on a globalizing planet that desperately needs more pluralism.” In these essays, history and present and future struggle awkwardly against each other, and American politics is a constant backdrop with its influence on Pakistan illustrated incisively through the author’s short reflections.

Indeed, Hamid is one of those observers of world events who truly grasps the big picture. But what makes his political and social essays most appealing is his ability – that of a novelist, surely – to reveal the essence of a complex plot with the clarity of a single powerful line. America’s jack-in-the-box tendency to periodically proclaim itself Pakistan’s ally, he writes, has upset the fragile efforts of Pakistan’s fragmented peoples to inch toward compromise on their own difficult and painful terms: “projecting a war film onto what is not a blank screen at all.” Little wonder this turn of events has left Pakistanis frightened, ”as they should be when the most powerful military in the world is sent to do a task best accomplished by schoolteachers, police forces, persuasion, and time.” On the divided desires which render impotent America’s best intentions to make the world a better place: “in the end, it is not possible to champion national greatness and human equality at the same time.” And on the ‘clash of civilizations’: “Civilizations are illusions, but these illusions are pervasive, dangerous, and powerful… Civilizations encourage our hypocrisies to flourish. And in so doing, they undermine globalization’s only plausible promise: that we be free to invent ourselves.”

Hamid is an idealist, but one who has a realistic understanding of the present, rooted in his own profound sense of self-awareness. The hybridity he’s experienced is the condition of the modern world, and he paints a portrait not only of its pain, but of its possibilities. 

“Our words for hybridity are so often epithets. They shouldn’t be. Hybridity need not be the problem. It could be the solution. Hybrids do more than embody mixtures between groups. Hybrids reveal the boundaries between groups to be false. And this is vital, for creativity comes from intermingling, from rejecting the lifelessness of purity.”

His simple yet expressive style is what renders the wide-ranging reflections in this collection so enjoyable. Hamid is a writer whose pen flows light and gentle; but his ink runs deep and the words he inscribes linger and penetrate. In a world that for many seems to be growing dark, such words cast a warm shadow.

Perceptive and enjoyable though his essays on life, politics and society are, it is the centre of the book, ‘Art’,  which is most appealing. Here Hamid is in his prime, a writer reflecting on the act of writing, with its complex possibilities and potentials, pains and pleasures. He had the remarkable experience of studying under teachers like Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates; the anecdotes which emerge are insightful and amusing.

No matter who his mentors, however, he is his own writer, and these short essays sparkle with the magic of his prose. A half-page reflection on re-reading novels; a paragraph on the tactile joy of a book in bed; Hamid is a wordsmith whose phrases strike with an electrifying thrill and joy. To read the reflections of an author like this is more than to peer into his personal world; it is to briefly share that world, from the joys of Murakami to the lesser-known delights of Antonio Tabucchi; from the long walks that cure writers’ block to why television is the new (old) novel, leaving novels free to do truly new things.

The essays are short; one has barely begun to grasp Hamid’s point when they are over. But it’s not a bad quality. On the contrary; the essays are like seeds, sharing an idea or insight and leaving it to the reader to nurture the thought further.

We read fiction to fall in love, writes Hamid. To fall in love with character, or voice, or form, or plot, or story. Not with the writer, but with “their writing. Or something about their writing… for contact with what we’ve armored ourselves against in the rest of our lives, a desire to be reminded that it’s possible to open our eyes, to see, to recognize our solitude – and at the same time to not be entirely alone.”

To read this painfully brief excursion into the beautiful worlds of Mohsin Hamid is indeed to fall in love, and for the most exquisitely brief of moments to open our eyes, and not be entirely alone.

Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches From Lahore, New York, and London

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