Invisible Borders: Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke

Emily St. John Mandel in The Millions:

0312273231.01.MZZZZZZZHamid is best-known for his second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.Moth Smoke, recently re-released by Riverhead, was his first. The plotting is masterful, especially for a first novel; Hamid’s shifts in perspective are effective, and while we know from the courtroom scene at the beginning that a child will be killed, we don’t know which one, which makes the appearance of every child in these pages an event fraught with peril. Moth Smoke was published to considerable critical acclaim in 2000, which is to say after Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapons, and the arms race between Pakistan and India form the jittery backdrop to Daru’s long goodbye.

The book is suffused through and through by a terrible uncertainty, a sense of ground shifting beneath one’s feet. Hamid uses Daru’s descent from middle-class respectability to desperation as a lens through which to examine the corruption and the complexities of late-90′s Pakistani society. It’s not an especially flattering portrait, but a major strength of the book is Hamid’s refusal to take an easy moralistic stance. Daru is a victim of circumstance, but he’s also capable of cruelty, poor decisions, and hypocrisy. He feels victimized by the monied classes, but mistreats the boy who keeps house for him. He carries a strain of entitlement; he’s insulted by the suggestion that he sell cars for a living. Through his education and through his friendship with Ozi he’s been allowed a glimpse at an entirely different Pakistan, the Lahore of the monied elite, and his rage is fueled by the impossibility of crossing the border from his Pakistan to Ozi’s. Ozi’s Pakistan is a fortress. Money is the only way in.

Ozi is amoral, but on the other hand, as he notes in a chapter told from his perspective, he manages not to slap his housekeeper and he doesn’t sleep with his best friend’s wife, which is more than can be said for Daru. Yes, Ozi acknowledges, the rich in Pakistan use their money to create their own reality, separate from the rest of the struggling country, but what choice do they have?

More here.