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The Boston Phoenix Personal Politics

Hamid's debut burns brightly

By David Valdes Greenwood

MAY 15, 2000:  In the middle of Mohsin Hamid's bracing debut novel, Moth Smoke, a young man begins a mental "ethnography" of the Gen X elite at a private party, noting, "It appears that intermarriage has severely retarded the mental development of some members of the tribe." But the speaker's sharp wit cuts both ways -- until shortly before this stylish gathering, he was himself at least a fringe member of the group. Young and good-looking, a banker who owes his job to nepotism, Darashikoh Shezad has traveled among the trust-fund kids his whole life; but it takes only one false step for Daru, as he is called, to lose his job, his financial security, and, worse, his class status. The fall from one class to the next is steep, with his self-esteem and moral balance diminished in the descent.

Daru's critique of the his wealthy former peers is, then, accompanied by a naked longing to be one of them again. The combustible mix of bitter scorn and desperate envy fuels his implosion and serves as the novel's central metaphor. For Hamid is telling a story larger than that of one man on the edge; Daru is the embodiment of contemporary Pakistan, a nation that's forever playing catch-up to next-door enemy India while desiring to be a real player in the modern strategic equation, no matter the cost -- which in this case means going nuclear as quickly as its neighbor. Pakistan is a region of "atomized, atomic lands," where poor people fire off Kalashnikov rounds at the sky to celebrate the nuclear testing, unaware that the cost will be shunted onto them while the rich continue to drink Black Label and drive SUVs home to mansions.

Despite the foreign locale, both the situation and the milieu will be fully recognizable to Western readers. The class story could easily take place in Boston, shuttling between Newbury Street and Southie, with the same cycles of stereotype, the prestige and loathing fueled by cash and drugs. And though by now Americans are blasé about the bomb, one has only to go back to Desert Storm to see how truly Hamid has captured nationalism; the haves and have-nots, as stratified here as in the novel, come together only in matters of military urgency. Toss about the idea of war and we're one nation under God again. Hamid's Pakistan does not seem far away.

Yet he's written a novel that offers more than political metaphor. Told in non-linear fashion yet without seeming disjointed, Daru's story is punctuated by testimonials from supporting characters; the resultant narrative gently piles dread onto one man's daily moments. An adulterous affair, the death of a child, robbery, drug trips, a secret identity -- the novel has enough plot points for a season of The Sopranos, yet each event flows organically from Daru's downward spiral, without seeming contrived or, for that matter, hurried.

Instead, Moth Smoke moves in leisurely fashion, as befits its ever-stoned protagonist, who thinks to himself, "Common sense tells pride to shut up, have a joint, and relax." This laid-back ethos makes Daru likable even as he makes a bigger and bigger mess of his life. Like Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov, he's a mess but not a monster, the kind of loser who makes his flaws his charms, as when he describes a drug trip as being "a dandelion of feeling." The other characters are likewise drawn with the kind of complexity that blurs boundaries between good guy and bad guy, friend and enemy. Mumtaz is a passionate lover to Daru but a lousy mother; Ozi, her husband and Daru's childhood best friend, is capable of great generosity and remorseless revenge alike.

Even the well-worn moth-and-flame metaphor is approached from a new angle. The moth desires something that cannot be had without risk: union. Daru's wish to rejoin the elite leads to violence, and his affair could cost him his freedom, but his desires prove too potent not to act on. Similarly, Pakistan is presented as a nation whose determination to be an international player may prove costly; already it cannot go back. Hamid shines an unflinching light on these mothlike flirtations with fire, hinting that all such romances end in the acrid smoke of loss.

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