Friday, March 18, 2011

Novel 7: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

There have been times in my adult life when I went on a South Asian literature kick, blazing through several novels from the Subcontinent in a space of a few months. Looking at the unread books on our bookshelves now, it's fair to say another of these kicks may be about to begin.

Mohsin Hamid's Moth Smoke centers on Daru, a young Pakistani man in Lahore in 1998 who culturally identifies with his country's elite, although he lacks the means to live like them. While his friends went off to be educated in elite schools in the UK and the USA, Daru remained in his home country, got a degree, and got himself an unremarkable job at a bank. Then he gets fired because he refuses to tolerate the condescension of his bank's local clients. Finding a new job is difficult, because he refuses to take work that he thinks is beneath him. His life spirals rapidly downhill.

It's very clear from the first pages that things are not going to end well for Daru. But you don't hope against hope that he's going to turn his life around; instead, you read with horrified fascination as his train wreck of a life unfolds. This is a tragedy in the old sense of the word, where Daru's downfall comes about precisely because of his own failings. You may feel sympathy for him in an abstract intellectual sense, but he's clearly not deserving of sympathy on a personal level. For all his delusion that he is morally superior to his acquaintances in the Pakistani elite, Daru is not a nice man. His hypocrisies are numerous enough to be catalogued and classified.

I raced through Moth Smoke last weekend -- I probably could have polished off the whole book in one sitting if my surroundings had been free of distractions. Kudos to Hamid's writing style.

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