17. Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, by Mohsin Hamid

19 Mar

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This group of collected essays by the author of How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is minor-arcana, a small treat for the Mohsin Hamid fan, which I am.

Hamid is one of the best writers of literary fiction working today. He knows what’s important in life and has an ability to access strong, deep human emotions in his fiction. He’s a humanist, and he’s also the type of sophisticated writer who achieves utter clarity and simplicity.

But he writes slowly.

That’s where this slim volume comes in, collected from his previously published non-fiction work written in the 15 years since his first novel was published (for much of that time he kept his day job as a management consultant for McKinsey & Co.). The essays are arranged into sections on Life, Art and Politics, and to an extent that they have a focus, it’s globalization. He writes in the introduction:

“When I was younger, I thought of being a migrant and being foreign as things that made me different, an outsider. Now, at the age of forty-three, I think these experiences are increasingly universal.”

In  global world, we’re all foreigners somewhere, and all forced to contend with alien new neighbors—even if they live continents away. Hamid is an ideal guide to this strange modern condition. He’s Pakistani by birth but has lived only “a little less than half” of his life there. He lives in Lahore now, but spent much of his adult life in New York and London, the other two cities of the book’s subtitle.

And we should all take Lahore up close and personal, he says, because the city matters,

“not just to myself and other Pakistanis, nor only because it is beset with terrorism and possesses nuclear weapons, but because Pakistan is a test bed for pluralism on a globalizing planet that desperately needs more pluralism. Pakistan’s uncertain democracy and unsteady attempt to fashion a future in which its citizens can live together in peace are an experiment that mirrors our global experiment as human beings on a shared Earth.”

That he has these concerns—how to be human, how to be human together—is why I’m interested in him as a human, and why I’m curious to read his autobiographical essays and his thoughts on writing and politics, as collected here. I do find that work collected from previous mass-media sources can be dated and scattered, and this collection has that problem to some extent. Do we care about that time he saw Avatar in Lahore? How he likes Murakami’s running book?

Still there’s enough wisdom in here to make those flaws easy to overlook. And as an American, reading the Politics section reminded me of how U.S politics have shaped Pakistan since its inception. We are neighbors. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could visit more freely with each other?

 

3 Responses to “17. Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York and London, by Mohsin Hamid”

  1. Ivan Isakov March 19, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    Interesting, tight, and contrasty!!

    >

  2. shadowoperator March 19, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    One particularly wonderful thing that strikes me about this book you’re reviewing is its title: how marvelously topical and contemporary to reverse the previous famous title “Civilization and its Discontents,” a title which assumed an achievable world goal called “civilization,” which each country might reach, given time, and replace it with “Discontent and its Civilizations,” a title which assumes first and foremost the pluralism of different civilization models, all with some kind of discontent, discontent itself now becoming a universal!

    • Ivalleria March 19, 2015 at 11:50 pm #

      You are so right! And this is a very perceptive thing to say because he says something very much like that about the concept of “civilizations” being a myth, and today a dangerous, divisive one. Also, reviews have been critical that he used the Freud reference without explicitly writing about Freud but… seems like you got it just fine. :)

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