February 4, 2019
Stories within a Story
Stories within a story. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a rich story about a couple, Nadia and Saeed who live in an unnamed middle eastern country. A novel of migration but sprinkled with stories of far away places, and seemingly unrelated nameless characters. The catalyst for these migrations throughout this novel are dark doorways which serve as instantaneous portals to other far away lands. The novel opened many doors to new experiences, and difficulties that migrants might have encountered.
The first example of a dark doorway is presumably the first one to appear which happened to be in Sydney, Australia. This appears around the time that Saeed (one of the main characters) is at his work (a marketing company for outdoor advertising). A pale sleeping woman whose husband is away on business in another city lives in a house in a gentrified area. A reference is made to the security of the house, and the fact that she only uses it sporadically, or when her husband was away. On that particular night she did not have the security system activated. The dark doorway appears in her open closet described as “…dark, darker than night. A rectangle of complete darkness.The heart of darkness” (Hamid 38). A dark man struggles to push his way out of the doorway, and eventually he succeeds. As he regains his strength he stands and sees the sleeping woman, and it reminds him of the fragility of the human body. How easily we can we can die. He sees the open window and slips out of it onto the street below disappearing into the night.
The next appearance comes in Tokyo with a unnamed man sitting in a restaurant nursing a drink. He steps out to smoke a cigarette, and is confused when he hears a noise behind him in an alleyway that is a cul de sac. No one had been in there when he had first checked. He sees two filipino girls coming from a door that was supposed to be locked always, but now was mysteriously open. “ A portal of complete blackness, as though no light were on inside. Almost as if no light could penetrate inside” (Hamid 57). The women pass by him with their heads down, and speaking in hushed voices. He recognizes their language, and mentally notes on the fact that this is not the first time he has seen filipinos who look lost in his part of town. He dislikes filipinos and remembers a filipino boy from his school who he used to beat often. He considers the women and silently slips behind them fingering what is assumed to be a knife in his pocket. The fate of the girls is not mentioned in the story.
In San Diego an old man living by the sea who used to serve in the navy during one of the larger wars was watching some soldiers who had set up a perimeter around his property. As he watches them he remembers when he used to be a soldier and how he and his platoon had been closer than brothers. At least closer than he had been to his own brother. His brother had died of throat cancer and the two had never been very close. Standing next to the commanding officer the old man asks him whether it was mexicans or muslims coming through, and how he could help. “As he gazed down at the transport planes landing at coronado he wondered where he should go, and realized that he couldn’t think of a single place”(Hamid 95).
People in Nadia and Saeed’s city had been wondering how the militants had been getting into the city undetected in such large numbers. seemingly out of nowhere, and the next appearance of the dark doorways gives us the answer. This scene shows a “brave man” who lives near Nadia’s neighborhood staring intently at a dark doorway. In one pocket he has a gun which he is holding firmly pointing at the door. In his other pocket he holds a knife with a blade as big as his hand. He watches as a man fights his way through the dark doorway. When the man is through the “brave man” beckons the second man towards him. When he gets close the “brave man” opens the door and lets him into the hallway behind him. “The second man joined the fighting within the hour. Among many who would do so. And the battles that now commenced, and ragged without meaningful interruption were far more ferocious and far less equal than before” (Hamid 132).
“Rumors had began to circulate of doors that could take you elsewhere. Often to places far away. Well removed from this deathtrap of a country” (Hamid 126). A normal door could become a special door and it could happen at any time. Most people thought these rumors were nonsense, and Nadia and Saeed think the same. Even though this was the case every morning they would look at each of the doors in their houses. These doors, even just their idea, was deeply affecting these people who were flogged by war, poverty or just in search of a better life. Nadia and Saeed eventually buy passage through one of these dark doorways. “And drawing close she was struck by its darkness. Its opacity the way that it did not reveal what was on the other side, and also did not reflect what was on this side. So that it felt equally like a beginning and an end” (Hamid 162). Going through the door was said to be like dying and like being born. Nadia feels drained as soon as she is on the other side. These doors seems to drain the person as if they had taken the journey on foot because anyone who goes through them comes out very weak on the other side.
While most people were using these door to migrate away from war, poverty, or some other kind of ailment. Some people gained a second chance at life. A man in london who was on the verge of taking his own life discovers a dark doorway in the entrance to a spare bedroom. He was planning on taking his own life, but curiosity drove him to see what would be on the other side. Later he sends pictures to his daughter and his best friend from a desert beach, and tells them that he feels something from that place. He also says that they could join him if they wanted to, and should they ever need to find him a doorway could be found in his flat.
Some people did not use these doors as one way tickets to get to a new destination. Some people used these doorways almost like a train to go back and forth. A mother from tijuana trying to provide a better life for her daughter who was staying at an intermittent “orphanage” called the house of the children. Most of the children living in this orphanage had at least one living relative that worked on the other side of the border in america making money and sending it back, or bringing it back. The woman meets another young girl who she recognizes from pictures on the internet as her daughter. The woman spends the night, and in the morning takes her daughter to a cantina and they disappear into the doorway. This woman clearly achieved making a better life for her daughter and thought it was time to bring her to her new home.
In southern california an old woman who had lived her entire life in the same house never having traveled anywhere was dying. She was not long for this world and her children were money hungry for her house despite her repeatedly telling them they would inherit her house when she died. She had a favorite granddaughter who was the only family member she had that came to visit her. She reminisced on the past and all the people that she had know that had lived on her street. “And when she went out it seemed to her that she to had migrated. That everyone migrates. Even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives. Because we can’t help ourselves. We are all migrants through time” (Hamid 204).
These doorways which appeared all throughout the story served many different purposes for many different people. The story was not about them but it was built around them. They were the catalyst for travel and give insight to the rest of the world of migrants. As the main story focused on only two people these doors provided interesting side plots and helped greatly with story progression. Some of these tangents seemed irrelevant but they all had their own place. Stories within a story.
Hamid, Mohsin. Exit West. Penguin Random House, 2017.