Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Thirty-Six: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

I'm easing myself into the social networking world and this is one of the early successes. I post many of my reviews on Amazon and one reviewer commented on my review of Susan Choi's A Person of Interest. The discussion centered around truth and storytelling and I was intrigued enough to look up this reviewer's recommendations. I had not heard of Mohsin Hamid before, but Moth Smoke shows a promising beginning for a writer. This was written in 2001 and his more recent novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems to be getting more press.

Hamid was born in Pakistan, went to college and law school in the U.S., and is now living in Lahore, Pakistan, where the novel takes place. As you can see from the photos below, this a beautiful city. Take a good look before reading this novel, because Hamid's Lahore hints at the wealth, but the focus is on those trying to get in rather than those how already have it.

The novel centers around Daru Shezad, a bright young man who lacked the means of his friends to travel to the U.S. to study. He ditches his dissertation in Economics and takes a mid-level banking job to make money. When his best friend, Ozi, returns home from the U.S. with a law degree and his father's money and connections, the two are reacquainted, but the relationship is no longer the same.

Although class issues were present before, the two overcame them as youths. Now the class differences are clear and Ozi throws parties for his new social setting, which does not include Daru. Ozi has also brought back a beautiful wife, Mumtaz, and their first child. But Mumtaz is not content with a "wifely" life and puts her journalistic background to use as an underground journalist writing under a pseudonym.

When Daru loses his job as a banker because of his unwillingness to grovel enough, he finds himself unable to find other work than dealing the hash he has occasionally used. As his life begins to spiral downward, Ozi pushes him aside more. But Mumtaz is increasingly frustrated with Ozi's privileged approach to life and turns to Daru. As their affair intensifies so does Daru's financial and drug addicted requirements and in the end we find Daru on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed.

Although it sounds like I just gave you the whole plot, this is really the setting. Hamid starts the book with Daru in jail so that surprise is gone. While a linear narrative certainly drives the plot, Hamid is clearly interested more in the characters and issues of his novel. He excels in this aspect as his main characters are richly drawn.

Hamid shows courage, especially for a first novel, of building his story around a man others may objectively call, well, a loser. But Hamid shows that even those losing control of their lives are sometimes the victims of the culture. Daru applies for nearly a 100 jobs, but in country that works on connections his bright mind is going to waste because he does not run in those circles. But his friendship with Ozi , in the past the opportunity to go to a private high school (thanks to an anonymous donor), only shows him what he is not allowed to have.

Mumtaz is a part of that privileged world he can have, but even her patience for him is tested despite her obvious love. She is the bridge between these two Pakistani worlds. U.S. educated and living the privileged life, her work as a journalist throws herself into the other world, including the web of prostitution which pulls young girls into the machine. As a journalist she is threatened because of her work, but her anonymity keeps her safe. Reconciling her two lives becomes increasingly difficult.

While I recommend this book, it is not a light read in terms of issues to be dealt with. Hamid's writing style is smooth and unpretentious, but his subject matter is gritty and harsh. As the U.S. turns more of its attention to Pakistan a book like this reminds of the humanity there as well. Politics do play a role as part of the book deals with Pakistan's successful test of a nuclear bomb and the excitement that creates in the city.

Hamid presents a Lahore where wealth and glitz exists alongside the crime and poverty. In a strange way the worlds depend on one another, but mainly at the expense of those in the depressed areas. This book will not only introduce many to the Pakistani culture, it forces everyone to address the more fundamental issues of morality, friendship, and justice.

Moshin Hamid's Website

Up Next
Complete change in direction here as I move to a leadership/business book which was highly recommended on another blog. Start With Why by Simon Sinek will be the upcoming focus. Plus, I'm rereading Zorba the Greek since I'm teaching it again in class -- I'll finish that this week as well.

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