Sunday, November 13, 2016
Hamid's fine story about the lives behind the headlines
Mohsin Hamid's story (or novel excerpt?) in current New Yorker, Of Windows and Doors, reminds us of why we read fiction, or one of the reasons why - to experience, through the consciousness of another, a set of experiences that may be foreign or alien to us that that enlighten us about the world in which we live. We all have read numerous news accounts of the cities torn apart of the Middle East, about once civilized regions transformed into hellholes or urban warfare, with thousands of people killed, hundreds of thousands uprooted, millions living in daily fear for their lives, gangs of militants patrolling the streets and killing at will, the political landscape changing day by day, block by block, every moment in life a constant jeopardy. Hamid brings these horrors to life in the way that fiction writers can and do and that nonfiction writers, journalists and others, aspire to though rarely achieve. The city is unnamed - probably Aleppo, you could fill in the blank - and the story is told through the POV of a young couple in love: the young girl living on her own, her parents killed (she has no clear idea when), the only evidence their house now a bombed-in ruin; he lives with his family, mother killed in a random shooting, father in mourning. She moves in w/ his family, and they carry on a sweet but surreptitious romance - even walking in the street is to live in constant danger, as simply holding hands could lead to execution. Their goal is to get passage out - sadly, the father refuses to join them, as he needs to be near the presence of his late wife - and here the story takes an odd turn: they hook up with a mysterious agent who can provide them access, for a fee, to a door that will lead them into a different world. The doorway passage is a touch of dreamlike surrealism, or perhaps magic realism, in this otherwise straight-forward narrative; they pass through the door and find themselves in a new setting, which it turns out is a refugee camp in, I think, Greece. So I wonder if there is more to their story, if this is only the start of a longer piece? If so, Hamid's narrative decision seems a little odd - as if he wants to tell of the refugee's experience, but he has little sense of their actual passage so he makes that, with a wave of a wand, disappear. All told, though, a powerful story that will help us understand the lives behind the grim headlines we read every day.