International Writers Magazine: Review
Smoke by Mohsin Hamid
Publisher: Granta Books
read Mohsin Hamids second novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist,
several months ago and was disappointed enough to be put off the
idea of reading Moth Smoke for some time. Hamid is an experimental
writer who clearly enjoys playing with point of view and the readers
relationship with the story. The Reluctant Fundamentalist,
despite being nominated for several literary prizes (and winning
a few), in my opinion fell short of the mark. It was interesting
but it was not engaging. The style was unique but it was not wowing.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, I felt, was an example of style
however, proved to both stylistically interesting and page turning,
with vivid description and an intriguing plot: a success in experimental
Moth Smoke is set in Lahore, Pakistan and follows Darashikoh (Daru)
Shezad through a spectacular downfall. At the start of the novel, Daru
works in a bank and smokes a few joints; by the end, he is sitting alone
in a dark and overheated house relying on heroin to get him through
We begin chapter one from Darus point of view as he sits alone
in a prison cell but we do not return to him in this position until
the end of the book. We learn early on that he is being tried for the
murder of a boy. You, the reader, hold the position of the judge and
are addressed directly as such in sporadic chapters set in a courtroom.
The majority of the book is written from Darus point of view,
chronicling events as he loses his job and slips slowly into a life
of poverty and escapism. Every other chapter pulls away from Daru, however,
and we are privy to the accounts of Ozi, (Darus best friend),
Mumtaz (Ozis wife) and Murad Badshah (Darus rickshaw driver
friend). I have come across several reviews that say this distracts
from the main story and breaks the flow of the writing, though personally
I didnt find it jarring. It quickly becomes clear that none of
the narrators are entirely reliable and it is the varied points of view
that allow this to happen. Darus narrative grows claustrophobic
as his story unfolds; the additional points of view provide welcome
light. This makes your position as judge a difficult one when it is
clear that no character is innocent and no character is absolutely honest
Perhaps the most honest character is Mumtaz, who has set up a double
life for herself in order to deal with the bad choices she has made.
Although she is, in a sense, finding a way to live a lie, she is always
aware of why and has spent much more time addressing her failings than
any of the other characters. As Daru and Mumtaz grow closer, both characters
become more naked, reveal more of who they are than is sensible for
either of them.
The only real reservation I had with the novel was that some of the
characters seemed a little thin. While everything Daru did made sense
within his character, some of the behaviours of Mumtaz and Ozi seemed
a little less credible. Although this worked to illustrate the divide
between the couple and Daru, the fact that they were at times telling
the story weakened this tool somewhat. Perhaps the problems that some
critics had with the point of view shifts came not from the shifts themselves
but from the wavering credibility of some of the peripheral characters.
However, the characters are strong enough to hook you and their weaknesses
are masked by their intentional unreliability and by the strength of
Moth Smoke illustrates very well the divide between the rich
and poor of Pakistan. Although Daru was never rich, his connections
allowed him to sample the lifestyle of the wealthy from time to time.
His constant awareness of the wealth around him highlights the gulf
between those who have and those have not, and when he eventually falls
into poverty himself without even enough money to run electricity in
his home, the distinction is glaring.
The central image in the novel is, unsurprisingly, a moth attracted
to a flame, singed in its persistent attraction to the fire. This symbolises
Darus own self-destructive behaviour and from the moment he watches
a moth die in the light of the candle, he is unable to shake the smell
of burning flesh. Daru rarely admits the danger in his own behaviour,
but he is constantly aware of it, always trying to attribute it to exterior
Another recurring theme is the nuclear competition between Pakistan
and India, quietly mirroring Darus relationship with Ozi while
building the tension and discomfort in their environment.
The writing itself is fresh and fast paced, cloying descriptions building
when Daru is at his most claustrophobic. Hamid has a tendency to overwork
a metaphor, but his ideas are original and often brilliantly executed
in moments of vivid imagery. My favourite example of this is when Mumtaz
recounts, I just gritted my teeth, took out a needle and worked him
out of my heart like splinter.
This is a novel rich in images with a strong and unique voice and a
fascinating story to tell. I say: read it!
© Jenny Adamthwaite June 2008
j_adamthwaite at talk21.com
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