Discontents and its Civilisation by Mohsin Hamid, book review: Knocking down the myths of civilisation

Discontents and its Civilisation suggests Mohsin Hamid is reasonable, intelligent and, despite the steep cover price for this slim volume, humble

James Kidd
Friday 21 November 2014 13:18
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Intelligent and humble: Mohsin Hamid displays vivid touches in his collection of essays
Intelligent and humble: Mohsin Hamid displays vivid touches in his collection of essays

Discontents and its Civilisation, Mohsin Hamid’s first collection of essays, inverts the title of Freud’s seminal 1929 paper exploring the individual’s relationship to the world and culture at large.

It’s a neat piece of wordplay that feels a little untypical of Hamid’s non-fictional prose, which tends to be rather serious.

The allusion does some work, however, suggesting the book’s main subject: how the first tumultuous decade of the 21st century has shaped people’s lives, most obviously Hamid’s own. As he notes in his introduction, he has lived in Pakistan during its “most intense period of terrorist activity and drone strikes”, in London “either side of the 2005 public transport bombings”, and in New York in the “era that came to an end with the attacks on the World Trade Centre of 2001”.

A similar intersection of narratives propel his three novels: the political significance of Changez growing a beard in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, for instance. In the essays, this fusion informs each of its three sections: “Life”, “Art” and “Politics”. One essay is actually called “Personal and Political Intertwined”. In “Art and Other Pakistans”, Hamid recalls his return to Lahore in 1993: ‘Love comes to mind when I think of that time. There was a lot of it going on among the people I hung out with. But I was also falling in love with Pakistan.”

The book’s titular essay argues that “the idea that we fall into civilisations, plural, is merely a politically convenient myth”. Hamid concludes by pondering whether to install bomb-proof windows in his apartment in Lahore. The sticking point is not whether the windows are made in the West by Muslim workers, but whether they are transparent: “Outside my daughter’s windows is a yellow blooming amaltas tree, beautiful and mighty, and much older than us all. I hoped not to dim my daughter’s view of it.”

This telling finale expresses more than Hamid says, connecting fear, love, the future and history in a simple statement. It is vivid touches like this which elevate Hamid’s intelligent, if hardly ground-breaking, commentaries above the commonplace. His preoccupation with protests against a You Tube film depicting the Prophet Muhammad led him to believe that his daughter’s tears on being left at school indicated “some great barbarism”. In fact it was simply a “sign of healthy attachment” to her parents.

These political ruminations sit easily alongside enjoyable accounts of Murakami-inspired creative walks, a nicely self-deprecating anecdote about Hamid the pasta chef being stood up by Toni Morrison (for John Updike) and a slightly slight advocacy of America’s women novelists. But it was often the odd, personal pieces that linger in the memory. The subtly erotic account of dancing sweatily next to a veiled woman at a Sufi “dance/trance” event (“In Concert, No Touching”). Or the humane, absurd examination of post-7/7 paranoia on the London Underground, “Down the Tube”.

Discontents and its Civilisation suggests Mohsin Hamid is reasonable, intelligent and, despite the steep cover price for this slim volume, humble. In short, just the sort of commentator the world could do with right now.

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