Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Originally published by Hackwriters

Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Publisher: Granta Books

ISBN: 0374213542

I read Mohsin Hamid’s 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 reader’s 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 over substance. 

Moth Smoke, however, proved to both stylistically interesting and page turning, with vivid description and an intriguing plot: a success in experimental writing.

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 the day.

We begin chapter one from Daru’s 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 Daru’s 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, (Daru’s best friend), Mumtaz (Ozi’s wife) and Murad Badshah (Daru’s 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 didn’t 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. Daru’s 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 with themselves.

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 Daru himself.

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 Daru’s 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 factors.

Another recurring theme is the nuclear competition between Pakistan and India, quietly mirroring Daru’s 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!