Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

Moth Smoke Cover Moth Smoke [2000] – ★★★★1/2    

Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist [2007] is one of my favourite novels. Therefore, I had high expectations prior to reading Hamid’s debut book Moth Smoke [2000]. These expectations were met. In Moth Smoke, Darashikoh Shezad or Daru is a hash-smoking banker living in Lahore, Pakistan who rekindles his friendship with his childhood friend Ozi, who is now an influential and rich man living under the protection of his equally influential, but corrupt father. Daru also realises that he is attracted to Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, and, among his friends is also a shady character Murad Badshah, who sometimes acts as his drugs supplier. After Daru is fired from his job, his societal divide from influential and rich Ozi grows even further, and he finds himself on the dark path towards immorality and crime. Moth Smoke is a fascinating, eye-opening journey into Lahore’s criminal underbelly, which makes observations on the societal class divisions and east vs. west mentality conflicts. But, it is also so much more than that: it has an experimental structure and style (with at least four unreliable narrators); employs symbolism and fable-like story-telling; and becomes a book about the limits of morality, friendship and love, while also exploring the nature of guilt and the malleability of truth. 

The book begins at the end, opening up with a jail setting. Our protagonist is incarcerated. Daru’s “suppliers” of friendship/influence (Ozi), romance (Mumtaz) and drugs (Murad) become co-stars at his trial. What follows is the past already happened, and the setting is Lahore, Pakistan. We soon get to know about Lahore’s elite and glamorous life through Ozi, not so glamorous life through Murad, and romantically-obsessive and unusual one through Mumtaz. Our protagonist begins in one state, but he finished in another. In the beginning, after losing his job at the bank, Daru, who is never portrayed as anything other than his average, failing self, has no choice but to go to his rich friends and extended but equally poor family for any guidance and a helping hand. Daru can no longer financially support himself and hides behind the veil of normality in the environment which is money-driven. He also gets close to one woman who does not fit the standard model of a mother and wife. In some way, Moth Smoke is even a tale of a group of Pakistani “misfits”; it is just that some simply hide their unusual selves better than others. As Daru’s life spirals out of control, he puts to question the very foundations of his former life, including his close friendship with Ozi and his growing love for one woman he cannot have.

With Moth Smoke, as well as with The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the key words are “controversial” and “provoking”. If The Reluctant Fundamentalist touches on the very sensitive issue of the 9/11 and the world after it, in Moth Smoke, Hamid is not afraid to push the morality boundaries of a traditional Muslim country which is Pakistan. Hamid makes implicit observations on the hedonistic lifestyles of the characters living in Lahore (including the use of alcohol and drugs), as well as on the class divisions, widespread corruption and extramarital affairs. Hamid is also not afraid to push moral boundaries of a traditional Pakistani family, exposing its imperfect nucleus. Also, as in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hamid is concerned here with the conflict between the west and the east, in the clash of cultures and cultural interests, and there is the same disillusionment with the west felt throughout the novel, for example when he compares New York and Lahore.

The issue of morality is at the forefront of Moth Smoke, and, in his book, Hamid puts horrid acts in context, desiring to know whether the attribution of blame changes if the environment/context is manipulated. The slow moral disintegration of Daru is uncomfortable to envisage, but yes, who can deny? – it is also interesting to read. In that way, few people can resist a book trope that leads a well-to-do character to his downfall; see The Bonfire of the Vanities [1987]. Moth Smoke is appealing on that basis alone. Hamid goes even further than that. Daru takes a stance of a decent human being fallen on hard time, and the author plays with this situation to surprising results. It becomes easy to slip into lawlessness when one is convinced that this or that unlawful action “will be the last” or “is only for the pain”. The Ozi narrative goes: guilt isn’t a problem…once you’ve started there is no way to stop, so there’s nothing to be guilty about” [Mohsin Hamid, 2000: 231]. The Daru narrative also states: “I wait for regret and guilt to come, but they don’t show up” [2000: 170]. Each of the four unreliable narrators is trying to convince us of the righteousness of their behaviour, asking us to step into their shoes. They are far from perfect, but they are what they are with all their failings and impulses, and “truth” does not exist in a vacuum.

In Moth Smoke, an ancient fable and symbolism are weaved into the narrative. The themes of moths (symbolism) and little boys are repeated throughout the novel, and both may stand for something else. “The poets say some moths will do anything out of love for a flame” [Mohsin Hamid, 2000: 171], says Manucci, Daru’s boy servant. Somewhere there is also the theme of air-conditioning (AC), an object that implicitly divides the rich and the poor, with the rich living in “an air-conditioned haven” [2000: 126]. “The distinction between members of these two groups is made on the basis of control of an important resource: air conditioning” [2000: 102], says an article source in the novel. In that vein, whether a character likes or dislikes air-conditioning is also relevant to the question what side of the moral play they find themselves on.

Most characters in Moth Smoke are unlikeable, but that is alright because the author’s intention is to expose the failings, and not to hide them. Probably only Manucci, Daru’s boy servant, is sympathetic, which is ironic because he is supposed to be the one who we should look down upon (the boy was previously involved in thieving). Hamid “borrows” the narrative from Kipling’s Kim [1901] to describe Manucci: “if one had asked Manucci during his days as a street urchin, as he sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah, Manucci would probably have said that ACs are hot” [Mohsin Hamid, 2000: 134]. You cannot help but smile at this description.

I loved Moth Smoke, but it was still not a five-star book for me. I found that it contained too much dialogue for my taste. However, the main weakness is that Hamid does not even attempt to make his main character sympathetic in our eyes at the end of the novel. I believe that had he done so, by rewriting some key bits of the story, it would have made his book more moving and subtly powerful.

Moth Smoke is an astonishing debut with a brave experimental structure and style. It is also a book that packs into itself a multitude of themes, making it strangely impactful. If you can put up with unlikeable characters, this book is worth investing into since it shows contemporary life in Pakistan from a different angle, delving into the lives and motivations of four different leading characters, and implicitly philosophising on morality, the divide between rich and poor, and on the attribution of criminal guilt.

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9 thoughts on “Review: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

  1. I’ve been meaning to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist for much too long. But since it’s one of your favorite and based on your review of this book, I think I should look into reading Fundamentalist sooner than later.

    Liked by 1 person

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