Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid, which I found in the bookshelf at the Hotel Orchidea in Florence, made a big splash when it came out in 2000, garnering praise and awards then and again when it was reissued in paperback in 2007. It’s a beautifully written novel, and people who love sentences will love this book. But it’s a seriously flawed novel. The central character, Daru, is an unlikeable whiner with no redeeming qualities (that I can find). This is not necessarily a problem, but as the central protagonist, he must be a primary tool through which the author’s message is elucidated. In that he fails, and that is a problem.
As a poor child who associated with rich kids because of financial help from a friend of his dead father, Daru is motivated by resentment and arrogance when his education is finished and he has to live within his own means, which are significantly less than that of his wealthy jet-setting ex-schoolmates. His arrogant response to a client of his bank who treats him like a servant results in the loss of his job and his life spirals down in a drive to self-destruction. When he adds heroin to to near constant consumption of hash, we know he’s approaching the end. By the final chapter, he’s on trial for a death he did not cause, a child killed by his erstwhile friend Aurangzeb, trained to be a shark in New York, and bringing those skills back to Pakistan to hide and launder his corrupt father’s wealth. Innocent of this crime, Daru had shot at a child during an attempted robbery, so he is not exactly innocent. The novel begins with a parallel case from history, about which the narrator says “none present were innocent, save perhaps the judge. And perhaps not even he.” It’s possible the origins of the novel lie in Hamid’s desire to explore this subject. However, he has wandered too far off-track for readers to see this as a novel about lack of innocence. Daru is a wanna be wealthy elite who can’t accept the relative status and money of his own life in the face of his friend’s limitless wealth and power. It’s a depressing novel about someone who feels like a victim and consequently acts like one, participating in his own destruction.
The biggest question is whether this is a political novel, or a psychological one. I think it’s meant to be political, exploring different responses to a blatantly corrupt government by wealth and influence. Aurangzeb’s wife, Mumtaz, unhappy in her marriage and the useless bacchanalia of life as an insider, turns her journalism talents, nurtured in New York, to writing about the corruption all around her. She illustrates that one can choose an active, participatory role as exposer of corruption and advocate for the oppressed.
Daru’s drug-dealer, a man who also owns a small rickshaw company, offers another response to such political corruption. When taxi-drivers move in and take away rickshaw business, he takes to robbing them. While preparing Daru to assist him in a new endeavour, robbing boutiques, he lays out his philosophy: “This is how I see things. People are fed up with subsisting on the droppings of the rich. The time is right for a revolution. The rich use Kalashnikovs to persuade tenant farmers and factory laborers and the rest of us to stay in line . . . but we, too, can be persuasive.” When Daru asks him why boutiques, he replies “symbolism: they represent the soft underbelly of the upper crust, the ultimate hypocrisy in a country with flour shortages.”
Daru seems stumped by the fact that the traditional opposition, communism, is a spent force and the “trending” opposition is religious fundamentalism. Yet Mumtaz and Murad show there are other ways to respond to the despotism of wealth. Daru chooses self-destruction. Unfortunately his response is too loaded with psychological weight to be seen as a response to corruption. He is more disabled by his envy of the rich than by the fact of the rich. There is a distinctly British feel to this novel, with its orphan raised above his class through a wealthy benefactor and then dropped back into it when the funding ends.
The rickshaw driver is more sympathetic, as he’s a man who takes action without rage or the impulse to violence. Though he provides the guns, he plans robberies that won’t require any actual shooting. Daru wallows in his boredom and emptiness, but it is within us all to take action, as we see through both Mumtaz, underground journalist, and Murad, rickshaw driver and leveller of rich and poor.
The title refers to the ancient eastern symbol of the moth, so enchanted with the beloved flame that it’s willing to be burned to ash in consummation, to lose its identity in union. In this novel Daru slashes away at the moths with a tennis racket, preventing them from immolating themselves. There is an absence of “moth smoke” here, and the corpses littering the floor point to an absence of meaning. This seems to parallel Daru, in love with nothing (despite his brief affair with Mumtaz), absent of passion, slowly killing himself. But shouldn’t the title be “No Moth Smoke”?
I have to wonder what western readers saw in the novel. I can’t help but think it’s a colonial response – the affluent west’s enchantment with the exotic “other”. Hamid has laid open his Pakistan culture — with its corruption, its huge wealth disparity, its hedonism — for westerners to feast on, while congratulating themselves for their own superior culture. We shouldn’t do that; we should see it as a mirror of our rapidly disintegrating democracies, and perhaps if Murad were the central character we might take more notice of what could threaten us.