Very few writers can hold your concentration through meticulously crafted long sentences as Mohsin Hamid does in his book, The Last White Man. Hamid is a phenomenal storyteller. “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he has turned a deep and undeniable brown”, the book’s first sentence (perhaps one of the rare short sentences you may find in this work) hooks you through till the end.
In The Last White Man, Hamid seeks to challenge “whiteness” in ways you would feel it the most, the most deceptive ways it works, and how things change as we change and reconcile with it. At its core, Hamid undertakes a Kafkaesque drive into a world without white men.
The story goes like this. Anders, once a white man, has now turned dark-skinned, and his life is about to change in ways unimaginable. The literary trope draws from Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where salesman Gregor Samsa turns into a monstrous insect and subsequently struggles to adjust to this new life condition.
Unlike a century-old Kafka’s literary advent into insect-like life, to the pleasure of Anders, Hamid deals with a gym dude, who turns out not so dude-like, who has to face the world with a changed colour.
More pleasurable is the fact that there are, it turns out, several others like him—who have, in recent days, turned dark from pale-skinned people. Turns out, as the story proceeds, the whole world is turning dark-skinned.
And as the story proceeds, there is mobocracy, cynical violence, white killing the dark-skinned and the dark-skinned killing the whites, a world at war with each other until everyone, someday, turn dark, and come to terms with it.
The story revolves around two people: Anders and Oona, more or less, perhaps, Anders more, Oona less, their co-dependent, not-so-jolly friendship, and the turn it takes to become a relationship, where one gets to like the other, with Anders’s renewed avatar, the people it encircles, the gym boss (who suggest Anders that he would die if he ever becomes like Anders, until one day he become so), Anders difficult-to-understand father, Oona’s racist-kind mother, Oona’s twin junkie brother who is dead already, but would have died anyway, going by how dependent he was on chemically engineered ecstasy.
Anders calls in sick as he tries to come to terms with his loss of whiteness. His partner, Oona, a yoga instructor, comes to his place unannounced to surprise Anders, only to find herself surprised, shocked-like surprised.
Nonetheless, they have sex. However, Oona finds it difficult to come to terms with this somewhat utterly different person. As Anders slowly grapples with his new life, he carries a sense of fear all along.
There is a fear that what Anders was before is no longer is, but nonetheless is. He cannot understand how his known ones would respond to his renewed state of being.
Soon after, there are more and more people turning dark, along with a sense of fear, chaos, and anarchy, with people killing each other over their skin colour, as it happens in today’s world until there is no white man left.
Like Jose Saramago’s Blindness, also somewhat like, but much better than, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, which employs a prose style of lengthy paragraphs in a rhythmic sense, Hamid’s new book is also a literary experiment. It reads like a parable.
A subtle sense of humour, dark humour, and a tinge of sarcasm, often evoked and described in deadly serious scenes, make the book read like poetry. Hamid’s novel foregrounds the themes of loss, mourning, and coming to terms with everything in between.
Interestingly, Hamid uses “gone” to mean two things in a single sentence:
Elsewhere, discussing Oona’s twin brother’s life, Hamid writes: “Oona had moved back to town to help her mother through the demise of Oona’s twin brother, a demise long in coming, perhaps since that first pill at fourteen… (p. 14).”
Deliberating on the dilemmas of Anders, Hamid adds:
In another instance, Hamid writes: “…in other words that a white man had indeed shot a dark man, but also that the dark and the white man were the same” (p. 48). The book is replete with such beautifully crafted, pleasurable sentences.
Surprisingly, there is very little information about things. There is no sense of when this story plays out. There are no mentions of names of places where the events occur, and the names of people, other than the two leads, are relatively unknown. You see that as you read. There is a sense that someone is telling it to you, beautifully crafted in every sense. There is also non-judgment.
Despite discussing some intricate social problems, Hamid considers humans flawed and treats his characters that way. And he gives them a space to come to terms with the things around them.
For example, Oona’s mother, who seems to be a conspiracy theorist about why people are turning dark and cheering for white gangsters to bring a revolution-like disaster to fix this problem, only when she later turns dark-skinned is content with the fact that she did it so late, unlike others, is intricately crafted.
Deceptive as the title sounds, the last white man, the reader is left wondering where the last white man is until there is none left. Ultimately, Hamid’s novel points to comfort in overcoming racial differences against all odds. There is an admirable sense of storytelling.
Throughout the work, there is no use of another speech mark other than a comma and a full stop, allowing each comma to tell a story or, perhaps, connect a storyline, challenging the very ways in which the English language has been taught and how one is trained to write.
Despite dealing with race every day, The Last White Man is surprisingly hopeful. Hamid’s book is a must-read for all those who enjoy good storytelling.
THE LAST WHITE MAN, by Mohsin Hamid | 180 pp. | Penguin Books
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