Is the best book I have read all year? Mohsin Hamid – Moth Smoke

If you thought the Reluctant Fundamentalist was great and thought-provoking, this is just as good or even better.  It has been a while since I have read a book that I want to rate five stars  but this is  highly recommended.

The story is set in contemporary Pakistan – don’t let this put you off, it is Pakistan as you never imagined.   It is full  of rich, corrupt, drug taking, go-getters all set within the backdrop of Pakistan’s first successful nuclear test.  However this life is brilliantly  juxtaposed with the lives of the have-nots.

It opens with an intriguing story of a Mughal Emperor which signposts the disintegration of the main character Darashikoh.  Daru is a  banker,  however after losing his job his jealousy of his rich, successful, best friend Ozi, and his affair with Ozi’s wife Mumtaz, begin to consume him and he increasingly seems bent on self-destruction.  Daru’s decline is likened to the  moth to a flame analogy with Daru as the moth circling Mumtaz´s candle.

Hamid is constantly reminding us of the gulf  between rich and the poor, Hamid shows this as the,

“air-conditioned/non-air-conditioned divide the power-hungry AC units of the rich collapse the city’s electricity grid just as their corruption has drained the life from the state” .  As the selfish but pragmatic Ozi puts it: “You have to have money these days. The roads are falling apart, so you need a Pajero or a Land Cruiser… The colleges are overrun with fundos… so you have to go abroad… The police are corrupt and ineffective, so you need private security guards. People are pulling their pieces out of the pie, and the pie is getting smaller, so if you love your family, you’d better take your piece now, while there’s still some left.” Observation this sharp needs no elaboration.” (The Guardian).

He draws attention to the differences between Daru and Mumtaz  again through the analogy of air conditioning; “You see , Mumtaz was over-air conditioned and longed to be uncooled, while Darashikoh was under-air conditioned and longed to be cooled.  Although they walked the same path for a while, they were heading in opposite directions”.

The amazing aspect of Hamid’s writing is that fact that he constantly makes you question your original judgement of Daru, and as the book progresses he includes  different interpretations from the other characters so you begin to question who is telling the truth.   He does this through the brilliant device of having one chapter from Daru’s perspective, then one from someone else.  Daru is critical of Ozi and his selfishness and lack of empathy with those less fortunate, when Daru says at a party of wealthy people “It’s not my crowd”, Ozi replies “That’s because you can’t afford it.  But you´re lucky in a sense. being broke keeps you honest”.  Daru however, has exactly the same attitude towards characters of a lower status than him.  He turns on his servant, Manucci, and justifies it with “servants have to be kept in line”.  His attitude to his drug dealer is similar and shows the same lack of self-awareness; ” I don’t like it when low-class types forget their place and try to become too frank with you.  But its my fault I suppose: the price of being a nice guy”.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist certainly had me thinking about this book for a long time after I finished it – why did this  book not get noticed  when it was first published? This edition has been reissued by Penguin.   Now, is it the best book I have read all year?  Well, that is difficult, as I read Rebecca for the first time this year but it would definitely come in my top three.  It is absolutely amazing.  



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2 responses to “Is the best book I have read all year? Mohsin Hamid – Moth Smoke

  1. Carol Jepson

    Haven’t read either of these books but will look out for them now

  2. Yes, they are both well worth a read.

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