Penguin has released a new edition of Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel Moth Smoke with a slightly misleading cover. At first glance it seems that there is a couple against the sunset reaching out for each other. Excuse me while I cringe. It’s only when you take a closer look that you realise they have rather jaded expressions on their faces and they are not actually reaching for each other; she is passing a joint to him. Now, this corresponds with the book better. It’s a novel about Pakistan in the 90s, about those who, thanks to corruption and connections, found themselves at the top of the food chain, and those who got left behind. It is also about sex, drugs and air-conditioning.
The first chapter shows us a glimpse of a prison cell, and in the following one I found myself in a position of the judge. The second-person narrative makes it clear that I am about to rule guilty or not in the defendant’s case. As many over-worked judges out there, I seem to not have had the time to read the dossier and hoped that the testimonies will be enough for me to pass a verdict. It’s finally with the third chapter that the Dramatis personæ are fully introduced. We meet outrageously rich Ozi and his beautiful new wife Mumtaz and his not rich and definitely wifeless best friend, whom Ozi has just reconnected with after returning to Pakistan from the US. With a dangerous triangle set up like this, trouble is almost certain to follow.
Jorge Luis Borges said once “I found that really good metaphors are always the same […] you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature because they correspond to something essential.” Mohsin takes from that school of thought when he implements his ‘moth and candle’ metaphor, admittedly not the most original way of implying self-destructive behaviour. Yet, it is done brilliantly. Moths, apparently, get confused with artificial sources of lights like light bulbs or candles and while trying to correct their flight trajectory end up spiralling around closer and closer to the light source eventually bringing their own downfall upon themselves.
In short, this is what the book does, it spirals around the centre that we know is there but we haven’t touched yet. Also, it is of course a metaphor for the decline of the characters, and maybe even the country.
Reading Moth Smoke is a little like watching a train wreck, if you excuse this cheap simile (I am from Borges’ school of thought as well). The smoke and smell of something burning permeate the pages and with each chapter it is harder to see who is right and who is wrong. So when the judgment moment comes you are likely to end up with a hung jury. I know I did.
(I published it originally on www.bookmunch.wordpress.com)