Pakistani-British author Mohsin Hamid was born and partly raised in Lahore, Pakistan, and has also been based in London and New York. I’ve read his earlier books The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Exit West, which I liked, but I always felt (pre-blog) that I’d read them at surface level somehow, and failed to appreciate the sub-text or nuance.
The Last White Man, published this year, comes in at 180 pages so it fits nicely into this year’s annual Novellas in November challenge. The writing style, if not the content, reminded me somewhat of Rachel Cusk’s writing in novels like Transit, I think it’s because there are lots of sub-clauses and long sentences, though I don’t have one of her books to hand to check!
The book opens in an unnamed country with Anders (an uber-white name – I initially assumed the action was set in the UK, but given the name maybe it’s meant to be somewhere Nordic) waking in the morning to find he’s no longer white, but brown. In this Kafkaesque new reality:
“Anders waited for an undoing, an undoing that did not come, and the hours passed, and he realized that he had been robbed, that he was the victim of a crime, the horror of which only grew, a crime that had taken everything from him, that had taken him from him…”
When he finally steals himself to leave the house, he finds the shop assistant in the grocery store is rude, or worse maybe, treats him as though he were more or less invisible, while Anders, still coming to terms with the death of his mother, has been generally unmoored.
Anders has a sometime yoga-teacher girlfriend, Oona, who is initially unsure how to respond to Anders’ transformation, and the reactions from other people in Anders’ life, including his father, are also often ambivalent at best.
Hamid says he wrote the novel partly into his own experiences post-9/11:
“As a university educated person who had a well-paying job and lived in large cosmopolitan cities … I thought I had a kind of partial membership of this dominant group called whiteness. Then suddenly I became a member of this suspect class – being pulled out of lines in airports and stopped for hours at immigration, seeing people uncomfortable around me when I showed up on the subway or tube with my backpack. It was jarring, and initially I felt this profound sense of loss.“
More and more people are affected by the strange phenomenon, and as more white people turn brown there is an effect on societal stability, there are violent incidents, and people regard each other with suspicion (is becoming brown catching? are the people around them ‘new’ brown people or existing members of ethnic minorities?). People stockpile groceries and lie low, in an obvious nod to the retrospectively weird behaviour that arose during COVID (I never did understand why people were hoarding all those toilet rolls).
The book is good in its reflections on identity:
“Anders said that he was not sure he was the same person, he had begun by feeling that under the surface it was still him, who else could it be, but it was not that simple, and the way people act around you, it changes what you are, who you are, and Oona said she understood, that it was like learning a foreign language...”
Meanwhile Oona’s mother, still mourning the earlier deaths of her son and husband (which happened before the action begins in the book), becomes drawn into conspiracy sites online as she tries to come to terms with her shifting reality:
“...it was not that we were better than them, although we were better than them, how could you deny it, but that we needed our own places, where we could take care of our own, because our people were in trouble, and the dark people could have their own places, and there they could do their own dark things, or whatever...”
I was about to describe the book as a dystopia, compelling me as a white reader to acknowledge those unconscious biases so clearly presented by Reni Eddo-Lodge in her polemic Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I felt discomfited by the title too, reading the book on the bus, and started worrying faintly that anyone glancing at the cover might think I was reading white supremacist literature, amid the general political narrative these days in relation to migrants, as well as the white nationalist concept of the ‘Great Replacement’.
As the – highly intelligent, but also highly accessible – story progresses, there is, indeed, a last white man, and then none at all. However, as Anders and Oona adjust to the new realities, it seems that there is definite room for optimism.