Lucy and Todd

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Discontent and Its Civilizations – Mohsin Hamid

In Free Scotland, Recent Articles, Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 1, 2015 at 6:06 pm

Collections of newspaper columns must be the least enduring or interesting genre of books in the world: the phrase ‘yesterday’s news’ was invented for a reason, after all. Franklin Adams, Richard Harding Davis,  Russell Baker and Geoffrey Bernard read like damp toast now, unless you are obsessed with a particular topic or you’re just weird and you like newspaper writing. This gathering from Mohsin Hamid – there’s hardly a piece of more than a page and a half – is a dip into a drawerful of essays he’s written over the past decade or two, for some of the better newspapers and magazines. They’re so short that they all look the same: a question of some pertinence is raised, discussed at middling depth, and a zinger is appliquéed at the end, in the tiresome way of all journalistic ‘think pieces’. And the title? Ping! Appearance of the dreaded pun-lightbulb.

This collection is blessedly non-chronological: in going through his cogitations, Hamid discovered he had been concerned over the years with a few themes, coming back to them every so often as if on a journalistic roller-coaster: family, life, literature, politics. Politics is where he should stay.  In a good piece, ‘After Sixty Years, Will Pakistan be Reborn?’, Hamid talks about the atmosphere in his family and in Pakistan at the time of its birth: ‘1947 is also remembered as a time of enormous hope. My great-grandfather survived [a bigoted attack]. And the birth that year of his grandson, my father, marked the arrival of the first generation of something new: Pakistanis.

‘My mother recalls a decade of sugar and flour rations. The 1950s, she says, were a decade of a young country finding its feet. She grew up in a small town and she describes a fierce love for Pakistan felt by her and her schoolmates. Pakistan was theirs, a source of pride and identity, symbolically both a parent and, because it inspired such feelings of protectiveness, a sibling.’ Only think. It’s galling and humbling to read this in the light of our recent spectacular failure to secure our own freedom, especially because all we had to do was pick up a pencil.

It’s clear that no one read Discontent and Its Civilizations from start to finish after it was pasted together. Statistics are repeated from one essay to the next, as are certain words, which quickly lose their power to arrest and charm. Much of what Hamid has to say just isn’t very striking. But there is one supremely important essay here and it is called ‘Why Drones Don’t Help’, published last year in the New York Review of Books. Hamid’s thinking seems to have been shaken awake for this piece, even though to some extent it is a book review. It’s a little longer than his usual efforts and he does benefit from a little elbow-room.

It’s a deep, arresting recapitulation of the hows and whys of the execrable, shameful, illegal situation of the drone strikes, perhaps the most awful sustained attack on human beings occurring on this planet. Pakistan is a fantastic playground for conspiracy theorists, he says: ‘Conspiracy theorists have numerous examples they can cite in support of their positions. But perhaps none is as emotionally potent as the claim that flying robots from an alien power regularly strike down from the skies and kill Pakistani citizens. In the US, such a claim would be science fiction or paranoid survivor-cultism of the furthest fringe-dwelling kind. In Pakistan, it is real. And constantly, wrenchingly in the news.’ ‘International pressure can help secure … a consensus,’ writes Hamid. ‘But it cannot be dispatched on the back of a Hellfire missile fired by a robot aircraft piloted by an operator sitting halfway around the world in Nevada.’

So for this piece alone, it turns out that this slapdash book should be read by everyone. But it would have been a much better idea to publish ‘Why Drones Don’t Help’ on its own, in twenty-point type if need be, and put it at the till of every bookshop in the west. Even in Tesco.


This review appeared in the National of 29 December.