The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid review: Kafka for the age of Twitter race rows

·4 min read
The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid review - Hamish Hamilton
The Last White Man by Mohsin Hamid review - Hamish Hamilton

Even in his most realistic novels, Mohsin Hamid betrays a weakness for allegory. In 2007’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a Pakistani man named Changez (Changes) moves to the US and falls in love with Erica (America). But though the symbolism was hard to miss, Hamid provided enough texture for the reader to care about these characters as human beings. Fast-forward to 2022, though, and it appears we want our messages as smoothly didactic as possible – and in his new novel, The Last White Man, Hamid obliges.

The plot begins as a reworking of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Anders, a privileged white man, wakes up one morning to find he has turned “a deep and undeniable brown”. At first, like his namesake the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik, he feels rage – “he wanted to kill the coloured man who confronted him here in his home” – but gradually he comes to a pained recognition that his whiteness will never return. His girlfriend, Oona, a yoga instructor, is unsure at first. But in the bedroom, at least, their different complexions add a bit of voyeuristic excitement. She enjoys “watching herself performing her grind with a dark-skinned stranger”. Eventually, she too turns brown, as does the rest of the white-skinned population.

Hamid certainly touches on important themes. America, where this novel appears to be set, is by some estimates likely to be minority white by 2050. Phenomena such as the rise of Donald Trump and the popularity of the conspiracy known as the Great Replacement Theory – which claims there is a deliberate plot by Jews to increase immigration in order to dilute the white population – are absolutely dangerous. As demography changes, so does the sense of cultural threat among the majority. Hamid’s novel counters that, in the end, it doesn’t matter what skin colour you have, and that, for white people, giving up some privilege could be a liberation into a more generous way of living.

I’m on board with the message – the problem is that Hamid’s moralising tone leaves the novel dead in the water. Even when he is trying to be sympathetic to a character, such as Oona’s mother, who is deeply uncomfortable with her daughter’s change, he cannot erase his condescension. Perhaps this is a function of the novel’s frictionless style, in which characters demonstrate theories rather than live and breathe their own contradictions – as Changez did in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, or Hamid’s banker/drug-addict protagonist Daru did in his raucous debut, Moth Smoke (2000).

The prose doesn’t help. Hamid’s long, deliberately repetitive sentences are supposed to be incantatory or fairy-tale-like, but just end up being tedious. “When Oona’s mother saw Oona she knew it was Oona, and Oona’s mother sat on her sofa and did not speak, and then Oona said, mother, and her mother looked down, still at Oona, but at Oona’s legs…” And so on for another 15 lines.

The best allegories also work as stories in their own right: Animal Farm is a gripping tale whether or not you know much about the Soviet Union. They also succeed when their meaning isn’t straightforwardly mappable. Take The ­Met­a­morphosis. It is never clear what Gregor Samsa turning into an insect actually represents, and Kafka has no interest in telling us. Instead, he gives us a deeply visceral depiction of the practical consequences of the transformation. (I will never forget the rotting apple stuck in his back.) Samsa is genuinely repulsive, which is why it is such an effort for his family to suppress their disgust and help the poor thing. But Hamid’s novel doesn’t have the same stakes. Except for the most fervent racist, turning a few shades darker hardly bears comparison in the disgust stakes.

Like quite a few novels these days, The Last White Man seems to be responding to the extremes of social media debate rather than the evolving reality of racial politics in the West, where Hispanics vote for Trump and we might soon have a British Asian prime minister. This is a shame, because Hamid is an intelligent writer who has done com­pelling work in the past. Sadly, this is a pale imitation.

The Last White Man is published by Hamish Hamilton at £12.99. To order your copy for £10.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books