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Moth Smoke.

Mohsin Hamid. Moth Smoke. New York. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2000. 247 pages. $23. ISBN 0-374-21354-2.

IN MOHSIN HAMID'S FIRST NOVEL, Moth Smoke, the protagonist Darkashikoh Shezad learns that moths that dance too close to a candle flame might ignite "like a ball of hair, curling into an oily puff of fumes with a hiss." Darkashikoh, or Daru, also comes to understand the tragic consequences of his own reckless actions in modern-day Lahore.

We first meet the twenty-nine-year-old, "ruggedly handsome" Daru as he sits in jail awaiting his sentence. Through a series of flashbacks told from a panoply of characters' viewpoints we not only discover Daru's crime (a detail central to building narrative suspense) but also come to know Daru as an "almost-hero of a great story." Daru has lost his job, yet he is not now going to take just any new job. He explains: "The only people in my neighborhood who don't have servants are servants themselves. Except for me. And I refuse to serve." Lack of money has deflated his dreams of becoming a boxer and put a stop to his dissertation in economics at Punjab University. With his air-conditioning cut, Daru grows desperate and takes up with Lahore's underworld drug lord, the "remorselessly large" Murad Badshah, who speaks in a "well-bred English accent" to hide his lower-class origins. Daru deals drugs to make ends meet, gaining access to the interiors of gated Lahore, where he supplies patrons with "Hairy" (heroine) and butts heads with the city's rigid caste system: there are the superwealthy, European-educated elites who drive around in gas-guzzling, air-conditioned "Pajeros" (SUVs) with little sense of social consequence; the struggling underclass; and Daru, born and bred into neither class. Daru cannot stand the world of the elites. On one occasion, he vomits in disgust after his manor-born friend Aurangzeb savors a shot of contraband whiskey after four-wheeling over and killing a pedestrian.

Daru's passionate love affair with Mumtaz, a superwealthy housewife who moonlights as a feminist journalist, is not enough to alleviate his increasing anger and frustration with a hypocritical caste-controlled Lahore: "The air lacerates my lungs as I breathe, the world turning against me, existence an agony." For those at the city's social margins like Daru, experiencing complex emotions and realizing dreams are cut short. He finds meaning in the only action available -- committing a crime that will seal his tragic fate.

In Moth Smoke Hamid richly textures a world filled with invisible and not-so-invisible boundaries that control and contain those who do not belong to the superelite. He also beautifully anchors his suspenseful and caustic novel in lyric description, even breathing life into everyday minutiae: Daru rolls a cigarette, "loosening the tobacco, coaxing it into a sweaty palm, rubbing the flake between thumb and forefinger until it's almost empty." Long after the last page has been turned, Moth Smoke's poetic turns of phrase and complexly imagined cast of characters resonate vividly.

Frederick Luis Aldama University of Colorado, Boulder
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Aldama, Frederick Luis
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2000
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