IIt’s Viktor Orbán’s worst nightmare: “One morning, Anders, a white man, woke up to find that he had turned dark and unmistakable brown. This is the first line of Mohsin Hamid’s new novel The Last White Mana line that deliberately echoes Franz Kafka’s overture Metamorphosis.
Since he first dazzled with his 2000 novel butterfly smoke, Hamid has shown himself willing and able to tackle big, divisive issues: the war on terror, immigration, identity, corruption, poverty. With his latest novel, he tries to tackle another biggie: “whiteness”.
Whiteness is a condition that pleads for romantic treatment and to be rendered through a Kafkaesque lens. It has become a kind of metaphor, even a myth, through which we project all kinds of anxieties and fears about the world and our place in it. And this is true on all sides of the race debate. For racists, whiteness is an expression of both pride and loss. An incarnation of a feeling of superiority and specialness but also a rendering of a world that seems to be moving away.
Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán recently caused outrage by rejecting “racial mixing” between Europeans and non-Europeans. The countries in which such mixing had taken place were, he said, “no longer nations”. The erasure of whiteness is also the dismantling of “Western civilization”, which “lost its power, its performance, its authority, its ability to act”. “The West in its spiritual sense”, Orbán claimed, “moved to central Europe”, because there are only truly white nations. The rest of Europe is “post-Western”.
Whereas in the past those who proclaimed whiteness did so out of a feeling of superiority, today many cling to it like a raft in an unknown ocean. There is a lot of talk on the far right about the need to defend white “homelands” and the fear of a plot to “replace” white people. And not just on the far right. These themes have also found their way among mainstream conservatives, many of whom fear that white people are becoming minorities in European cities.
If, for many racists and conservatives, whiteness is a metaphor for a dying world, for many anti-racists, shaped as they often are by the contemporary climate of identitarianism, whiteness has become a symbol of power and privilege. Where anti-racists once saw their mission as anti-racism, many now see it as anti-whiteness or, rather, anti-racism and anti-whiteness have come to be seen as one and the same. same project.
For many anti-racists, too, the emphasis on whiteness is rooted in a sense of pessimism about the possibilities of overcoming racism. “The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed. The typhoon will not bend under the charge,” wrote Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book between the world and me on the possibilities of overcoming racism.
Coates is perhaps the most famous contemporary African-American essayist, a figure who, in the words of the late Toni Morrison, “fills the intellectual void which tormented me after the death of James Baldwin”. But where Baldwin never lost hope for social redemption, Coates despairs that challenging racism is no more possible than preventing an earthquake or typhoon with legal regulation.
The modern roots of such racial pessimism are found in the works of jurist Derrick Bell. Few people will have heard of him. Yet few have played a greater role in shaping contemporary thought on race, especially in the United States. He is the godfather of what is called critical race theory. Racism, he writes, “is an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society.” Black people “will never achieve full equality” because white people “simply cannot imagine the personal responsibility and potential sacrifice… that true equality for black people will require”.
Rarely have those inspired by Bell’s work fallen as far down the pit of discouragement as he. Pessimism has nonetheless shaped much of current thinking about race. It has contributed to maintaining the perception of whiteness as a source of racism and as a permanent obstacle to overcoming it. If it is a particularly American phenomenon, its sons are also found on this side of the Atlantic – witness insistence by some that Rishi Sunak is losing the Conservative leadership race because of racism, a claim for which there is little support and much evidence to the contrary.
To step into the skin of whiteness to dissect its multiple meanings, and situate them in the tumult of the contemporary world and in its obsession with identity, would seem like a daunting task for a novelist with Hamid’s vision. Yet, for the most part, The Last White Man skates on the surface, snaking rather than dissecting.
In the novel, Anders isn’t the only white man to change color. Soon everyone becomes “dark”. The eponymous “last white man” is Anders’ father, who dies of cancer. It was the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that took shape in the fantasy. As whites are replaced by blacks, society disintegrates. There are riots. “Pale-skinned activists” take to the streets to sow violence. But this all happens from a distance, with the story instead focusing on the evolving relationship between Anders, his lover Oona, Anders’ dying father, and Oona’s mother, a Q-Anon-like conspiracy theorist. Even exploring these relationships, one has the feeling of always looking outside through a dark window.
“I believe that fiction has a strange power” hamid wrote in a note to readers in advance of copies of the book, “which allows it to destabilize the collective imaginaries that we inherit and reproduce”. The problem is that there is nothing in the novel that destabilizes our “collective imaginations”. There are few disturbing or disconcerting things.
The Last White Man is Kafkaesque in the sense that its characters are immersed in a world in which their usual patterns of thought and behavior are disrupted. But it steps back from its Kafkaesque origins by never using this surreal fictional world to expose us to something new, dark and uncomfortable.
This perhaps tells us something about the place of whiteness and, more broadly, of identity, in the contemporary world. This whiteness and identity is so much a part of how we perceive the world that even a novelist as gifted and committed as Hamid would have to become so mute to describe it. This is something that should puzzle us.
Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist
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