By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Boos: ‘A Great, Time-Diagnostic Narrator’Organizers of Frankfurter Buchmesse today (August 16) have announced that the British Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid will be a keynote speaker at the opening press conference of the trade show on October 18.
Hamid’s new book, The Last White Man, releases today (August 16) in its German translation by Nicolai von Schweder-Schreiner from Dumont Buchverlag (Der letzte weiße Mann), with its story of a man who wakes up one morning—yes, a bit Metamorphosis-like, for those who hear the Kafka echo—to find that he’s no longer white and discovers that others in society are experiencing the same transition.
The book was published on August 2 by Penguin/Riverhead Books in the States and on August 11 by Penguin Random House UK/Hamish Hamilton in the United Kingdom. There, his 2017 Exit West, also from Hamish Hamilton in the UK, was shortlisted in 2019 for the International Dublin Literary Award.
In making today’s announcement, Juergen Boos, Frankfurt’s president and CEO, says, “We invite authors and publishing professionals to the opening press conference of Frankfurter Buchmesse,” the news conference being an event that frequently addresses pressing social issues.
“In recent years, the Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk and Francis Gurry, then the director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (2019); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2018) and Salman Rushdie (2015) have set out their very personal view of current issues here. They provided food for thought and broadened our perspective.
“In his latest book, Mohsin Hamid once again proves to be a great, time-diagnostic narrator who looks at today’s sore spots and illuminates them until new insights are possible.
“I’m delighted that, with Mohsin Hamid, we’ll have one of the most interesting voices in contemporary literature as our guest.”
The opening news conference is set for 11 a.m. in the Pavilion, set in the Agora of Messe Frankfurt, on October 18.
‘Questions About Combat Training’
When The New York Times’ Ezra Klein interviewed Hamid about The Last White Man (a title that Klein remarked seems “a bit heavy-handed for a story with a very light touch”), a basic engine of Hamid’s work comes into view: he questions the either-or context in which so much of contemporary society understands its issues, that binary idea that so much must be one thing or the other.
In talking with Klein, for example, he says that during his hears at Princeton and Harvard Law School, and while living in New York City, issues of discrimination were “mainly sort of an annoyance,” not a big deal.
“And then, suddenly, after 9/11,” he tells Klein, “I found that I’m being pulled out of lines at the airport and given enhanced security. I was once pulled off an aircraft on the tarmac. I would fly into JFK, and at immigration, they’d put you in a room for a few hours, and you’d wait for somebody, and then they’d ask you all kinds of questions about combat training.”
Now living at times in Lahore, London, and New York City, Hamid was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award, a winner of the Betty Trask Award, and a writer with his work translated into at least 40 languages.
For Fresh Air on National Public Radio (NPR) in the States earlier this month, Maureen Corrigan talks about The Last White Man, saying, “As he demonstrated in his 2017 novel, Exit West, Hamid is a chronicler of instability—borders dissolving, beliefs shifting, settled populations suddenly migrating.
“His surreal narratives are just-the-other-side-of-plausible because they’re tethered to once-improbable realities—events like September 11 and the ongoing cataclysm of climate change.”
The new book, in some critics’ reactions, fares less well than its predecessor, Exit West, in terms of its aesthetic elements and technique. At the Star Tribune, for example, Cory Oldweiler writes, “While the messages can be vital, the medium is monotonous, particularly in light of the stylistically lush Exit West. After the first 30-some pages, The Last White Man comprises almost exclusively paragraph-long sentences, clause after clause stitched together comma after comma, droning like background noise, so repetitive as to feel like parody.”
And David Gates, in his August 3 review at the Times, pointed to how “The Last White Man has an additional agenda: to destabilize not just our toxic imaginings but our conventional notions of fiction itself.” Gates sees Hamid moving away from tension and conflict in his latest two books, writing, “Hamid’s earnest pronouncements suggest that he wants a different kind of fiction, without artifice or manipulation—fiction that behaves as straightforwardly as a right-thinking person behaves. Why work up all that pity and fear when they just need to go away?”
Most observers, however, have welcomed the exercise, even if finding this “parable,” as some refer to The Last White Man, to have missed some of its potential.
At Wired, Jason Parham writes, “Hamid wants to believe that people can be better than they once were, that they can adapt to a world that has made more room for others. I’m less inclined to believe so.
“The framing for The Last White Man came to him in the months following September 11, in the wake of being racially profiled, during a moment of strident division. Change isn’t impossible. That much is true. But the nature of societies and those who sit at the top, of people who hoard power and will do anything to protect it, even if they share the same complexion, seldom do.”
Frankfurter Buchmesse this year runs October 19 to 23. Its ticket shop now is open, and you’ll find information about ticketing here.
More from Publishing Perspectives on Frankfurter Buchmesse is here, more on the German book market is here, more on book and publishing awards on the international scene is here, and more on diversity, exclusivity, and issues of race is here.
The international publishing awards survey in which Frankfurt is a participant has had its deadline extended to Friday: We urge publishing professionals to spend 10 minutes responding to the current survey of book awards’ dynamics and values. The survey can be accessed here, and it’s now open through Friday (August 19. More on this is here.
This is Publishing Perspectives’ 143rd awards-related report in the 150 publication days since our 2022 operations began on January 3.
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