The Last White Man is a retelling of sorts of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis for the post-Covid generation. In Mohsin Hamid’s fifth and most recent novel, a white man wakes up on an otherwise ordinary morning and discovers that he has turned dark. However, unlike Kafka, Hamid refuses to plant his protagonist as an exception in this ‘nightmare’. Instead, he creates a new reality of disturbia in which Anders, our leading man, becomes just one among many casualties during a raging pandemic where every body is transforming, except one, which forms the basis of the book’s cleverly deceptive title.
There’s no real explanation provided for this phenomenon; we know nothing other than the fact that it’s happening. For those of us who have survived the coronavirus pandemic until now, this life we are living is no less than a reincarnation. The immediacy with which Anders’s life is altered here, thus, doesn’t seem inconceivable.
Hamid’s most popular work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was a racially charged political fable too. But he goes one step further with this book and places the victim and the culprit inside the same body. When a recently transformed dark man takes his own life in one scene, the reader is made to question whether it can be called a hate crime too – since in essence, what’s happened is that a white man has killed a man of colour.
We also meet his girlfriend, Oona, who seems nonplussed but simultaneously attracted to a man she knows since childhood but now lives inside a reanimated shell. Oona’s an easily identifiable millennial, in one scene she’s dancing at a bar where some men are hitting on her. Hamid gives us a glimpse into her mind: “...and there was a body close to hers... and a proposition, a shared rhythm, and considering whether to go home with him... but there was tiredness too, and an excuse made, about an early start to the next day...” It’s the love and interdependency shared between Anders and Oona which becomes the centre that holds this novel together.
As more people around them are transformed, the dystopia shifts to online forums, and then to violence on the streets. Nothing objectively harmful happens to them during this novel. But where Hamid’s writing hits home is while addressing the imminent danger and discomfort of living in a world which is on the boil, eager to expel you at the first opportunity. A radical reality in which many live today. That’s what he wants us to take away from The Last White Man – so we don’t rely on fate to change things for us overnight, but ensure we are ready participants in building a fairer world without prejudices.