Anthologies are usually a daunting affair. Sometimes they can even be logic-defying, especially when they compile just one form of the oeuvre of a prolific writer such as Hanif Kureishi who, at 56, is far from the end of his literary career. Even more surprising, there is little value addition in this new anthology of Kureishi’s short fiction, besides eight new stories.
One sorely misses an introduction that traces the creative trajectory of this intriguing and vastly influential writer. It was Kureishi, after all—along with Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri and a few others “with strange names and some kind of colonial background”, as he himself said—who introduced the hyphenated protagonist as a quintessentially English character, portrayed the pluralistic patchwork of British society with all its rips and frays and paved the way for a whole sub-genre of urban British-Asian fiction, as practised by Niven Govinden, Gautam Malkani or Monica Ali (in Brick Lane).
Collected Stories: Faber and Faber, 671 pages, Rs850.
Without that perspective, Collected Stories makes for uneven reading, even as it indicates a honing of interests and styles. Some of the early stories—the volume Love in a Blue Time was published in 1997—can seem dated, but this collection also contains the prescient My Son the Fanatic, that spare, apocalyptic study of the radicalization of a young Muslim man. Unlike the fanciful The Tale of a Turd or the laboured D’Accord Baby, it’s a story that can be immediately identified with Kureishi in subject matter—the father-son relationship is central to his thought till today—as well as the laconic, almost offhand style.
One of the new stories, the chilling Weddings and Beheadings, invites instant comparison with My Son…, not necessarily in a flattering way. In a decisively post-9/11 world, the unnamed narrator in an unnamed city is an aspiring film director compelled to video-record beheadings for a living. Three pages long, the enthralling subject is undermined by the treatment. Kureishi is always economical with his words, but here he seems almost disinterested.
Taken as a whole, the newer stories seem to underline a vital loss of faith in a world shaken by floundering relationships, financial collapse and devalued political beliefs. They are a striking contrast to the older stories, which seem to thrive on positive endings. Because the young Kureishi’s focus was so narrow, the stories can be read almost as one long narrative of creative limbo, sexual promiscuity, racial tension, cultural discomfort on the rough side of urban England. Yet many of them end on a note of hope. In Four Blue Chairs, John and Dina are a new, young couple, expecting their first dinner guest. They want to bring home four chairs they saw in a store, but John faces unexpected difficulties in transporting the packages, even as Dina strides ahead with her share of the burden. “He is embarrassed and thinks people are looking at him and laughing. People are indeed doing this, looking at him with the box, and at the beautiful woman with the other box… He sees himself, in their eyes, as a foolish little man, with the things he wanted and hoped for futile and empty...
The milieu: Most of Kureishi’s books are set in South Asian England.
“When it is done, he rubs and kisses her sore hands. She looks away.” But later, “She turns to him and strokes his arm.
“‘Are you OK?’ he says.
“She smiles at him. ‘Yes.’”
This is Kureishi at his best, the master of the momentary unsaid. There’s a chance the best may get a bit lost in an anthology this size, but the search is worth the reading.
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