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The Last Word | Hanif Kureishi

Hanif Kureishi occupies a curious place in the canon of Indian writing in English. That is to say, he doesn’t. His imagination, unlike that of other diasporic writers, is not haunted by the old country. India and Pakistan mean little to Kureishi other than as places left behind. Kureishi’s great subject, his obsession, has always been England or, rather, London. There’s a scene in Sammy And Rosie Get Laid (1987), written by Kureishi and directed by Stephen Frears, just like the Oscar-nominated My Beautiful Laundrette two years earlier, in which Sammy’s father, a compromised Pakistani politician (played by Shashi Kapoor), points out that London is “a cesspit".

“You’d better come home, Samir," he says, laying a fleshy paternal hand heavily on his son’s shoulder." “I am home, Pop," Sammy replies, “this is the bosom." “I mean home to your own country, where you’ll be valued, where you’ll be rich, where you’ll be powerful. What can you possibly like about this city now?" It’s the cue for Sammy to launch into the pleasures of ambulating through London on Saturdays with Rosie, kissing and arguing, browsing in second-hand bookshops, going to plays and seminars. “We love our city and we belong to it," Sammy tells his incredulous father. “Neither of us are English, we’re Londoners you see."

The Last Word: Faber & Faber, 304 pages, Rs 599
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The Last Word: Faber & Faber, 304 pages, Rs 599

London, in the mind of an Oxbridge-educated Pakistani politician brought up on buttered toast and John Keats, may be a fallen city, an opinion he shares with English conservatives for whom England is forever pastoral, an idyll of village greens and warm beer, but on those violent inner city streets the mood is carnivalesque—music everywhere, authority ignored and the people gloriously mixed. The energy is infectious.

Kureishi, born in Bromley, in south-east London, wasn’t interested in stories told by immigrants about “home", stories and memories burnished by distance, by exile, and wasn’t interested in stories told by nostalgic Englishmen of what England was like before. He told stories about a new England, a new London, stories about a new culture created by the children of those immigrants mixing with the children of those nostalgic Englishmen.

Newness is shocking. And in the 1980s, with My Beautiful Laundrette, a film in part about a homosexual love affair between a young British-Pakistani and a skinhead, and Sammy And Rosie Get Laid, and into the 1990s with his first two novels, The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album, Kureishi was shocking. In his films and novels he celebrated a kind of antic bohemianism, an unrestrained mixing. What was inimical to Kureishi’s worldview was fundamentalism, a clinging to religion, to old ways. It’s the tension that animated his early work—the seductions of a new composite, protean culture versus the seductions of old, sclerotic certainties.

Kureishi was not, then, anything like Mamoon Azam, the great writer at the centre of The Last Word, Kureishi’s new novel. “Mamoon", Kureishi writes, “had been his own kind of radical, going to some trouble to mock and invert political correctness, rebelling against the fashionable contrarians of his day, hippies, feminists, anti-racists, revolutionaries, anyone decent, kind or on the side of equality or diversity." At 70, with an acquisitive younger wife, Mamoon has financial worries. His wife had “been shocked by how modest an income his books actually generated. A small but lofty reputation didn’t translate into cash". His wife is convinced that he needs to become “a brand" and, with the willing assistance of Mamoon’s boorish editor, she arranges for an authorized biography to be written. The writer they have handpicked is young, blond Harry Johnson with unimpeachable upper middle-class credentials—St Paul’s and a cricket blue at Cambridge—and literary and financial ambitions of his own.

The Last Word is an English country house farce, a comedy of manners. The characters are monstrous, the novel a gusty squall of sex, ambition (artistic and social), literary competition, manipulation, and conversation. It is a minor triumph for Kureishi, a minor return to form after some duds both on paper and celluloid. The quality, as with all of Kureishi’s work, even his best, is patchy, the ferocious, unsettling comic flights interspersed with some lousy sex and even lousier prose. Kureishi’s stilted, stylized dialogue is also an acquired taste.

But, auguring well for sales, the novel has become dinner party conversation in England. Mamoon, reviewers have noted, is V.S. Naipaul, down to the details of his physical appearance, his unsavoury bullying of his first wife and the bruising beatings he gave his mistress. Patrick French’s 2008 biography of Naipaul, The World Is What It Is, was authorized but the result was an unsparing portrait of the artist as brute and bigot. Mamoon and Naipaul may share much the same biography, but to reduce the novel to gossip is unfair. The details are incidental, the ideas that move Mamoon are the ideas that move Kureishi, however ostensibly different the two.

Sex and art, as always, are Kureishi’s prevailing concerns. He is a novelist devoted to pleasure. It is this love of pleasure that distinguishes Kureishi’s protagonists, that separates them from the arid fundamentalists, the starched-collar conservatives, the squares who see something illicit, something immoral in unqualified enjoyment. Excess is the hallmark of Kureishi’s best work. The Last Word is not quite his best work but even a partial flash of the old libidinous vigour is welcome.

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