Thursday, 29 January 2015

A Kureishi catastrophe?

Full title: The Last Word
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Genre: Fiction, Novel
Attributes: 304 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Faber & Faber (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

If you leave aside all the polite circumventions and the condescending tone of the reviews that came before and after the publication of Hanif Kureishi's 2014 novel (his first in six years), the diagnosis imposes itself unanimously: The Last Word is a catastrophe. First of all it is (although the author doesn’t quite accept the idea) a roman à clef. The fact is painted all over the façades of these reviews: with this last one of his novels, Kureishi added his name to the detractors of V S Naipaul. The characters in The Last Word resemble almost bone for bone the author of A House for Mr Biswas and The Middle Passage. So the gossip goes. But roman à clef or no roman à clef, the novel must have some other attributes to look at. Well, of course it does, but that's exactly where things go sour. Kureishi, who, ever since his The Buddha of Suburbia, has set up a pretty high standard for his own talent, has been keeping reviewers on the lookout. And looking out they've been doing alright, but not, unfortunately, to the author's benefit.
Frankly speaking, though, this time they might be onto something, these cohorts of critics. To say it only by way of an introduction, The Last Word has a very heavy tone about itself, one that makes you feel like dragging through the text at points.
There's also this thing about characters, and especially about the secondary ones. I know Kureishi has a penchant for the people in the background, but in this novel he leaves some of them mightily unattended, or just incompletely crayoned (see especially the numerous lovers – destined to fade out almost unnoticed). But this aspect should not surprise, since even around the protagonist, Mamoon, the Indian-born writer who used to have the whole of Britain under his post-colonial spell, there are sometimes thick patches of darkness, which leave the reader with some unresolved questions as to his former (and highly significant) life as a famous man of letters.
Could these be purposeful gaps (one might ask), considering the novel's plot line? An old master of explosive temperament, Mamoon, hires a seemingly (at least in the beginning, because things change almost without a proper explanation) timid biographer, Harry. In the process of writing up the monograph of Mamoon's life (or “extreme biography,” as Rob, the editor, calls the thing he has been employed to do), Harry discovers uncomfortable truths, which he diligently slips into the final version of the biography. So, with a biography in the viewfinder, there should be no reason to panic if not everything is up to date and detailed insofar as the life of Mamoon is concerned.
But still, people talk. Readers moan. Critics pull their noses. The story would have been more appealing without these gaps; they would have tasted better with more of the ketchup-and-mustard of what incendiary biographers usually spice up their work with.

Hanif Kureishi. Source: The Telegraph
To make amends, it seems, Kureishi did create room for some spiced-up spectacle, although it looks like there's more in the intention than in the execution. I'm talking about sex, of course. There is a lot of it in the novel. And when you use the modifier "a lot" in relation to sex you somehow expect lust to come your way with obsessional intensity. In The Last Word, it’s precisely how this most universal of themes appears. There are so many references to sex, you don't need to be a puritan to say enough is enough. Not that sex in literature doesn't matter, or that it should be kept out of the reach of readers, but some of the mentions are beyond good taste, or even beyond necessity. You wonder sometimes, indeed, if the book wouldn't have been better without them.
“The intellect and the libido have to be linked, otherwise there’s no life in the work.  Any artist has to work with their prick or cunt. Any person has to work with their desire, to defeat boredom, to keep everything alive. Anything good has to be a little pornographic, if not perverse.”
This is, obviously, not the worst of them. But neither was I trying to point out the monster. There’s a lot more where this has come from; a lot more, and a lot less interesting.
Yet the novel is not awful. There are moments when one is left thinking, and, given a good topic, the outcomes are precious (in the good, Gollum-like, sense of the word). It happens when the narration isn’t exactly ambitious, when it doesn’t want to discover dazzling features for the sake of dazzling features. It happens, for instance, when the narrative voice takes a turn towards the central point of the book itself: the play with other’s lives (in essence, the definition of biography):
“Harry was in [Mamoon’s] house; he was walking and discussing seriously with him; he would write his life. Their names would be linked for ever; he would have a small share in the old man’s power.  But biography had learned a lot from the scandal sheets; if had been sucked towards the dirty stuff, a process of disillusionment. Unmasking was the thing, leaving just bleached bones. You think you like this writer? See how badly he treated his wife, children and mistresses. He even loved men! Hate him, hate his work – whichever way you looked at it, the game was up. The question had become: what can we forgive in others?  How far do they have to go before we lose faith in them?”
It is around this idea of invasion, of editorial curiosity, of intrusion for the sake of a headline, that the novel becomes most truthful. After passages like this one feels like all is not lost. At the end of the day, let us not forget, Hanif Kureishi is not a writer devoid of talent.