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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Review: Hanif Kureishi, The Last Word



Books are read in context. I was working for a couple of days in Wiesbaden and took with me an unfinished Caitlin Moran How To Build A Girl. Well, that’s a book where you speed along, tripping over from one gag to the next, and I finished it faster than I had imagined. I heartily recommend it.

I needed something else to read. The nearest German bookshop could only offer me a dozen novels in English (I’ve given up trying to read in German) from which I picked this one.

Kureishi has a very long back list from which I recognised only My Beautiful Launderette which I remember as a fine film.

This is not a book where you trip along, despite the cover puffs which assure you that it is “Brilliantly funny” and “Hugely entertaining”. Maybe it depends where you are coming from. The novel tells the story of a London-based man commissioned by his London publisher to write the biography of an elderly Indian –born but rural England-resident writer, who in turn writes a novel about the upstart young man sent to write his biography. I guess it’s the kind of plot which goes down well in London literary circles where, Private Eye informs me, everyone is up everyone else’s bum.

As a novel, I found it quite flimsy: unambitious plot and characters who aren’t quite, well, characters despite (perhaps because of) the big brushstrokes with which they are painted. I found white working-class Julia the most interesting of his three leading female characters.

But as a novel of ideas – an essay in other words – it’s very interesting. And when it uses its near-to-death main character Mamoon to say things of which London literary society might disapprove if you said them in your own voice, it’s interesting and fun. 

Thus Mamoon:

"[On George Orwell] All that ABC writing, the plain style,the bare, empty mind with a strong undertow of sadism, the sentimental socialism and Big Brother and the pigs, and nothing about love - intolerable. No adult apart from a teacher would bother with one of his novels." (page 92)

“One falls in love, and then learns, for the duration [of a marriage] that one is at the mercy of someone else’s childhood” ( 115)

“The truth is, everything we really desire is either forbidden, immoral or unhealthy, and, if you’re lucky, all three at once” ( 275)

“[Of his personal archive] It’s all going to the university this week. I should have stuffed it in the grate. Ted Hughes, whom I knew and loved, had the right idea with Sylvia’s diaries – push them in the oven after the woman’s head. Otherwise those unreadable academics never stop trying to make their careers and a good income out of it, while making the man look like an ogre. They see it as they wish, without imagination. And it is ordinary male sexuality that they hate” (300)


But reading this last rant, I did wonder if Kureishi did not quite have the courage of his character’s convictions and has left it to the reader to silently insert "politically correct" or “female” before “academics”. Perhaps that's unfair; maybe an editor took something out as an outrage too far. Elsewhere, Kureishi does allow Mamoon his racism.

Refreshingly, and in defiance of the new norm,  Kureishi does not Acknowledge the help of any Facebook Friends. 

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