WRITER AS POP STAR
Hanif Kureishi's new book is entertaining, acerbic and, as usual, indiscreet
Hanif Kureishi is a Tesco’s man, not a posh Waitrose man. “I’ve got to eat, haven’t I,” he says, as he heads out to the local supermarket in Shepherd’s Bush, London, while talking on the phone long distance. He has just authored his seventh novel and a new movie he wrote, Le Weekend, has done well at the box office in England. In an astonishingly diverse career, he has written 11 screenplays, seven books, two short story collections and three works of non-fiction. And he teaches too, at Kingston University. Now 59, the man who put culture squarely in the heart of multicultural Britain in the ’80s is calmer than he ever was but as acerbic. The poster child for integration, he defined identity for a generation of subcontinentals living in the ’80s with the shocking My Beautiful Laundrette and the outrageous The Buddha of Suburbia.
Which may explain The Last Word, where he portrays the distinguished, Indian-born writer, Mamoon Azam, as the last of a dying breed, an English gentleman living in the country, desperately hanging on to the last vestiges of colonialism. Loosely based on Sir Vidia Naipaul, Mamoon is a writer who is forced by his second, much younger wife’s expensive tastes to organise a “controversial” biography, which will remind people that he is alive. Harry Johnson, who may or may not be based on Patrick French, is the chosen “tall strong” blond boy with “thick legs and fine arms” who has to decide how much to filter. Lady Nadira has been replaced by Liana Luccione, a spirited and rather loud Italian woman in her early fifties.
You can almost see Kureishi laughing as he puts these desperate, yet somewhat delightful characters together—Mamoon and Liana’s union is like one between Gandhi and Shirley Bassey, he writes. Liana, he says, is a man-eater who never passed on a meal. Mamoon, he writes, asks Harry in a puzzled fashion: “What exactly is Happy Hour? What is lap dancing and the X Factor? What is wiffy?” By which he means wi-fi.
The Last Word is a meditation on everything that matters to Kureishi—writers as collaborators, England as it is now in the grip of celebritydom, the immigrant experience and guilt about
I was horrified by my Mumbai visit recently. Children with stumps, tranvestites, open sewers, little babies in dirt. I’d forgotten how medieval it is. It’s a much more plastic period in Britain now. You can have multiple identities. The Britain I grew up in was much darker. And yet living with the reality of race was so much more interesting. It’s important to have a gang of friends who support you, feed you, with whom you argue, fall out and make up again. It’s like the pop world of the 1960s.
his father’s failure as a writer. Kureishi has always believed that artists should be terrorists, not masseurs, that the “madness of writing is the antidote to true madness”. The England of the ’60s he grew up in has changed, yielding to a country where there is a possibility of multiple identities. “It is a false choice for a young Muslim—that it is either fundamentalism or the world of Big Brother. In Britain now you can be a Muslim, a feminist, a banker. It’s a more plastic period. And yet it’s more difficult to decide who to be. I teach a young Muslim girl with fascistic parents. She has chosen to break away but she feels guilty in relation to her parents and is self-punishing.”
The struggle to be human is a recurring theme in his work, no less so in The Last Word. Is Mamoon a monster who drove his first wife to suicide? Is Harry just a man with his eye on the main prize? Does Liana adore Mamoon for his lofty reputation or for himself? Kureishi believes he was lucky to come from a “liberal Indian family” which allowed him to become a writer. “My children will have far less money than I did. And because of immigration, they will have far more competition. In our day you could just get a job. In the digital world, you have to create one for yourself.” His boys, twins from his first marriage whose decay he chronicled so devastatingly in Intimacy, are now studying philosophy at Bristol University. His younger boy, from his current marriage, surprises him with his interest in magic.
Family has been at the core of his work, often to his sister Yasmin’s public disgust. But Kureishi believes conflict within a family is good. Perhaps because the alternative is boredom. And Kureishi is anything but that. As he writes in The Last Word: “The writer should be the very devil, a disturber of dreams and wrecker of fatuous utopias, the bringer-in of reality, and rival of God in his wish to make worlds.” A quintessential London man, Kureishi cannot imagine living anywhere else. “You need a gang of friends to support you, feed you. It’s like the pop world of the ’60s. You argue, you fall out, make up again,” he says.
The conversation is ending, and he is now in the washing-up section of the store. It’s time to recall his most recent visit to Mumbai a few weeks ago where he went with son Sachin (named after the cricketing great). He was visiting after a long time and what he saw horrified him. “It’s medieval. Children with stumps, transvestites, open sewers, little babies in dirt. I was re-shocked.” But in a good way. It allows him not to take his beloved muse, London, and its life, for granted.