Hanif Kureishi Book Review


Memoir
My Ear at His Heart: Reading my Father.
Hanif Kureishi
Faber, hardback. 2004
198 pp. E18.81. 0-571-22403-2.

I first came across Hanif Kureishi in print form in his short story collection Midnight All Day (1999) with its seductive Faber green cover of long, wrap-around female fingers and uninhibited story titles such as The Penis. Immediately one became drawn to the uninhibited urban (London) sexual landscape reinforced by film versions of novellas such as Intimacy and all this preceded by the multicultural (mainly Pakistani) dramas of My Beautiful Launderette (1984) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) and the riveting four part BBC dramatisation of his novel, The Buddha of Suburbia in 1993. So much for the sex, but is the writing good? What is it about Kureishi that draws one in? Is it the openness, the clinical analysis of the human body and soul? (Another collection in 2000 is entitled The Body and Seven Stories). It’s like what you see is what you get. It’s in your face but the writing is very good with philosophical insights (he studied philosophy at Kings College) into racial tensions in England dealing with problems which we are only beginning to face in Dublin; it should make him compulsive reading. Also his ability to dramatise social issues makes him equally at home on screen or in book. He is perhaps what Joyce would have been had he lived with that master’s fondness for film and the city. Kureishi was born and brought up in Kent of an Indian father. This memoir traces the growth of a successful writer: the son, at the expense of the failed writer: the father, the one who never quite made it. The wellspring of the memoir is Hanif’s discovery of his father’s abandoned manuscript of his childhood in Bombay encapsulating the political and religious upheaval of India at that time and the division of the country which resulted in the renaming of his family not as Indian but as Pakistani.
Hanif begins his journey of discovery through the eyes of his father as he abandons his comfortable lifestyle in Bombay to take up ‘pukka employment’ as a minor official in the Pakistani embassy in London, and all the time hopeful of literary recognition. There are exquisite insights into what it means to have a literary calling, as in the poignancy of the old and sickly father commuting two hours daily on a crowded second class train, dedicatedly snatching at book words in motion. And the son visiting his uncle conversing in a mixture of Urdu and English, realising that conversation was not merely an expression of information but an imaginative and creative exercise.
‘You don’t really go looking for your parents until middle age,’ Hanif tells us, so the memoir becomes a quest for the son’s place in the father’s story, how a particular adult life is a response to childhood. The book contains wonderful anecdotal gems, for example to his grandfather cricket was political: ‘it was when the British could be beaten at their own game.’ But we soon get to the kernel of the young Kureishi’s interest: Tantra, that all energy is libido, which helps to explain the high sexual charge of his prose. The wound (racism) the father tried to overcome by becoming a writer. And failing, he wanted like all fathers to see the success in the son. His father was a good cricketer and tried to teach his indifferent son who frequently erupted in tantrums, and this rage, the smashing of things drew him to the destructive quality in art (Pete Townsend’s guitar smashing on stage) ‘when discourse broke down and stories exploded into chaos’ (the opposite of the norm: finding form out of chaos), illustrated in the vast anomie of city landscape (cf. Intimacy), the consumer society (he’s very strong on the damage of Thatcherism) replacing everything including love. ‘What does self consist of?’ he asks. ‘I feel inhabited by others, composed of them.’ He is the artist divided in himself: ‘how imitation, differentiation and opposition never stop inside oneself.’ The racial bullying he suffered in school. The outlet: the music of the Rolling stones. He proffers an explanation for English racism: ‘deposed rulers feeling they may be robbed of what remained.’ And the parallel for Dublin: the racism of graffiti, the multicultural city, the Muslim bus driver, the Bengali manager of the take-away. One senses Hanif delighting in all of this despite the criticism, he would have it no other way, the city’s allure prompting his teenage flight from his suburban home. And reflecting on artistic sacrifice; his father’s life formed by publishers’ rejections, conditioning him to failure as the norm. And his theory of the amoral self: education is for nothing more than ‘to satisfy a curiosity’; but his assertion that being happy is more important than being good begs one to consider the corollary: can one be truly happy without being good? Or indeed what does good mean? Essential questions so often tabooed or silenced he is not afraid to ask: where does sex begin and end? Sex, as he points out, is more often the memory and the fantasy and the anticipation. Writing divided his father from his mother. But could he ask his father, even if a failure, to give up his dream? (We remember how Don Quixote’s death followed after he relinquished his dream). If not death, Hanif was convinced in his father’s case, it would have at least led to mental illness. Writing offered the possibility of living another life, the what if of our fantasies. Halfway through the memoir Hanif is suddenly beset by family guilt. ‘What am I doing, opening up my father like this? He realises the good fortune he has which his father had not: because of Hanif’s success, he never had to suffer his father’s fear of not being able to provide for his family. But his father’s influence holds sway. The draw to fiction: ‘reading a novel was like being with a fascinating person who was showing you their world.’ He puts forward one of the best arguments for reading fiction (even feels he’s missing it now as he writes the memoir): that it ‘can increase the possibilities of consciousness, showing that there is more meaning and interest in the world than you might have thought.’ And he wonders how important are dreams. Are they wish fulfillment (Freud) or anxiety demarcators (Wittgenstein)? He consider the writer as the investigator of the forbidden. He agrees with Nietzsche when he says: ‘every extension of knowledge arises from making conscious the unconscious.’ Who does our mind really belong to? You have to follow it as it finds it own routes, its own tracks. (How often is it derailed, makes one ponder the word).
But back to the father, a life dissected, his influences, his fears, the unconscious parts made conscious. He slips his dad’s manuscript back into its green folder, placing it under a pile of papers. The action suggestive: trying, in opposition to himself, to return it to the hidden.

Copy received from Faber, to review for Laura Hird online.

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Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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