(First published 2014)
Typical of Kureishi’s style, but not as good and interesting as his last novel (Something To Tell You), this is a tempestuous story of a literary novelist (Mamoon Azam), an Indian immigrant who moves to England as a student, who commissions a young writer (Harry) to write his biography. In old age, and with struggling book sales and depleting income, the septuagenarian novelist sees his biography as a good publicity stunt and to come full circle with ‘the last word’.
A game of wits ensues: finely-crafted and hilarious series of incidents that see the novelist resisting the biographer’s piercing questions, interviews he’s always evading, withholding vital information, not wanting the curtain of secrecy to lift from his past, and basically requiring the biographer to write a loud paean hailing the great services the novelist has rendered to the post-colonial literature.
Things begin to fall apart when the biographer insists on interviewing a lover of the novelist whom he’d dumped for an Italian fashionista. The biographer is put through a lot of mental pressures, but he comes out with the book when the novelist suffers multiple strokes and goes bedridden, but at the cost of losing his partner and mother of his twins to the dying novelist’s amorous advancements.
It’s a dark satire of the modern literary world, its penchant for showering plaudits on writers who can be best described as mediocrities, of the necessities of the publishing business, and duping the public with what’s worthwhile and that what is not. The narrative also critiques the faux halo of superiority around great writers: they are normal people like us, not necessarily more intelligent than non-writers, but certainly special as ‘word-masters’, but despite all, they have the same fears and desires like the rest of us.
But I have to say, Kureishi’s characters are perfect examples of a Freudian world in which everyone responds to their libido in a freewheeling, uninhibited way. In fact, a person’s life trajectory is dictated by their privates. Fidelity is not possible, no one is happy with their spouses or partners for long, and there comes inevitable infidelity, adultery, and sexual depravity – an unavoidable reality that is much challenged and condemned by our social mores, albeit unsuccessfully.
Kureishi expends a lot of space pontificating on the relationship between love and desire and whether both are compatible. It seems they are not, if honesty be made the judge.
Filled with piercing insights, loaded with cleverly-crafted sentences, charged with politically incorrect statements (‘surely’, says the character of Mamoon to a black feminist academic, ‘being black isn’t an entire career these days, is it?’) and a clever laying out of the story through long and interesting dialogue-writing, it’s quite an enjoyable novel.