The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

(First published 2014)

A typical Kureishi novel, this is a tempestuous story of a literary novelist (Mamoon Azam), an Indian immigrant to England, who comissions a young writer (Harry) to write his biography. In old age struggling with book sales and depleting income, the septuagenarian novelist thinks that publishing a biography is a good publicity stunt to shore up his waning popularity, and to come full circle with ‘the last word’.

A game of wits ensues: a hilarious series of incidents 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, he and the novelist fight, but now it doesn’t matter if the novelist wants him to f*** off; Harry must investigate further and finish the book for his own reasons.

It’s a dark satire of modern literary world, its penchant for showering plaudits on writers who can be best described as mediocrities, and of the necessities of the publishing industry to make money at the expense of literary quality. 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.

It is generally thought in the informed circles that Kureishi’s novelist is actually a veiled reference to V.S. Naipaul, his sexual depravities (Naipaul visited a string of prostitutes for a long time which gave his wife pain and depression), and his quarrels with the publishing industry. But I think Kureishi has not admitted to using Naipaul as a model.

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 promiscuity – an unavoidable reality that is challenged and condemned by our normative morality, albeit unsuccessfully.

Kureishi expends a lot of space pontificating on the relationship between love and desire and whether or not both are compatible. It seems they are not, if honesty is made to 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 read.