Saturday, 11 August 2007

Oh Hanif!

Oh Hanif, what a lousy fan of yours I've been! I thought I've gone through all of your writing, seen most of your films, but until last week I didn't know you've written a memoir. Since 1990, I have worshipped you, on and off. Your name even appears as an appetizer in the introduction of my PhD thesis, in a narrative of my pre-history with "all things Paki" - it was through you that British-Pakistani subcultures came alive in my mind. Both The Buddha of Suburbia and The Black Album were key novels in my growing up history of the 1990s. Lately, I have often returned to the lifeworlds of the more recent novel Gabriel's Gift, admiring your skills to write about the monotony and depression of middle age. And particularly, your sturdy grip on class questions. The politics that doesn't preach.

Secretly, my wildest dream is to learn to write a novel in your guidance. I must have read your work in that light since The Buddha of Suburbia. I would like to cause an anonymous nobody at the other edge of Europe the same kind of worshipping effect that you have caused in me. So apart from name-dropping, I've made the wise decision never to mess up my Hanif Kureishi fanhood with things academic. This is why I can still write about you, or even to you, with such pleasure now.

My Ear at His Heart (2004) is, in fact, a biography of Kureishi's father, or, more accurately, a coming of terms with the father-son relationship more than a decade after the father's death. This seems to be a universal genre in memoirs: middle-aged authors turning inwards to examine family history and pondering about the ethics of writing. If the parent is dead, the child is suddenly freed from fear of hurting the parent, but the death is also a haunting territory: when the parent is not there to give his or her approval to the writing, there is a risk of being grossly unethical. Like Kureishi asks: "What have I been doing, opening up father like this, examining, diagnosing, operating on him, so that this work feels like a cross between love-making and an autopsy?" (114)

Kureishi has clearly succeeded in his quest. He does reveal many family secrets, out of which the most painful ones are not his male relatives' likes of alcohol and extramarital affairs, but his father's lifelong dream to become a successful novelist. In a typical South Asian upper middle class manner, he dreams his dreams soaked in the classics of English literature, and his ways of writing are obsessional, pedantic and almost self-destructive. From the son's point of view, the father led a more artistic life than himself, although he became successful young and has made a brilliant career by the age of 50.

Kureishi's dad spent a lifetime working as a clerk in Pakistan's embassy in London, without diplomatic ambition as he poured all his energies to writing. The story circles around the inevitable sadness of never getting one's voice through, despite one's deep love and passion for literature. Such stories of misunderstood artists can perhaps be found in most families, so the question remains, what can the coming generations learn from them?

It seems Kureishi is writing the memoir as a gift to his own sons, who may not otherwise become interested in the complexity of their South Asian past. So what kind of gifts are there to be found in the family archives? Wouldn't it be every child's right to have a skilled storyteller parent like Kureishi as a mediator between generations? The memoir is built around the father's rejected novel manuscripts, and through reading and re-reading them, Kureishi engages in a conversation with his father - a conversation without closure, as finally there is no fundamental secret out there to be revealed.

I was reading this memoir soon after Vikram Seth's Two Lives (2005), another London-based South Asian family saga. Though fascinated by Seth's family's unbelievable connections to world history (far wilder than Kureishi's), I have not managed to finish it yet. I enjoyed the story but his way of writing didn't appeal to me directly; I had to work very hard to enter the story, and I remained in it as a polite outsider. Seth's way of memoir-writing is encyclopedic, so full of details the writer becomes easily exhausted. Kureishi, on the other hand, invites the reader right in, without recourse to distancing politeness. He has the skill to stick to the essentials, work deeper on the psyche and relationships, and weave the inner journeys together with philosophy that is not transcendental, but a kind of theory of human creativity, a theory of writing. For example:

"I came to see groups as a "third" space, between being alone and losing oneself in a large organisation. The purpose - writing - was still personal, but you saw where others fitted in." (170)

In this memoir, I particularly loved the "theoretical" bits: his relationship with Freud and Jung as introduced to him by his psychotherapist uncle, the meditations on immigration and exile, the abstractions that were never dry. The history of British left-wing and anarchist movements of the 1970s and 80s are also there, as well as a delicious element of cultural studies.

There is no perfect text, which which one would feel unanimously in harmony. For me, a satisfying reading experience always involves irritation. Here I was intriqued by Kureishi's ambivalent relationship with feminism: having dated and lived with many, he embraces feminism as a political movement and acknowledges its effect on his personal life: "If feminism released women from the exclusive maternal function, it enabled men to reclaim that place. Being a good father means being a good mother too, and more puzzlement about the respective role of both parents." (239) With this autobiographical political statement in mind, it truly puzzles me that in a literary-oriented memoir, Kureishi does not acknowledge a single woman writer as an influence, either to him or to his father.

The literary history in this memoir is pure Boyology, segregated from the everyday lives of women, and the ideal type of the serious writer is an angst-ridden, solitary male. I would expect more from an author with obvious feminist sympathies at many (sexual? socio-political?) levels, that he would also include women in his intellectual history. Women relying only on women writers as intellectual references are usually considered militant man-haters; male writers doing the same in the gallery of male authorities still seem to be doing the "normal" thing, based on some millennia of canonical practice.

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