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<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

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September 26, 2003

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A Buddy from Suburbia

MAYA JAGGI

 

 

Five years on from The Buddha Of Suburbia, Hanif Kureishi's second novel treads carefully across the dangerous ground of young Asian identity, Islamic fundamentalism and the plight of his friend Salman Rushdie

The Black Album
By Hanif Kureishi
Published by Faber and Faber,
Price £14.99

I am an Englishman born and bred, almost,' Karim Amir's opening declaration in The Buddha Of Suburbia, finds an echo in Hanif Kureishi's new novel, The Black Album. When its hero Shahid Hasan is embraced by an Asian Muslim as a 'fellow countryman', his reply is: 'Well... not quite.'

The heroes of these two novels separated by five years - The Buddha Of Suburbia, a Whitbread prize winner for best first novel, and adapted as a BBC television serial - share not only quizzical cultural 'inbetweenness' but adolescence. Both want to escape the south London suburbs to a metropolitan Eden of sex, drugs and pop. But the world has moved on since the 1970s. Punk has given way to raves, the Berlin Wall is crumbling, and the fatwa against Salman Rushdie is being chiselled in stone.
Kureishi explains why he named it after a Prince album: 'I was thinking of the two white albums - by the Beatles and Joan Didion - in the innocent 1960s. It was the new enlightenment of peace, love, integration, and the civil rights movement. Things have got darker since then.'

Set in 1989 among south Asian students at a college in Kilburn, north London, the novel shows Shahid wavering between an affair with his college tutor, Deedee Osgood, and an increasingly militant Islamic group.

Neither Rushdie nor The Satanic Verses is named in the novel, but the references to 'the author of Midnight's Children' are not veiled. 'The book was never intended to be about Salman or the Rushdie affair,' Kureishi says. 'I wanted it to be about the issues that interested me at the time of the fatwa. But the interest started because this thing happened to my friend.'

Kureishi speaks of Rushdie as a mentor. He was among the first to mount platforms against Ayatollah Khomeini's death threat. But Kureishi, of a Bombay Muslim father and English mother, who describes himself as from a 'Muslim background, but not in the religious sense', approaches the 'fundamentalists' with sympathy.

It also offered a shield. The novel draws the link between Muslim militancy in Britain and the racism it arose partly to combat. As a boy, Shahid wanted to join the British National Party('I would have filled in the forms - if they have forms'), thinking: 'Why can't I be a racist like everyone else?' Kureishi, whose schoolmates were skinheads, and has said he always imagined himself to be a white kid, says: 'I wanted a picture of a bloke going mad with an identity crisis. He was so fucked up he wanted to join the National Front. His father has died, his brother's a junkie, he's looking for something. That was the springboard for his joining the fundamentalist group.'
In the novel, the 'Paki-bashing' of the author's Bromley childhood has given way to vigilante resistance - a new generation of born-and-bred British Asians proving less accommodating as targets. As one member of the 'protection racket', formed to defend beleaguered Asian families in the East End, puts it: 'We're not bloody Christians, we don't turn the other cheek.'

The publishers had the novel read by advisers. 'I was careful not to do anything blasphemous- I wouldn't want to,' Kureishi says. 'And it's quite different to Rushdie's book. He wrote a book about religion; mine's about what people might do in its name. I'm not interested in the spiritual, but in religion as ideology, as a system of authority, a kind of business. It's important we ask questions: what are they doing with their money, with young people?'

Deedee, meanwhile, between lectures on black history framed by Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, offers sex, all-night raves and Ecstasy. 'The book was a celebration of something I like about London - the pubs, clubs, and streets. I come from the suburbs; I'm still fascinated by that,' Kureishi says.

'The sensuous life of Deedee Osgood and the world of art are related... She'd been apolitical fundamentalist Trotskyist when the wall starts crumbling and she doesn't know where she is any more. She opts for a liberalism that becomes Thatcherite; she wants to enjoy her body, take drugs and have a good time.'

Yet Shahid opts for Deedee, as the fundamentalists burn the offending text on campus, and Chad comes to a bad end firebombing bookshops.

'I didn't want to write a book that took sides,' says Kureishi. 'I'm
interested in all sides of the argument.' In his view, Shahid chooses an open-minded 'provisionality'. 'He makes an effort to join their community, but he can't fit in.'

Through Dr Brownlow, the cuckolded Marxist-Leninist who has been 'stuttering since Eastern Europe began collapsing,' and Rugman Rudder, a Labour councillor, Kureishi satirises what he calls the appeasing 'ideological contortions' of the hard left, or of politicians who aim to 'help the Asian community out of weird liberal decency'.
Sadly, that representation is hardly challenged in the novel. Aside from the secular Thatcherites, there is a sole dissenting Muslim voice saying only God can condemn. 'You try to present a situation that's dramatic. You can't do everything.'

Kureishi is aware that not all-devout Muslims are fundamentalists, thugs or philistines, and not all 'liberals' have embraced a multiracial Britain. My Son The Fanatic, his short story for the New Yorker which he is adapting as a BBC film, makes the point that the knee-jerk reaction against 'fanatical' Muslims may take on its own fanaticism. Yet those are the polarities in which the novel's 'argument' is staged, and from which Shahid makes his choice.

Source: The Guardian.

         

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