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     Volume 4 Issue 14 | September 24, 2004 |

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Book Review

"A Cross Between Lovemaking and an Autopsy"

Hanif Kureishi

My Ear His Heart
By Hanif Kureishi

Pride, tenderness, anger and love ooze from Hanif Kureishi's memoir of his father like toothpaste from a split tube. It is a book of great compression and intensity, which refuses the easy elegiac tone, lenient humour and tear-jerking scenes you might expect from this now familiar confessional genre - but it is nevertheless funny and moving. My Ear at His Heart can be a difficult, prickly, angular piece of work, disclosing emotions with which the author has clearly yet to come to terms. There are unresolved issues here, unaccommodated feelings. Kureishi calls this book "a cross between love-making and an autopsy". Not just that, either, but a riveting piece of textual detective work.

Shannoo Kureishi was one of many brothers, "Chekhovian in their drift and futility", who came from India after partition to the London suburbs, married an Englishwoman and became a minor civil servant in the Pakistani embassy. He liked to be well dressed, was in fact almost a dandy, with a kind of "Muslim gaudiness", and loved the infant Hanif to massage his back and rub oils into his hair. He adored cricket, and named his son after the Pakistani player Hanif Mohammed: "Father and I fixed a cricket ball to a piece of string and tied it to the branch of an apple tree. I would hit the ball with a broom handle. Dad told me the Australian genius Bradman had done this, to improve his accuracy."

But Shannoo's obsessive coaching and vituperative scorn triggered volcanic rages: "I'd have hysterical crying fits, little breakdowns, tantrums. Tennis racquets and cricket bats would get smashed." Kureishi doesn't mention it, but one wonders if the tempestuous scene in his movie The Mother, in which Daniel Craig's despairing carpenter smashes up his work, is taken from life.

But more than anything, Shannoo loved books and, heartbreakingly, wrote a string of unpublished novels and unproduced plays. He showed Hanif how a dedicated writer worked, and passionately, obsessively, followed his literary dream, even as his son's career was taking off. Shannoo had been jealous of his more successful brother Omar and was now jealous, too, of his own son, feelings complicated by pride and humble hope that Hanif's glittering contacts could at last get him into print: "But you are knowing all these damn people, yaar?" It was not to be. Were Shannoo's novels so awful? Could Hanif have given advice, pulled some strings, and turned Shannoo into a kind of Shiva Naipaul to his Vidia? Or did this provoke an Oedipal crisis in Hanif, an ambivalence about helping the man who had been so cruel and cutting about his poor cricket skills and indeed his early, faltering literary efforts?

It is difficult to tell. This memoir revolves around Kureishi's discovery, years after his father's death, of Shannoo's novel An Indian Adolescence in an incomplete manuscript. By comparing it to Omar's own works of autobiography, Kureishi establishes to his satisfaction that this is an electrifyingly real guide to Shannoo's hidden early life, the character of his overbearing and libidinous father Col Kureishi and a mother who retreated into pious Islam - and also to Shannoo's love for and envy of his overachieving brother Omar. Another unpublished novel, The Redundant Man, gives an authentic account of Shannoo's melancholy and disappointment with life and his irritation with his trendy son.

These books are not quoted at any length, so it's frustratingly hard to get any sense of Kureishi Sr's literary personality, and even now I wonder if Hanif might not later bring out some kind of labour-of-love edition of these works with his own introduction. But the real drama is Hanif's reading of the texts, now, as a man in early middle age, and his painful response to the father who shaped his son in a career he so dearly wanted for himself. Later, Hanif is to find another version of An Indian Adolescence, in handwriting scrawled on the back of old birthday cards and religious pamphlets. This is even more revealing, and shows that Shannoo's earlier, derisive fictional depiction of Hanif, the absurdly posturing young rebel from The Redundant Man, now stunningly resembles an Indian faith healer who saves Shannoo's life. The whole thing is a compelling literary performance, like a desperately sad and comic inversion of U and I, Nicholson Baker's fan letter to Updike.

Kureishi, the accomplished author of novels, plays, screenplays and TV scripts, unblushingly quotes a complimentary letter he has received from Philip Roth: "If you don't mind me saying so, I have a feeling you can give us your world more powerfully in fiction than in films." It may be so. At any rate, he probably has not done anything as good, in any medium, as this moving and fiercely honest book.

Source: The Guardian



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