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His baby's got a secret

Author Hanif Kureishi weaves into the tapestry of this novel the September 11 attacks, the London bombings and the way in which, after those incidents, educated urban Muslims have been floundering to define and understand their place in an increasingly polarised world, writes Soumya Bhattacharya.

india Updated: May 13, 2008 18:52 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Something To Tell You
Hanif Kureishi
FABER
RS 495 PP 345

In Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) - a richly comic, shrewdly observant, zeitgeist-catching romp - we were first introduced through the figure of Karim Amir ("an Englishman, born and bred, almost") to what we later discovered was the prototype Kureishi male protagonist: British Asian, someone who saw hedonism as a means of emancipation; a bright, somewhat conflicted, left-leaning liberal; a person for whom the arts, sex and drugs and rock'n'roll were the anchors in a roiling, chaotic, multicultural world.

In Something to Tell You, Kureishi's darkly funny poignant and absorbing , new novel, that protagonist is back in the form of the wealthy middle-aged, midlife-crisis-ridden psychoanalyst, Jamal Khan. Divorced (and unable to get over it - or her), with a soon-to-beteenaged son whom he adores (the sections that describe Jamal with his son are the most affectionate and affecting ones Kureishi has ever written), Jamal is - inevitably like the prototype Kureishi protagonist - edgily dissatisfied, always in flight from something and continually on a quest whose specific nature seems to elude him.

Inevitably too, given that this is Kureishi, Jamal distills his world view from Schopenhauer: "The sexual passion is the kernel of the will to live. Indeed, one might say man is a concrete sexual desire; for his origin is an act of copulation and his wish of wishes is an act of copulation, and this tendency alone perpetuates and holds together his whole phenomenal existence. Sexual passion is the most perfect manifestation of the will to live."

Jamal is consumed by a secret: he was as a young man responsible, if unwittingly, for the death of the father of his true love, Ajita. The manner in which that incident comes back to haunt him three decades after it occurred and the way in which it threatens to disrupt his life forms the somewhat flaccid narrative backbone of the novel.

Something to Tell You is not as wondrously plotted as Kureishi's best-loved book, The Buddha of Suburbia, but it has much in common with it: exuberance, and vitality; a mordant dissection of the nature and repercussion of sexual cravings; a beady-eyed observation of so cieties and people; and a savage sense of humour.

The narrative technique is free associative, and that allows Kureishi to richly layer the novel with senses and impressions, offer gems as throwaway asides and have an excuse for paying homage to legendary figures in pop music, psychology, theatre and literature.

The dialogue, apart from a couple of excessively theatrical monologues, crackles and fizzes with energy and deadpan humour. Kureishi's eye is as sharp as ever. Jamal hurries home, "thinking of myself bent forward, like a fleeing ques tion mark"; a fox crosses the road "like a collection of brown elbows".

And of course there is London: this novel is a loving yet poignant panegyric to the city that Kureishi has spent decades hymning. "I don't think I have ever stopped seeing London like a small boy. The London I liked was the city of exiles, refugees and immigrants, those for whom the metropolis was extraterrestrial and the English codes unbreakable, people who didn't have a place and didn't know who they were."

Kureishi not only reprises some of his favourite themes (the unique anxieties of immigrant children and the way in which they try to fit in, the complex and messy nature of love and relationships) but broadens the scope of his inquiry. He weaves into the tapestry of this novel the September 11 attacks, the London bombings and the way in which, after those incidents, educated urban Muslims have been floundering to define and understand their place in an increasingly polarised world.

He also offers long-time admirers in-jokes: characters from previous works turn up here, much altered, having adapted themselves to the new reality of a changing world. Karim from The Buddha of Suburbia turns up as a reputable actor; his on-themake musician friend Charlie Hero appears as a rock star with a galaxy of groupies; and Omar Ali, the Muslim entrepreneur from My Beautiful Laundrette, we discover, has become a famous New Labour peer.

Urgent and contemporary, yet compassionate and forgiving in a way he has never been before, Something to Tell You shows Kureishi, still at the top of his game, arriving at a new place in his work through familiar routes. From there, the view is spectacular.