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Posted on 25 Mar 2014 in Fiction |

HANIF KUREISHI The Last Word. Reviewed by Adib Khan

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lastwordHanif Kureishi’s new novel about a would-be biographer and his famous novelist subject charts a process of disillusionment.

If a biographer’s role is to ‘show the world what an artist is’ then it is not merely the sublimity of the imagination or the creative process which needs to be explicated and analysed. There is also the necessity for character assassination, because ‘biography … had to be sucked towards the dirty stuff … Unmasking was the thing, leaving just bleached bones.’ Such an assumption is the platform for Hanif Kureishi’s clever but uneven new novel, The Last Word.

Harry Johnson, an ambitious but struggling biographer, is commissioned by an unscrupulous publisher, Rob Deveraux, to write an ‘extreme biography’ of Mamoon Azam, a septuagenarian Indian-born writer of novels, essays and plays. Mamoon is a colossus of post-colonial literature, even though his creativity has diminished alarmingly with age, leaving a raging and cynical man at the centre of this sometimes very funny and occasionally irritating comedy about the vagaries, flaws and frustrations of people dissatisfied with their lives. Mamoon now lives in Somerset with Liana Luccioni, his vivacious but temperamental and shopaholic wife, who is in her early fifties.

The overt friction and the underlying tension between a biographer and his subject of study is not a new territory for fiction. In different ways the theme has been several times addressed, notably by Somerset Maugham in Cakes and Ale, William Golding in The Paper Men, A S Byatt in Possession and Phillip Roth in The Ghost Writer. But any danger that Kureishi might be clichéd as he takes a familiar route is negated by the teasing complexity and diversity of the questions he raises. How factual and objective can a biography be? What are the sources of creativity? What lies behind the desire to communicate with the written word? Is there a link between the intellect and libido? The writing process itself is scrutinised without reaching smug and definitive conclusions. Ultimately, ‘it’s frustration that makes creativity possible’, writes Kureishi. In reading the novel I was reminded of Carl Gustav Jung’s conclusion in his essay, Psychology and Literature, that:

… the creative act, which is the absolute antithesis of mere reaction, will forever elude the human understanding. It can only be described in its manifestations; it can be obscurely sensed, but never wholly grasped.

In Kureishi’s novel, the ‘manifestations’ of creativity are deftly depicted in unpredictable and erratic human behaviour and its consequences, providing The Last Word with the plot propulsion needed to sustain the reader’s interest.

Kureishi’s fictive world of a post-literary culture is Hobbesian in its competitiveness and populated with self-serving and narcissistic individuals. Egos clash and the characters are locked in verbal jousts, which frequently expose their restlessness and the overriding desire for recognition and the assertion of their identities. What makes the reader accepting of the life Kureishi depicts is the rich vein of dark humour that threads the narrative. One of the most memorably funny scenes in the novel is the celebratory dinner where Mamoon’s less than generous toasts culminate in a dedication to ‘Total self-destruction’ and ‘Death!’ Regrettably there are other occasions when puerile and tasteless humour about sex make a reader suspicious about whether there is a streak of misogyny in Kureishi’s depiction of women. The young woman who becomes Harry’s lover in the country whispers, ‘Your penis is my dog.’ Further on in the book, there is Harry’s none-too-suave line to a possible sexual partner:

‘You are a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin and at your sexual peak, too. A woman of unused potential with much life ahead.’

These are inexplicable lapses, because much of the dialogue, from which the comedy emanates, is crisp and enjoyable.

The women in the novel come off rather badly as manipulative characters without much generosity of spirit. Besides Liana, there is the slyness of the manipulative Julia and her shattered and secretive housekeeper mother, Ruth, the spurned Marion and the late Peggy, Mamoon’s betrayed wife, whose diaries reveal startling information about her husband.

The strength of the novel lies not only in Kureishi’s mischievous comedy but in his adept exploration of creativity as a mysterious and energetic force and the pathos of its finiteness. Mamoon, like the aging one-novel writer Jep Gambardella in Paolo Sorrentino’s brilliant movie, The Great Beauty, is in a state of ‘intellectual paralysis’ and living on the ‘brink of despair’ despite his hedonistic lifestyle. Notwithstanding his deeply flawed character, Mamoon emerges with the dignity and integrity of his art intact. He can ultimately be judged as ‘a radical transgressor’ who has  ‘looked into the dark without flinching’. One can admire, with a sense of sadness, the admission of his agonising realisation of ‘the fatal burden of being a writer with nothing left to say’. A novel, as Jep says, is ‘just a trick’, but Mamoon no longer possesses that sleight of hand that made him such a dazzling magician in his more creative days.

 Hanif Kureishi The Last Word Faber & Faber 2014 PB 304pp $29.99

Adib Khan is the author of five novels, including the award-winning Seasonal Adjustments.

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