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NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Biography’s facts and fiction

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kureishi

THE LAST WORD by Hanif Kureishi             Faber & Faber, $29.99

Several years ago, when I was working as a feature writer for a Sunday newspaper, I was asked to interview a famous singer who was making a comeback after years out of the spotlight. My brief was succinct: “Dish the dirt”, my editor said. “We’ve heard all these rumours – drugs, teenage girls. Find out if it’s true”.

When I met my subject – a mild-mannered, nervous, chain-smoking man – I felt he deserved a chance. I couldn’t bring myself to slam him for the sake of sensationalism. Instead, I wrote a civil, factual piece. The editor was livid. The article was published but I never wrote for that newspaper again.

Scruples and biography don’t mix, and salaciousness feeds our ever-growing appetite for preying on the famous. This is the premise for Hanif Kureishi’s new literary satire, The Last Word. Here, Harry, a young biographer on the make, is urged by his editor Rob to write an “extreme biography”, of Mamoon Azam, an elderly, celebrated Indian-born writer, now living in England. Mamoon’s work is no longer selling. A titillating biography, crammed with lurid anecdotes exposing his sexual depravity might rekindle interest.

“That clever old sly fox Mamoon might seem dull and dead to you”, says Rob. “He comes across as someone who has never knowingly given pleasure to a woman, someone who has never loved anyone more than himself… He has been a dirty bastard, a liar, an adulterer, thug, and possibly, a murderer.” “How common is this knowledge? “You will make it known”.

Harry seems the perfect fit to write a scandal sheet. He has little, if any, conscience, having previously published a biography of Nehru “lightly spiced with interracial copulation, buggery, alcoholism and anorexia”. Over the ensuing months, Harry spends time at Mamoon’s gracious country house. He meets Liana, the writer’s Italian, horny, clothes-obsessed second wife, uncovers journals written by Mamoon’s first wife who committed suicide; he travels to the United States to meet a scorned mistress with a taste for revenge, to India to meet Mamoon’s family. Harry gets caught up with the hangers-on of the household, hidden secrets of servants, sexual intrigue and the unravelling of his own private life. Along the way, the blond public schoolboy and the wily elderly émigré joust and parry in the elegant surrounds of the estate. Mamoon, though infirm, is nobody’s fool.

On publication in Britain, the media couldn’t help but point out similarities between Kureishi’s plot and the real-life biography of the grand old man of literature, Nobel prizewinner, VS Naipaul, by Patrick French. Invited to Naipaul’s country retreat, French penned a less than flattering account of the writer as a snob, racist, adulterer and frequenter of prostitutes. Indeed, it’s hard not to see similarities between Naipaul and Mamoon, with his passion for cricket, glamorous women and his “hooded eyes” and Kureishi has admitted to trading off the resemblance in a recent BBC interview.

But that’s not the point. Kureishi relishes scenes of cat and mouse between Harry and Mamoon, as truth and fiction begin to blur. Mamoon is a consummate story-teller who may well be reinventing episodes of his own life. Harry writes his book. But when Mamoon publishes a new work, obviously based on his relationship with Harry and Harry’s girlfriend, the facile, flaky fashionista Alice, the themes of “stories within stories” come full circle. Who, Kureishi asks, really has the last word?

It’s a precarious state of mind Kureishi obviously identifies with. In a recent interview, he was quoted as saying that all media interviews and publicity become works of fiction in their own right. “Over a period of time you work up an account of yourself and one day you find you even believe it. Finally, it has become the story of your life.”

This account of reality has also become a byword for Kureishi’s oeuvre. After the publication of an early novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, his sister accused him of “selling the family down the line.” Later, his novel Intimacy, an account of a man leaving his wife and twins, eerily paralleled Kureishi’s own family life when he left his partner and twin sons.

Such duality unsettles. Even the title has more than one meaning: The Last Word may well be Kureishi’s last book because, aged 60 this year, he’s implied he may not write another work of fiction. And on the similarities go: Mamoon has sold all his papers to an American university; Kureishi sold his last year to the British Library. Kureishi teaches creative writing – this could be Harry’s fate if his biography doesn’t sell. At the end, you wonder whose version of events is the more fabricated, Mamoon’s, Harry’s, or any of the other characters in the novel, and whether objective truth exists.

It’s a savagely funny book. Kureishi’s a master of punchy one liners. “The past is a river, not a statue”. “A writer is loved by strangers and hated by his family”. “You’re in the remembering business,” Mamoon tells Harry during one of their interviews, “I particularly like it when you remember things which never happened.”

There are also delicious set pieces, such as a celebratory dinner with Mamoon’s ageing fans, zimmer framing their way into the dining room (all armed with complimentary copies of his works), at which the writer affirms the decline of Britain, the end of mankind and toasts a “happy apocalypse”.

Yet there are longueurs, too, interminable exposition and pages of talk, talk, talk. Kureishi tends to be too clever by half. By working so hard to deliver wit on every page, he sacrifices the flesh and blood of character. True, the novel’s a satire and satire demands  stereotypes. But none of his people feel or sound credible, especially the women who remain shallow, hysterical, obsessed by sex and shopping. Plus, the characters are almost all pretentious or unlikeable. This is not a book you’d care to reread anytime soon.

Far more interesting are Kureishi’s pointed views about the tensions in British race relations, the rivalry between young and old, the precarious state of literature, the frivolities of the digital age. This almost, almost raises the level of the novel from biting comedy to a work that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

11 thoughts on “NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Biography’s facts and fiction

  1. Here’s the thing: this sounds like an interesting premise, but at the end of day the themes are all well-worn – even for us here in Oz, we’ve heard all this about Britain and its issues before, and the other preoccupations are all well-traversed everywhere. And if the book fails to deliver on literary merit, as you suggest towards the end of your review, why bother?
    Thank you for a great review: I appreciate the honesty which tells me *not* to add this one to the wishlist!

    • Welcome back, Lisa! Kureishi raises some important points, tried and true though they are. And it is a very funny book. But if you compare the raw honesty of his early works to this, The Last Word doesn’t rate.

      • What would you recommend from his early works for my TBR, Dina?

      • For me The Buddha of Suburbia is his best novel, and the early screenplay, My Beautiful Launderette. He’s also written the screenplay for a movie shortly to be released in Australia, Le Weekend, about a middle-aged couple who go to Paris for a weekend away to rekindle the spark. I’ve only seen previews but it looks excellent and I love Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who star in the film.

  2. Great review Dina. I have still to read Kureishi – about which I am embarrassed as he is in my TBR pile – but it sounds like this is not the one to start with. I was initially interested, because biography is such an challenging genre to consider not to mention a very hard thing to write I’m sure. But, oh well ….

    I was intrigued by your comment regarding “whether objective truth exists”. I must say that (with the exception of black-and-white facts which we can often argue anyhow, and I’m not sure I define them as “truths”), I find it had to believe that it does. One of the issues in The luminaries was to do with truth – the whole truth, part truth. In the end, I’m sure it’s more about perspectives, but my brain is starting to hurt!

    • Yes, yes, yes, I agree! It’s like a series of Chinese boxes. Did you enjoy The Luminaries? I didn’t review it because, although I respected the research and the 19th century pastiche, I was thoroughly irritated at the end by the contrivance of the form and felt I would be too negative; I totally lost the plot from time to time and kept on flicking backwards and forwards to remind myself of what was going on and who was who. Much of this, I think, was because of the structure which was unnecessarily confusing. Anyway, there’s my rant for the day!

      • I found The luminaries an intriguing book. I found the plot overwhelming at times – those of us who are not plot-driven book readers I think did! And I didn’t really get the astrological idea behind it. But I did enjoy a lot about it. I didn’t have the WOW I’M REALLY MOVED feeling at the end, but I did have WOW, NOW WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT sense! I’ve written two posts on it as a result!

  3. Oh I wish you had reviewed The Luminaries! That’s exactly how I felt, profoundly irritated. And having read some very silly remarks by Catton about how criticism of her book is driven by sexism coming from men of a certain age, I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only woman who found it tedious to read.

  4. I went to buy Ann Patchett’s new book and found that it won’t be released until October. How did you get your hands on an advance copy?

    • The book’s available in Australia but I can only presume release is different elsewhere. I was given a review copy, as I was writing for Australian Book Review. Have you tried one of the online stores? (I know we all want to support local bookstores but October’s a long wait!)

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