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NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH: Biography’s facts and fiction

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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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