Saturday, August 23, 2008

A mellow Muslim everyman

Hanif Kureishi's books, from The Buddha of Suburbia to My Beautiful Laundrette, have explored the lives of British Muslims in the crossfire of tradition vs. modernity. Combine this with his ever-present gaze on the paradoxes of sexuality, and you have a writer who does not shy from the veiled and the thinly revealed.

His latest, Something to Tell You, is a mature work, transforming his classic fiery young Muslim hero into a mellower middle-aged man. Jamal is battling midlife demons, particularly sex and identity. A psychoanalyst, he shares a comfortable relationship with his ex-wife and adores his teenage son, Rafi. However, the memory of Ajita, the love of his younger self, haunts Jamal, in a surprising aftershock of his profession. Too used to analyzing others' problems, he tries to believe, in vain, that his problems are products of his imagination that can be wished away by pep talk. Sadly and thankfully, that's not the case.

The novel plots Jamal's journey toward Ajita, interspersed with his interactions with a cast of characters as interesting as it is diverse. Jamal's sister, Miriam, is a no-nonsense woman who single-handedly raised her children and plies a lucrative drug smuggling trade. His friend Henry is a theater director sick of the rarefied traditions of intellectualism. And there is Karen, a television producer with whom Jamal has enjoyed intermittent spells of intimacy.

Something to Tell You is interesting also for the narrative thrust of Jamal's younger years, in which Kureishi speaks, autobiographically it seems, of the utter strangeness of the Thatcher era, dipping into pop culture references. From trying Ecstasy for the first time to discovering the charms of Tina Turner and The Police, Kureishi explores, vicariously through Jamal, the dissipation of those years.

Back to the present, and no prizes for guessing the hero's disenchantment with Tony Blair. The novel is at its polemical best in speaking of Iraq and the London tube bombings. As it draws to a close, we are satisfied with having been in the company of a fine writer, who, while speaking for a certain community, targets universal themes of loss and the desire to be desired.

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This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times. Also read Personal accounts of racism.

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