He rails about sex, fundamentalism and the royal family, but the thing HANIF KUREISHI wants most of all is for everyone to lighten up. So is he a Chronicler of the grim or an unsung satirist? Words: Brian Donaldson
ou know you‘ve made it when one of your musical heroes writes a tune in your honour. David Bowie‘s ‘lan
Fish L'K lleir~ is an amigrammatic tribute to Hanif
Kureishi. To many of his critics. Kureishi himself is something of a literary puzzle. But rather than try to work him out and unravel his many meanings. some just want to scoff. it hardly seems fair. but Hanif Kureishi gets it from all sides.
To some. he has let down his heritage. Filmmaker (iurinder Chadha accused him of ‘using the Asian side of himself
without real cultural integrity“. To others. he over-exploited his personal traumas when writing about heterosexual relationship break-ups through an unashamedly male lens. And for those who loved his early screenplay and novel successes (My Beuuri/id Laimdrerre earned him an Oscar nomination. and The Buddha of.S'rr/mrl>io won a Whitbread before being adapted into a memorable TV drama). his brisk vibrancy had dipped into flaccid caricature.
But it seems that the thing about the critics that bugs him most is their inability to lighten up. When he asks me what I like about The Body. his latest collection of short stories. I say it‘s the way he writes about loneliness and isolation. All that tragic. grim relationship stuff. ‘Really"." he replies before pausing. possibly wondering whether he should take offence but realising he‘s heard it all before. ‘I think all my books are funny. though no one else does. Intimuev is a comedy. It‘s hilarious. liveryone's going. “God. this is really nasty". and it's not.‘
There isn't too much of the nasty stuff in The Body. though it's barely a laugh-riot either. The stories are about individuals or couples looking at life with worry about the future. fear for the present or regret over the past. In the title tale. an ageing philosopher hears of a new underground movement that takes the skin of young dead bodies and allows the living to populate them for as long as they wish. Desperate to feel revitalised before he dies. he escapes into a shiny. lit frame. but the weight of the moral imperatives and practical downsides begins to wear him down.
It feels like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Sigmund Freud allied to a stark critique of our celebrity and “N M""
14 THE LIST 1‘)? ()<;t 1-”. No: 118")?
appeararice-obsessed society: ‘We seem to have replaced ethics with aesthetics.’ rails our hero at one point. The philosophy graduate Kureishi sees this as an inevitable yet oddly positive contemporary state. ‘lt started for me in the (i()s. when l was obsessed with pop stars. Now I think about Geri Halliwell all the time where it was Marianne Faithfull before. What’s interesting is that when you consider celebrities. what you're actually thinking about is their bodies whether it‘s their diet or drug hell or facelifts. People think about themselves through celebrities. using them as stand-ins for their own concerns. If you’re
thinking about your own sex life. you want to know if
other people are having loads of sex.~
And like The Body‘s protagonist. Kureishi is acutely aware of his own biological clock ticking away. He may be a devilishly handsome late fortysomething (somewhat bizarrely. his good looks have also been a prime concern to his detractors) but that won‘t stop him worrying about the fate of his faculties. ’I want to be energetic and vigorous and have lots of desire and I guess I would miss all that. But one thing about being a writer is that you always have different subjects to write about. When you're 25. you write The Buddha ofSu/no'hiu and when you’re 50 you write The Body. That’s some compensation for the fact that you‘re losing your memory and your balls.’
When Hanif Kureishi is finally left with just his recollections. chances are that he‘ll consider his to have been a pretty successful career. Born in Kent to an Indian father and English mother. he quickly decided not to slip into the inevitability of his peers‘ career paths. None of my mates would have gone into the theatre or done anything creative: they‘d have gone into banks or insurance. We were geared to be clerks.‘
Leaving King‘s College with a headful of Mars. Wittgenstein and Freud. he hung around the theatres of London. working with the likes of Steven Berkoff and writing like a demon. When Max Stafford (‘lark directed Kureishi‘s Borderline in 1982. seeing his name above the Royal (‘ourt‘s door was the moment he knew he‘d arrived.
‘lfyou're thinking aboutyour own sex ine,you want to know if other
aVIng loads of sex'