There is a sense of anticipation in the literary world that heralds the publication of Hanif Kureishi's The Last Word, especially since there has been a gap of almost six years since his last novel. Kureishi achieved literary success with his novel The Buddha of Suburbia in 1990 and before that for his screenplays My Beautiful Laundrette (1984) and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987). His novels include The Black Album (1995), Intimacy (1998), Gabriel's Gift (2001) and Something to Tell You (2008). He has written several collections of short stories and essays and, in 2013, he wrote the screenplay for the film Le Week-End.
The Last Word is the story of Mamoon Azam, an eminent, Indian-born writer now in his late 70s, who, due to dwindling finances and fading popularity, decides to allow a young writer, Harry Johnson, to come and research and write his biography. There are echoes here of Patrick French's controversial biography of VS Naipaul, and yet at the same time Mamoon can be seen as Kureishi's own literary alter-ego. Harry is unsure as to how much of the truth about Mamoon's past should be uncovered. "How, he wondered with a shudder, did you begin to do that? Where would you start, and how would the story, which was still being lived, end?"
Harry has been unconvinced by his rather “dishevelled, unshaven, brilliant maverick” commissioning editor Rob Deveraux, that a controversial new biography is needed to rekindle Mamoon’s image. “For him, the writer should be the devil, a disturber of dreams and wrecker of fatuous utopias, the bringer-in of reality, and rival of God in his wish to make worlds.”
For his research, Harry is invited to Prospect House, Mamoon’s house in the country, where he is welcomed by the surly, temperamental Mamoon and his discontented, extravagant Italian wife, Lianna. As part of the unfamiliar and almost dysfunctional household, Harry tries to unearth, mostly unsuccessfully, the details of Mamoon’s past life, his loves, his successes, his failures and his unrequited aspirations. What transpires is a series of mishaps and misunderstandings, briefly reminiscent of a house party in a PG Wodehouse novel, the setting of Prospect House being, of course, rather more nondescript than Blandings.
Here Kureishi’s narrative is funny and intuitive. His character descriptions are refreshing and the narrative aspires towards a quintessential Kureishi sparkle and wit.
Harry and Mamoon lock horns in a battle of wills, each of them reluctant to reveal anything other than the obvious. Characters, mainly female, come and go, including Harry’s vacuous girlfriend Alice and the solid, almost puppy-like Julia, the maid. His dead wife Peggy, “a furiously aggrieved alcoholic”, appears in her diaries that have been left to rot in an old barn. Harry even takes a trip to New York to meet and interview Marion, “a Baconian torso on a plank ... bitter as cancer and spitting goblets of hate to this day” who is unable to let go of her almost obsessive love for Mamoon.
At this point, the novel falls into a quagmire of sexual revelations by both Mamoon and Harry, past and present, but what becomes a problem here is Kureishi’s lack of subtlety and any sense of intent as to where all this is going. Kureishi’s wit and politics have been a formidable contender in the literary arena over the years. His writing has been depicted as panoramic in its depiction of love, race, sexuality and politics, and his strength has always been in his uninhibited spirit of revelation, at times leading to controversy in exposing the inner workings of far too familiar lives.
Unfortunately, The Last Word seems to have little time for sympathy for human frailty, tenderness or radicalism. His prose, once sharp, scathing and steeped in comic nuances, fails to sustain itself even past the middle of the book. One begins to wonder sadly what happened to the genius who once pushed against boundaries and so cleverly enunciated human despair.
The Last Word is not a hugely gratifying book to read, but perhaps Kureishi can be forgiven for not quite having the last word, for the simple reason that he has given an entire generation something to think about.
Perhaps he sums up the book himself in his collection of essays Dreaming and Scheming: “I’m not sure you become more fluent as you get older, but you become less fearful of imagined consequences.”
Erika Banerji has written and reviewed for The Statesman, The Times of India, The Observer and Wasafiri. Her short fiction has appeared in several literary journals. She lives in London.