The Last Word, Hanif Kureishi’s seventh novel and his first since 2008’s Something to Tell You, is essentially a two-hander. In one corner is Harry Johnson, an ambitious young man of letters. In the other is Mamoon Azam, an ageing, raging author whose biography Harry is commissioned to write. Mamoon spends much of his time either complaining – about money, great writers, his tennis game, cold tomatoes, ex-wives and current spouse Liana – or evading Harry’s impertinent questions: about his upbringing in India, literary success, political conservatism, his torrid sexual exploits and the indignities of age. Young Harry has eerily similar problems of his own. Engaged to spendthrift fashionista, Alice, who is pregnant with twins, he escapes his anxieties by sleeping with every woman who pities him. The two men circle each other, pursued by relationships past and present, until one, or both of them, crack.
The new novel caused a stir amongst the literati long before publication. Harry’s merciless desire to expose Mamoon’s prejudices, his love of Margaret Thatcher, sexual cruelty, upwardly mobile second wife and even tweedy rural attire is, it was whispered, a dead-ringer for the real-life relationship between Nobel Prize winner VS Naipaul and his biographer, Patrick French. A more intriguing avenue of speculation is to ask how this central pairing reflects Kureishi himself, whose books have long since mixed art and real life, fiction and criticism, sex and politics, Asia and England, hauteur and earthy populism. So Kureishi’s brushes with crooked accountants (who mislaid his life savings) can be glimpsed in Mamoon and Harry’s fretting about material success. His more recent decision to leave his archive to the British Library suggests that the 60 year-old enfant terrible is facing mortality with a new intensity.
The Last Word fits snugly into Kureishi’s body of work. While the prose is a curious blend of the brisk and the mannered, the dialogue vividly reflects enduring preoccupations: art, love, sex, politics, England’s colonial and racist past, its multi-cultural (and racist) present. As in his best writing for page and screen, these themes prove especially intoxicating when cut with sex — “Anything good has to be a little pornographic or perverse,” as Mamoon comments. “Let’s go out and rip some rectum, yeah?” and “Your penis is my dog” are just two choice examples from Kureishi’s erotic encyclopaedia. This relish for outrage vies with more considered meditations that imbued recent screenplays The Mother and Venus with genuine emotion. Will artistic achievement quieten the fear of impending death? Will we have the last word on
our life, or does that belong to others than ourselves?
As Mamoon says, bleakly: “All I think is I must continue, making words which will then be forgotten. I want that;
I can do that. At the same time, it’s not enough. There must be something else.”
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi (Faber) is out now.
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