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Friday, August 11, 2006

Brown man's burden

I don't like Hanif Kureishi. Or rather, I don't like his novel The Black Album; I'm sure Mr Kureishi himself is very nice.

However, The Black Album is frankly not worth reading. I realize my opinion is in the extreme minority--at least, the minority as far as white people who consider themselves forward-thinking and well-read is concerned. I'm sure most liberal Anglo folks who want to look politically correct and sound literate think that this book is the Punjabi's pajamas (wow, did I really just type that?). Maybe I just didn't 'get' it. Maybe I didn't read 'deep' enough, maybe I'm missing what's 'there'.

I don't care. I didn't like it, and this is why. It's not a novel.

Now, I have no problem with books that aren't novels. I like biographies, histories, plays, poetry, and essays as much as the next non-English major. But when a book claims to be a novel, I want it to be a novel. That's not to say that Mr Kureishi's book isn't fiction; it is (isn't it?). However, the author seems to subscribe to the school of thought which believes in 'the plot's the thing' ethic, the school of thought which uses characters to shuffle the plot along, with little regard for the characters themselves. The Black Album is such a book--the characters are cardboard cut-outs, standies symbolizing moral standpoints or ideas or (Lord forbid) ideals. They are not people in themselves.

Shahid: the narrator, a Pakistani immigrant living on his own in London. Represents the British Asians and their predicament, identity-wise, in English society. Should he swap his heritage for an anonymous English persona? Should he hold ever more tightly to religious and traditional ideas and shelter himself from Western influence? In the end he does neither--the model of non-committment, the paragon of disaffected modern youth.

Deedee: the professorial siren. She teaches Shahid and conducts an affair with him. A liberal feminist with a (more than) healthy sexual appetite, she is symbolic of the lure of the West: moral decay, loss of traditional values, et cetera. She is a snob, and can be seen as only interested in Shahid because he is a member of a minority; her exclusionist 'high cultural' outlook can also be seen as a form of racism (or reverse racism). She is representative of the new left; no real political or social agenda (see Brownlow), basically existentialist.

Riaz: the radical Muslim. He is determined to keep the Islamic people of London bound to their roots, and sees Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses as an attack on their religion and an affornt to their way of life. At first a somewhat serious character, by the middle of the novel he devolves into an absolute caricature of everything Westerners fear about Islam. He is rigid, fundamentalist, and absolutely certain that he is correct.

Brownlow: the communo-hippie. A relic of the Sixties, Deedee's former husband, and the antithesis of Riaz, in one light, and Shahid in another. He represents the remnants of the 1960s counterculture, and unlike his ex-wife, actually has an agenda. He is Marxist, basically, sees Deedee as decadent and morally bankrupt, and a traitor to her causes.

These characters exist as mouthpieces; they are used by the author to vent spleen, to further political argument. Not only that, but the politics are in the end inconclusive--Kurieshi believes strongly in the freedoms he trumpets, but at the close of the novel, the reader remains unconvinced. Riaz at one point makes the claim that 'all fiction is...lying--a perversion of the truth' with no middle ground, no room for compromise; fact and truth are the same for him. Likewise Deedee's claim is that nothing is sacred, there are no holy cows, and in the interest of complete freedom, offense to or desecration of so-called 'sacred' objects is not a problem. However, Riaz is basically a terrorist, and Deedee a hypocrite; personality traits which wouldn't be so bad if they but had personalities. In plot puppets used to portray ideas, terrorism and hypocrisy are unforgivable. Can you take a terrorist seriously, if that is all he is? Can you trust a hypocrite who has no excuse for hypocrisy?

Kureishi's characters are too extreme, too unrealistic, for real life or even for good fiction; the world is not as black and white as he chooses to write it. Almost no one is able to make the clear-cut choice between religion and freedom--which is his challenge, as I see it: that there can be no compromise, that, as one of Kureishi's peers writes, either everything is sacred or nothing is.

2 comments:

Chantelle said...

I have to disagree with the statement that these characters are too flat. Although they are quite standard depictions of the type of personality they are meant to express, there are most certainly people in the world like this.
I read the book for an english lit class, and while I at first disregarded it as too flawed for my tastes, and too vague for people to seriously consider enjoying, discussion in class convinced me that there is something deeper to this novel. The political upheaval that London struggled with at that time was enhanced by the religious strife of those who had immigrated to escape their old life. Kureishi, for whatever reason, is very vague about many of the finer details of the novel, such as the influence of "The Satanic Verses", which is a large part of the dispute that Shahid's friends are engaged in. After hearing about these smaller details, I must alter my opinion to include this book on the list of "something to read if you're bored". I personally did not find it superb writing, and the plot and characters could have been honed as well.

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