Thursday, June 02, 2011

the last book I read

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi.

It's the tail-end of the 1980s, and Shahid Hassan, a young Pakistani Muslim, has left his cosy and fairly privileged middle-class upbringing in Kent to enrol on a course at an anonymous North London college. Moving into his equally drab and anonymous lodgings, Shahid finds himself sharing a corridor with a selection of radical Muslim types, including the charismatic Riaz, who has all sorts of ideas about bringing decadent Western society into line.

At the same time Shahid finds his head turned by Deedee Osgood, a lecturer at the college and an intriguingly enigmatic Older Woman. Not only intriguingly enigmatic, as it turns out, but also very much available and only too happy to initiate Shahid into various things, not only sex but also the exciting world of new music and drugs that has become available during the Second Summer Of Love.

All of which is great, of course, but hardly compatible with the brand of increasingly puritanical fundamentalist Islam that Riaz and his sidekicks Chad, Hat, Sadiq, Tariq and Tahira are getting into, and are keen to co-opt Shahid into. Things are further complicated by the appearance of Shahid's brother Chili, the archetypal Armani-suited Thatcherite go-getter with all manner of shady projects on the go, one of them being an increasingly destructive vodka and cocaine habit.

Shahid is torn between the freedom and hedonism of his relationship with Deedee on the one hand, and solidarity with his Islamic brethren on the other. Unable to choose between them, he bounces around changing his allegiance depending on which of them he's with at the time, to the satisfaction of neither party. Things eventually come to a head when, in the aftermath of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie (in the wake of the publication of The Satanic Verses) the brotherhood decide to step up their campaigning by holding a public book-burning; Shahid's unenthusiastic reaction to this leads the brotherhood to decide to bring him back into the fold, one way or the other, and to bring Deedee and Chili into line at the same time, and Shahid finds himself having to finally make an irrevocable choice.

The Black Album was published in 1995, a time when (even though the first World Trade Centre attack had already happened by then) fundamentalist Muslims carrying out terrorist attacks might have seemed a threat not really worth worrying about. Obviously in the wake of 9/11 and 7/7 it all seems a bit more prescient. The mundane domestic roots of fanaticism are very well-drawn here: the close-knit immigrant community, the day-to-day experience of racism and abuse, more overt religious display as a defiant expression of "otherness". For all that, we never lose sight of how basically childish and silly it all is (at the same time as being genuinely dangerous) - the petty disagreements over scriptural interpretation, the la-la-la-fingers-in-ears refusal to consider other points of view, the general grinding humourlessness of it all.

The characters on the other side suffer a bit in comparison - because the Muslim brotherhood are representing a particular and well-defined worldview it doesn't matter so much that they're not particularly engaging characters, but we never really find out much about either Deedee or Chili to find out what makes them tick, despite them being on the "right" side of the argument (not that I'm advocating frenzied vodka-guzzling and cocaine-snuffling here, just not being a religious loony). The same could be said for Shahid, really.

So while (like its predecessor The Buddha Of Suburbia) this is very readable, has some interesting things to say about the second-generation immigrant experience, and is pretty funny in parts, it's hard to really get involved with. The Kureishi book I read that really did it for me is Intimacy, which is much shorter, non-race-specific and about as far from humorous as you can get.

The Black Album takes its name from the Prince album of the same name, one of the most famous "lost" albums (although it did get an official release in the mid-1990s, by which time everyone had a bootleg copy anyway). An attempt at a "harder" funk album after the eclectic stylings of Sign O'The Times, it contains the amusingly sweary Bob George among others, but was withdrawn by Prince a matter of weeks before its scheduled release date - oddly (given the drug use in the book) one rumour has it that Prince decided to scrap it after a bad ecstasy trip. The Black Album (the book) was also adapted for the stage by its author a couple of years ago.

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