Hanif Kureishi, Something to Tell You (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 345 pp. £16.99 (hbk), ISBN: 978-0-571-20977-4
‘Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is.’ (T.S. Eliot, ‘Burnt Norton’)
‘I have lived on the same page of the A-to-Z all of my adult life.’ (Hanif Kureishi, Something to Tell You)
In an era of mass migration and globalisation it may seem that the writer who wants to say something worthwhile about contemporary life should follow the Yellow Brick Road, as Salman Rushdie has done, zigzagging across continents in both his life and fiction. In his recent essay, ‘Heraclitus’, Rushdie contrasts the migrant and the rooted writer: ‘I can only envy deeply rooted writers like William Faulkner or Eudora Welty, who can take their patch of the earth as a given and mine it for a lifetime. The migrant has no ground to stand on until he invents it’ (Rushdie, 2007, 273). Rushdie makes three further distinctions, between the migrant who writes always of home (Joyce); the migrants who ‘redefine themselves according to their changed circumstances’ (Bharati Mukherjee); and himself: ‘sometimes looking east, sometimes west, but always with a sense of the provisionality of all truths, the mutability of character, the uncertainty of all times and places’ (Rushdie, 2007, 273). But the risk of the rootless ruby red slipper is a fiction that skates hectically over the surface, in an almost psychotic attempt to chart the metamorphosis of human character, and which may end up not with a richly protean sense of the reinvented self but with characterisations that are so fragmented and contradictory that they don’t convince us they exist. As Rushdie concludes: ‘if we don’t care about the character, we rarely care about the novel, it’s as simple as that’ (Rushdie, 2007, 274). Rushdie’s examples of the rooted writer — Faulkner, Welty — although 20th century, are still from an earlier era and make one wonder whether it is possible now to capture something of the madness of modernity by staying in the same place.
But there is a third kind of writer, not considered in Rushdie’s taxonomy: neither the postmodern migrant nor the traditionally rooted but those, like Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo, Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul or Hanif Kureishi in London, who stand at the crossroads—at the still point—and observe the dance. Kureishi has mined his patch of west London for thirty years now without succumbing to dogmatic certainties, or a smug imperviousness to change, and like Jamal, the narrator of his new novel, Something to Tell You, has found constant inspiration simply from being in the street:
When I had more time, I liked to walk up through Shepherd’s Bush market, with its rows of chauffer-driven cars parked alongside Goldhawk Road Station. Hijabed Middle Eastern women shopped in the market, where you could buy massive bolts of vivid cloth, crocodile-skin shoes, scratchy underwear and jewellery, ‘snide’ CDs and DVDs, parrots and luggage, as well as illuminated 3-D pictures of Mecca and Jesus. (One time, in the old city of Marrakech, I was asked if I’d seen anything like it before. I could only reply that I’d come all this way only to be reminded on Shepherd’s Bush market.)(p. 10)
As neon religious symbols, parrots and American indie rock music compete for the purses of veiled women, the market, with its mix of rich and poor, East and West, ancient and modern, becomes a metaphor for successful postmodern migration. The city changes within the space of a few yards: on the Uxbridge Road ‘the shops are Caribbean, Polish, Kashmiri, Somali’; a mosque, a police station and a football ground are within a few yards of each other. And it changes with each wave of migration: Jamal’s friend, the theatre director, Henry, announces that ‘“The only way to get by in this ‘hood’ is to speak Polish”’ (p. 9) This wonderfully comic character perfectly exemplifies the values of the rooted cosmopolitan: ‘He was shambling, with his T-shirt too big: he seemed untucked everywhere. As he went, bits seemed to fall from him. … With his arms full of books, Bosnian novelists, the notebooks of Polish theatre directors, American poets, and newspapers bought on Holland Park Avenue — Le Monde, Corriere della Sera, El Pais’ (p. 9) — Henry delights in change: ‘“I like London being one of the great Muslim cities. It’s the price of colonialism and its only virtue”’(p. 272). Although the area between Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush is described as ‘a roundabout surrounded by misery’, which should be twinned with Bogota, to Jamal: ‘This wasn’t the ghetto; the ghetto was Belgravia, Knightsbridge and parts of Notting Hill. This was London as a world city’ (p. 10).
Jamal stands at the crossroads, not only because London is a world city, but also because his friends and family are from different countries and classes. His first girlfriend, Ajita, is Indian and his best friends at college are the German Wolf and Valentin, a refugee from Bulgaria. In Kureishi’s earlier semi-autobiographical novel, The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), the young protagonist, Karim, is resolutely forward-looking and defines a new sense of Englishness by ‘inventing’ his Indian past. Here, Jamal looks back to his youth when he and his sister Miriam made a ‘roots’ trip to Pakistan to visit their father. It is ‘catastrophic and depressing’ — Miriam is condemned by their father as a ‘dirty slut’ and they are both sent back — but it instils in Jamal ‘a sense of the family, of its history and achievement’: ‘I wasn’t only a “Paki”. Suddenly, unlike Miriam, I had a name and a place’(p. 68). On their return to London, Miriam is still traumatised but Jamal realises: ‘This was our land and it was where we had to live’(p. 139), and to succeed.
As so often in Kureishi’s work, London is a place of possibility and transformation. In The Buddha, it was Karim who was eager to get to the city while his defeated mother was stuck in Bromley watching soaps and eating walnut whips. In Something to Tell You the mother, after years of morosely performing the maternal role in the suburbs, joins her lesbian artist lover in Clapham and demands to be taken to the ICA to see Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev:
We were the only two in the cinema, and I thought how wonderful this city is that a man and his mother can sit in a building between Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament, watching such a great work. (p. 86)
Jamal is sufficiently snobbish to enjoy invitations to Henry’s ex-wife’s house: ‘Valerie was close to the centre of the numerous overlapping and intermarrying groups, circles, sets, families and dynasties of semi-bohemian London. They were all constantly enlarging and moving together through a series of country weekends, parties, prize-givings, scandals, suicides and holidays’ (p. 111). He likes to mention his lunches at the Ivy and post-gig parties with Mick Jagger at Claridge’s but Jamal can move easily between classes. Having recently separated from his wife, Josephine, he and his young son, Rafi, frequently turn to Miriam for company. She lives in the ‘rough, mainly white neighbourhood in what used to be called Middlesex’:
The typical figures on the street were a young man in a green bomber jacket, jeans and polished boots, followed by an under-dressed teenager with her hair scraped back–the ‘Croydon face-lift’–pushing a pram. Other girls in micro-minis drift sullenly about, boys on bicycles circling them, drinking sweet vodka smashes from the bottle and tossing them into gardens. Among these binge-mingers, debtors and doggers hurried Muslim women with their heads covered, pulling their children. (p. 14)
If any of the Right’s candidates try campaigning near her house, Miriam runs outside waving her cricket bat, yelling: ‘“I’m a Muslim single-mother Paki mad cunt! If anyone’s got any objection I’m here to hear it!”’ (p. 15). Jamal observes that to kiss his sister is perilous: ‘You had to take care to mind the numerous rings and studs which pierced her eyebrows, nose, lips and chin. Parts of her face resembled a curtain rail. “Avoid magnets,” was the only cosmetic advice I felt was applicable’(p. 17). From Miriam’s house it is only a short walk to The Cross Keys, a ‘lucifugous strip venue’, where Jamal can indulge his ‘penchant for lowlife’, while doing off-the-peg dream analysis for Miriam’s friend Bushy, the minicab driver, blues guitarist and dealer in shady wares.
Like Henry, with whom she becomes involved, Miriam is one of the novel’s many minor characters whose vitality threatens to ‘upstage’ the hero, according to Adam Mars-Jones’s generally enthusiastic review. Certainly, there is an extraordinary gallery of vivid characterisations: from the Thatcherite Karen, known as ‘the TV bitch’, who first appears ‘wearing nothing but lipstick, high heels and a Silk Cut’ (p. 171) and finally faces breast cancer with a moving courage and honesty, to the Labour peer Lord Omar Ali (first encountered in My Beautiful Laundrette) who drunkenly solicits boys in country pubs and enthusiastically supports the war in Iraq so that other Muslims can enjoy the same freedoms as he does. To some extent, Kureishi’s novel depends on the same device as David Copperfield, whose nominal hero and narrator is a novelist conjuring up a gallery of grotesques from the tragicomic Micawbers to the slimy Uriah Heep. The great strength of Something to Tell You is the narrator, who can look back to the 1970s, across to Pakistan, and forward to his son’s generation, with a penetrating but affectionate eye. Unlike David Copperfield, the narrator is not a novelist but a psychoanalyst.
In ‘All in the mind’, which explores the hostile depiction of mind doctors in Virgina Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, through Nabokov, to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Lisa Appignanesi speaks of a ‘breakthrough’ in the longstanding rivalry between the novelist and the analyst: ‘it lies in Kureishi’s choice of making his hero, Jamal, a psychoanalyst, one who practices his craft, thinks with it, and flourishes through the understanding it has given him. Uniquely, Kureishi’s Jamal has an arresting interior life which propels him back to a guilty, indeed murderous, turning point as well as forward. Unlike previous literary shrinks, he also embraces his friends’ and patients’ excesses, without ever trying to constrain them into a norm’. Perhaps an equally profound paradigm shift effected by Something to Tell You is that both Jamal and his first analyst Tahir Hussein (who recalls Winnicott’s controversial protégé, Masud Khan) are of Pakistani origin. The academic friend who recommends Hussein to Jamal tells him that ‘one of the virtues of psychoanalysis in England was that it had been developed not only by women, but by people of all nationalities, by which he meant European’(p. 62). Even as Jamal walks to Hussein’s flat in smart South Kensington he feels ‘rays of hatred emanating from passers-by’(p. 62).
Towards the end of the novel, after the 7 July bombings, Jamal observes the changing face of racism: ‘“Mussie” was a new insult, along with “ham-head” and “allahAllahbomb”. In our youth it had been Paki, wog, curry-face, but religion had not been part of it’(p. 320). In response to the bombings, Ajita decides to wear the burqa for the first time: ‘“This is what my father predicted. We would be victims, cattle, rounded up. We were never safe here. Now they have good reason to hate us, to persecute us”’ (p. 320). Henry moans, grandiloquently but sincerely: ‘“Oh England, England”’ (p. 313). But Jamal observes that Londoners were neither patriotic nor particularly antagonistic to Muslims: ‘Londoners were intelligently cynical and were quite aware—they always had been—that Blair’s deadly passion for Bush would cost them. They would wait for Blair to go — after many more deaths — and then they would sweep the front step’ (p. 315).
In Freud and the Non-European, Edward Said argues that Freud offers a model of collective identity as broken, fissured: ‘he refuses to resolve identity into some of the nationalist or religious herds in which so many people want so desperately to run’ (Said, 2003, 53). Said reads Freud’s account of the Egyptian origins of Judaism in Moses and Monotheism as a two-way parable on how social identity is structured: both in its opening out to the Other and in its closing ranks around a founding crime. Something to Tell You carries an epigraph by Robert Johnson: ‘I went down to the crossroads. Fell down on my knees.’ The song is sung in the novel by Bushy, in a club called the Kama Sutra not far across the river at Vauxhall, where Londoners meet for anonymous sex. With typical pomposity, Henry says they are ‘“keeping their transgressions alive.”’ For Jamal, the crossroads recalls the place where Oedipus kills ‘his father the paedophile Laius’(p. 279), which, without giving the plot away, has a particular significance for him. For Bushy, it is where Johnson is said to have sold his sold to the devil in exchange for his talent. For the reader, the crossroads seems like a very good place from which to write a novel: ‘I went to the crossroads baby/ I looked east and west.’
To Cite This Article:
Susie Thomas, ‘Review of Hanif Kureishi, Something to Tell You (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 345 pp. £16.99 (hbk), ISBN: 978-0-571-20977-4’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 8 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/thomas.html. Accessed on [date of access]