- The Washington Times - Friday, May 7, 2010


By Hanif Kureishi

Scribner, $24

198 pages


Loaded words like bicultural and the even more protean multicultural are bandied about by many writers, but Hanif Kureishi, born and bred in Britain to a Pakistani father and an English mother, exemplifies them. In novels including “The Buddha of Suburbia” and movies such as “My Beautiful Laundrette,” he has engaged their multifarious aspects, embracing them, laughing with and at them, showing them from inside and out.

Never didactic, still less cliched, his art is distinguished by its unflinching frankness, its humor and its wisdom. In this revealing book, part memoir, part quest to understand the father so different from and yet so similar to himself, he takes us not only into his personal experience - the raw material for those books and films - but deep into his mind and his heart.

To say that the Hanif Kureishi revealed in these pages is a mass of contradictions is perhaps to understate not merely his complexity, but the clashes between what make up this man of many parts. The writer so notable for his realistic treatment of all aspects of physical life is deeply interested in the spiritual, from Buddhist meditation to Freudian psychology; in short, he’s a truly metaphysical person.

His university studies were of philosophy, and he is consistently thoughtful in these pages, his mind always in search of the deeper truth, the higher insight, the further revelation. Along the way, his questing nature took him down many blind alleys, some involving dangerous flirtations and even more perilous descents. His portrait of the effects of drug addiction - on himself and on others - is a searing one and as powerful an indictment of the damage addiction can wreak as you will find anywhere.

Mr. Kureishi is also intensely literary, steeped in literature - its history, its atmosphere and above all its production. In seeking to understand his father, he not only chronicles a turbulent but always close personal relationship but also delves deep into the older man’s inner life as a writer. It is clear that Hanif was much closer physically and emotionally to his father than to his mother, the physical, tactile bond expressed not only through the sporting activities they shared but through a general closeness of body and soul.

Both parents were frustrated, his mother’s artistic leanings submerged in a reasonably happy marriage and suburban life and his father committed, despite all the other demands on his time, to writing his own preternatural take, fictionalized yet autobiographical, on his childhood in India. Employed for decades in a clerical position at the Pakistani diplomatic mission in London, he worked assiduously before and after work at his writing, traveling back in his mind to the subcontinent of his memories even as he refused to go back to see its divided realities.

Looking into his father’s writings, so worked over, so intensely thought out and produced but never published, Hanif Kureishi seeks not only to understand the man who produced them but also to comprehend how he himself came to be a published author and, more particularly, the specific kind of writer he became. Triangulating this journey into his father’s oeuvre with the very different kind of writing produced by his paternal uncle Omar, a successful journalist with political connections to Pakistan’s powerful Bhuttos, this nominally Muslim Briton with his Indian name tries to understand one of the families and cultures that shaped him.

Reading his father’s family romance, Hanif envies him the experience of growing up in a large family, so different from Hanif’s own experience with only one sibling, a sister who plays only a small role in his own tale. But he is struck most of all by the way the British Raj continued to shape his father throughout his life, even during those long decades in London toiling in the post-colonial reality of the Pakistani mission and contemporary London. When Hanif visits Pakistan, he is amazed by his cousins’ adherence to their Muslim faith, coming as they all do from a secularized family.

Back home, he tries to engage Islam in order to understand its essence, but he comes away “feeling unclean, as though nothing had any value.” For what he discovers is nihilism:

“I didn’t find music, stories or community, as I had in church as a child. I found ideology and fundamentalism, and young people holding extreme, irrational and violent views, along with an inability to engage with or use the most basic forms of reasoning. There was no attention to the inner life; it had been politicised. Behaviour, rather than thought, was all. There was no semblance of the ‘objective’ world here; it was a hall of mirrors, and a cult of hate.”

It is not surprising that the author of a book like this is so turned off by a culture of hate. He does not minimize the racism he encountered growing up in London, which still rears its ugly head around him and his own children today. He understands the clash of cultures but consistently seeks to understand, to think and to feel his way through all that turbulence. Deeply moving as a personal testament and an act of filial homage, “My Ear at His Heart” is also a wise and thoughtful meditation on the true nature of multiculturalism.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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