Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Hanif Kureishi's The buddha of suburbia

Unusually, all Minervans who attended this month's meeting enjoyed the book, Hanif Kureishi's debut novel The buddha of suburbia. Despite the overall agreement, however, we managed to find things to discuss and even to disagree, a little anyhow, about.

We all agreed that we'd recommend it to others, though one member said she took a little while to get into it. She started to enjoy it, she said, when she "clicked" into the irony and satire.

Being women of a certain age, many of us had visited England in the 1960s or 1970s. We thought Kureishi's picture of London at that time was authentic, that he beautifully captured things like the mix of ethnic cultures, the rise of the punk culture, and the fashion (which he describes in some detail). We enjoyed the many cultural references to music, books, and London locations - and we used these to help pinpoint exact timings for the story. One member said that Kureishi captured the "seediness" of the England of the TV series, Till death do us part (1965-1975), thereby adding her own little cultural allusion. Sex features heavily in the novel, representing broad human experience and behaviour, some loving, some raunchy, some exploratory, some exploitative. The sex could be confronting at times, but is part of the liberated period in which it is set.

While the book is a coming-of-age novel for 17-year-old Karim (as he is when the novel opens), we felt that it is also about the fact that we are always "coming-of-age" or, shape-shifting or transforming. The title character, the buddha of suburbia (aka Haroon or Harry, Karim's father), is an example. He is experiencing a mid-life crisis in which he is searching for meaning, for being something more than a Civil Service clerk who will never be promoted above an Englishman. So, he sets himself up as a "buddha", as a "visionary" who will provide wisdom from the east. We enjoyed the humour of a Pakistani Muslim setting himself up as a Buddha.

It's also about culture and class, stereotyping and racism. Although Indians and Pakistanis had been living in London and England for a long time, they were still marginalised. Kureishi depicts this with humour, showing their marginalisation but sending it up at the same time. He shows the ignorance of English people who repeatedly called Karim "black", but he's more "beige" he says!

The thing was, we were supposed to be English, but to the English we were always wogs and nigs and Pakis and the rest of it.

We discussed how the book is also about people assuming the mantle of their culture and working out what they can do with it. One member shared a story from China in the 1980s. Chinese people, would ask, she said, for help to get to the USA. When asked what they'd do in America, they'd say, "We're Chinese, we can teach Tai Chi", regardless of whether they had the skills. Muslim Haroon subverts this idea of racial expectations/stereotyping by assuming the mantle of Buddha!

Another theme we discussed related to escaping suburbia for the excitement of the city where you might have a "new life". Suburbia is seen as dull, the place of the "miserable undead", where "people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness". It's where kids from other cultures expected to be bullied. And yet, the suburb-city dichotomy is not seen as a simple one. Karim has some of his most meaningful engagements with family and friends in the suburbs. And the city has its challenges. It's not "the real world" according to his childhood friend Jamila. It has its poseurs, and racism can be just as rife.

We discussed the role of the arts. There's a certain cynicism about art and the entertainment industry, and yet there's also a sense that there could be salvation through literature and the arts. Charlie reinvents himself as punk star, Charlie Hero, though like most issues in the book there are two sides to this.
There were aspects which different members questioned or didn't like. One member, for example, found Shinko, Changez's Japanese whore/friend/partner to be unrealistic. Another found the section set in New York to be less interesting and wondered about its relevance, but others of us felt that this is where Karim started to really learn about himself and what he wanted. Yet another member was disappointed that Jamila married Changez, the man "arranged" for her from India, while others suggested that while she made her decision based on convention, that is, on obeying her father, she subverts the convention by the way she managed this marriage. One member asked why Changez, a Muslim man with certain expectations, accepted Jamil's conditions. We put forward a few possibilities, one being that Changez is not presented as a powerful, confident man, but one his Indian family would have been pleased to have got rid of.

Jamila, some thought, is a rather idealised character. She's "human" but not "real". Is this a fault of the novel, or a valid part of the satire and Kureishi's social agenda? She stands for confident, second generation, liberated immigrant womanhood.

We briefly discussed other characters. We felt for Karim's abandoned Mum - a quiet, undemanding, woman - and were glad when she'd found a toy-boy by the end. We thought Karim's actor friend, Terry, was genuine in his humanity. We worried about Eleanor who seemed to have no sense of self, one member likening her to Marianne Faithful!  We thought Anwar, Jamila's father and Karim's father's best friend, was the saddest character. He was resistant to change, and he's the character who doesn't end well, which perhaps suggests one of the messages of the book - if it can be said to have a message! We liked Karim's exuberance, though felt he often walked a fine line between charm and callousness.

Overall, we found this a funny, engaging book. We enjoyed the way Kureishi regularly subverted expected outcomes or challenged our expectations. We thought the ending was nicely ironic. Karim, we agreed had come to some self-growth, but his expectation that life will be less messy in the future is perhaps a vain hope (given the adults we've seen in the novel).

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