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).

Thursday, 3 September 2015

The snow kimono by Mark Henshaw

This month’s novel was read by all the participants at our monthly meeting and many decided that it was much more fun than last time’s rather unusual book.

We began the night with some insights into the author – Kate heard him talk at a local bookshop recently about his work. The first chapter originated in 1990 and was published in an anthology. He was fortunate to spend 2 years in France on a scholarship, but he has not visited Japan.

When he retired from the National Gallery in 2012 he began writing from the first chapter until he got to the end and later dropped the ‘Algerian chapter’ into the sequence. A Japanese friend did fact-checking for him and many of us were surprised how well he can write about Japan. However, he has worked with Japanese prints for many years at the Gallery as a curator for prints and drawings. His visual orientation is in evidence in this novel – a reader can easily ‘see’ the landscape he describes so well. Those of us who have visited Japan thought he captured it beautifully.

Some members agreed that the Algerian chapter felt out of place but agreed that it was necessary as it added a complexity to the French detective Jovert, as we wouldn’t have known the importance of the first chapter without it. We commented also upon the fact that Jovert’s name is so similar to Javert from Les Miserables.  (Javert is 'the police inspector who becomes obsessed with the pursuit and punishment of the escaped convict Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables. From Wikipedia)

As we often do, we spent the evening trying to talk about scenes and characters as well as major themes and subtexts. One member felt ‘it’ was about the different ways the East and West perceive 'things'.

Other themes:

  • Lies and truths: what is truth?
  • Memories: story-telling is moderated by memories, we doubt our storytellers? Henshaw is not documenting geography.
  • Meaning of life: can you understand your life as seen by another person?  This is mixed up with identity, especially in relation to the confession by Omura/Katsuo? (see chapter on Katsuo – ‘he used to entertain us with his impersonations’, loc 834, 23% on Kindle)
  • Tension between the sexes: Role of women, in Japan, subjugated role of Geishas as well as women in ordinary society juxtaposed with Jovert’s wife’s post natal depression and her rejection of Jovert. Sachiko’s foster mother and her role in trying to find out what happened to her husband is in strong contrast to the usual role of women in this patriarchal society.
  • Identity: Role of father/grandfather; shifting roles, including incest by Katsuo.


The twist at the end of the book was one of the most fascinating parts of our conversation this month. Was Tadashi Omura real or was he actually Katsuo Ikeda?  One member was not convinced that they were actually 2 people.  In many ways they seem like two sides of personalities – good versus bad. The passport found by Jovert after the death must be evidence that the inspector was misled all the time as was the reader?  Was the real Omura still living in Japan unaware that he was being portrayed yet again? Or had he met a sticky end?

There was also mention that Katsuo and Jovert had similarities and were not complementary characters. Both had killed people and had affairs, and felt guilty for their actions. Both had loved and lost too.

The scene on the bus driving in the terrible storm and snow was a very powerful one and we discussed it at some length. The knowledge gained later that Katsuo was on the bus seeing the accident when the boy was killed is vital for the story.

Sue had investigated the Text Publishing notes and questions and these were thought provoking. For instance:  What red herrings are put in to mislead the reader ? One clue which we picked up was the continual typing of ‘Omura’ heard by Jovert late into the night – more pertaining to a novelist such as Katsuo than a retired legal person – debatable? And this ‘Omura’ was always taking notes. Another clue was that this ‘Omura’ was not always complimentary about Katsuo but is this just part of the confidence trick being played on Jovert?  The brutal scene of the death of Hideo, was more believable coming from the true Omura?

Sue likened the writing to Ishiguro. She believes Henshaw conveys the same sort of sensibility. For instance, Henshaw describes the environment in a matter of fact way even though the scene may be horrific eg Sachiko’s death in the snow. He is lyrical and beautifully descriptive without being flowery.
Interestingly, some members felt it was such a complicated book that it was important to reread the first few chapters. One member did a descriptive list of the characters in order to keep the names and scenes - in a logical way - in her head. Others of us just ran with it -- fiction after all!

Another mention was the ‘hoax’ perpetrated by Katsuo. Apparently there was a poetry hoax in the 1990s in Japan? This is contrasted with the humiliation of Katsuo’s former teacher, Todo. His re-appearance towards the end may or may not be true – he could have been dead?

We all liked the language – succinct and meaningful in short direct sentences. I think you can feel that a lot of thought has gone into this aspect of the novel, probably as much as the plot.

Old fashioned letters play a part in this novel – we considered the one in the beginning to Jovert and the consequences of letters.

Is the snow kimono the central story of the novel? It is certainly one of them, but there is so much more. That particular story has to do with women being groomed as well as wearing a creation of her grandmother’s (ancestral worship?) and the Japanese love of exquisite beauty. Women as commodity? Is Sachiko a sacrificial virgin?  We were not sure.     
A final comment was most complimentary that this was the best book we have read for a long time!