A Week in Books: The lure of London's Brick Lane

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The Independent Culture

Lazy foreign correspondents have, or had, a notorious habit of basing reports on their random chats with waiters and cab drivers. I suppose the literary editor's equivalent (to which I confess) consists in keeping a trend-spotter's eye on the reading habits of commuting fellow-passengers. One registers, for instance, the periodic surge of Potter mania; the scary stretch when every smart suit clutched Antony Beevor's Stalingrad; and, over recent months, the struggle for supremacy between The Da Vinci Code and Brick Lane.

Dan Brown and his acolytes can look after themselves. The vogue for Monica Ali, whose paperback has bobbed around the Top 20 since May, is far more fascinating. To some degree, the spacious storytelling of Brick Lane represents a fictional throwback - a retreat from the mixed-up metropolis of Zadie Smith, or Hanif Kureishi, to an earlier generation of tales about settlement in London. The tangle of migrant-crowded streets east of the City has spun this sort of yarn for a century and more. When Ali's readers enter her Bangla Town, they visit an area already buzzing with literary voices. It would be cheering if her success encouraged us to listen out for more.

Brick Lane and its neighbourhood still runs up stories as rapidly as saris. This summer, the enterprising Peepal Tress Press has published Burrow by Manzu Islam (£9.99). His enjoyably picaresque novel, satirical and lyrical by turns, follows an illegal migrant's adventures in the Bangladeshi "underground" community through the grim Paki-bashing years of the late 1970s. Much more so than Monica Ali, Manzu Islam finds comedy in adversity. I relished the plot to liberate the Koh-i-Noor diamond from the Tower, the concoction of bizarre "Banglish" dishes in restaurant kitchens to satisfy barbarous English palates, and the finger-in-every-pie shenanigans of would-be community leader, "Dr" Karamat Ali.

In this urban palimpsest, the Bangladeshi stories lie just above older layers of memory and myth - a continuity symbolised by the hero Tapan Ali's elderly Jewish friend, "Brother Josef K". Tapan makes a passing reference to a "Brother Zangwill" who - wrongly, he thinks - described migrants on this manor as "strange exotics in a land of prose". "Brother Zangwill" is the late-Victorian Jewish writer Israel Zangwill, who in 1892 published the original East End "ethnic" novel: Children of the Ghetto. Coincidentally, this has been reissued by Black Apollo Press (£13.95, from orders@germinalproductions.co.uk).

In so many ways, the journey that Ali's Brick Lane extends began with Children of the Ghetto. Zangwill was a proud Cockney, part of a group of dandy humourists associated with Jerome K Jerome's magazine, The Idler. Set around Petticoat Lane ("the stronghold of hard-shell Judaism"), his novel blends comic or sentimental set-pieces and sketches with a missionary urge to champion the customs of his people and his patch. I expected a whiskery period-piece from this famous but hard-to-locate work. Instead, I discovered a warm, sharp, funny and - yes - schmaltzy panorama of East End Jewish life 100 years ago, from sweatshops to strike meetings, from Passover feasts to market-stall banter.

At the end, the rabbi's restless daughter Hannah, "forced to make so cruel a choice", finds that love may cut her off from faith and family. Movingly, this pivotal passage - and it's far from the only one - could have come straight from Brick Lane itself. The memories, the creeds, the languages, all change. The hopes, anxieties and dilemmas remain astonishingly constant. In literary, if not economic, terms, the streets of Spitalfields have always been paved with gold.

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