Faber & Faber, £18.99. Order at the discounted price of £15.99 inc. p&p from independent.co.uk/bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi, book review: Kureishi's novel reflects Keats's claim that a man's life is a continual allegory

 

A contrarian and a curmudgeon, both visionary artist and tantrum-prone elderly brat, the Indian-born but Somerset-settled writer Mamoon Azam strikes his callow biographer on occasions as "more Johnny Rotten than Joseph Conrad".

Mamoon has certainly been quite a sex pistol in his time, as well as a dauntless explorer in the heart of modern darkness. Blond, bland but seductive, literary wannabe Harry Johnson lands a contract to write the life of this punkish – and puckish – sage in an age when blabbermouth biography "had been sucked towards the dirty stuff, a process of disillusionment".

Harry's "long game of intrigue and deception", egged on by his gifted but shambolic publisher Rob, means that he must win the great man's trust, then dish the dirt. The journals of a dead first wife-cum-mentor, a distraught long-term mistress, the seemingly servile "help", and a high-maintenance diva of a second spouse, vigilant keeper of Mamoon's flame: all may assist, or hinder, him. For his part, Mamoon finds himself in "fiscal turnaround".

His fame in eclipse, he needs a late-life jolt of notoriety to pay the champagne bills. And so the dance of predator and prey – but which is which? – begins. Harry parts from his silvery fashionista girlfriend Alice to "embed" himself in Mamoon's country life. For Rob, the household is "as if Gandhi had married Shirley Bassey and they'd gone to live in Ambridge".

You hardly need belong to what Hanif Kureishi calls the "gossipocracy of agents, publishers and writers" to know that, behind his new novel, early readers have detected traces – no, raw bleeding chunks – of the relationship between VS Naipaul and his biographer Patrick French. Kureishi has often plundered not merely his own background, but that of his peers. He has aimed not so much to tease us with coy romans à clef but to prove via the alchemy of fiction that – in Keats's words – "A man's life of any worth is a continual allegory."

So leave the gossipocracy to play snap with the lives and loves of Vidia and Mamoon. We should notice that The Last Word not only draws on a literary sub-genre about the oedipal stand-off between biographer and artist (from Maugham's Cakes and Ale to Roth's The Ghost Writer). Crucially, it also lends the ageing, snarling lion some traits of its author. A rebel from a Muslim family, Mamoon has flayed the patriarchy of new-wave Islamism and traced its re-birth in "the dark cities of northern Britain". In the wake of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, Kureishi himself did exactly that. You might equally read this novel as a portrait of the artist in the mirror of the future, as the maverick, heretic and debunker balances his books.

True to another side of his heritage, Kureishi as droll farceur sounds more like PG Wodehouse (repeatedly name-checked) than Philip Roth. Harry charms and smarms Mamoon, his volcanic Roman wife Liana and – in an American interlude – his rejected muse Marion into spilling the pungent erotic beans. Meanwhile, a country-house comedy unfolds around him. Kureishi has form on this Chekhovian territory (as in his play Sleep with Me). Here, the grungy foibles of Mamoon's rural backwater, "both dozy and violent", offset the more elevated wrangles over love, lies and literature. The staff at Prospects House – sly, secretive Julia and her ruined mother, Ruth – move from chav-like ciphers out of Little Britain to plot-driving centre-stage: this is Kureishi at his mischievous, subversive best.

Much of the dialogue sounds fruitily stage-bound. You can imagine The Last Word behind a proscenium arch. The women in particular – each dressed, voiced and staged with panache – have a ripe theatricality. A psychoanalytic sub-theme, highlighted by the profession of Harry's father, picks up material from Kureishi's therapy-centred 2008 novel Something to Tell You, and fuels a debate about sexual desire as "the motor of our existence". Biographer and subject concur that "intellect and libido have to be linked". Discarded or exploited, the link-women muses and mistresses will contrive their sour-sweet revenge…

For all his private shame, Mamoon emerges with the dignity of his work intact. He may be a bastard, but he is not a fraud. This "Asian Camus", a "radical transgressor" who has "looked into the dark without flinching", will snatch the last word. For Mamoon, "an artist is always… at his best in his art." A comic but not a cynic, Kureishi mocks the man but salutes the writer who has lived in truth while creating "freedom". The farce ends in a kind of prayer.

Hanif Kureishi will appear at the Independent Bath Literature Festival on Sunday 2 March (01225 463362; bathfestivals.org.uk)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor