IN THE identity parade of British literary life there are few faces that stick out. One that does startle is the brooding, elfin gaze of Hanif Kureishi.
Small, side-burned and not so dark, Kureishi made his presence felt in theEighties with a series of books, films and plays that seared a cast of modern-day characters into the nation's conscious. Gay skinheads who had sex with bisexual Asians, female Black panthers forced into arranged marriages and south London's spiritual fakirs casting spells over supine suburban housewives were all served up to an audience starved of such cultural delights.
A self-styled child of the Sixties, Kureishi's recipe of sexual and racial liberation was adored by the liberal cognoscenti and reviled by the socially authoritarian elite. Kureishi called the poll tax riots "terrific", was nominated for an Oscar for My Beautiful Laundrette while his film Sammy and Rosie Get Laid was castigated by Professor Norman Stone, fogeydom's loudest voice, as "pointless sensationalism, sloppy attitudinising and general disgustingness".
His skill was in presenting not only the crude Britishness that excluded non-white immigrants from society, but also, for the first time, he identified the British Asian experience. Kureishi's output may have shown some Asians as petty, cruel and insensitive - but they were accurate, funny portrayals. Nearly a decade later, the past is not merely another country but a different planet. Ethnicity has become the new currency in popular culture, elevating British Asians to their Afro-Caribbean counterparts.
Could Kureishi write today about, for example, rap-and-rollers Asian Dub Foundation? The answer is short. "No. I do not know anything about it. I am too old."
Kureishi's latest works, the film My Son the Fanatic and the short novel Intimacy, are less marked by the anger of his youth, and more by the bitterness of getting old. My Son the Fanatic is a love story between Parvez, a Pakistani taxi driver who falls for a prostitute, while his son, Farid, embraces Islamic fundamentalism. The film is replete with Kureishi's gloriously incongruous characters. There is a nasty German capitalist who takes a shine to Parvez; a shallow Muslim religious leader who wants to stay in Britain - a country he professes to despise; and Bettina, a young English prostitute who - somewhat improbably - is in love with the ageing Asian taxi driver.
More profound than the attraction between the two leading characters is the hurt felt by the older man, Parvez, because of his son's rejection of a liberal lifestyle - the music, girlfriends, clubs - he so admires." I think it is bizarre all the bad things are in the West and all the good things are in the Islam," explains Kureishi. This has been a recurring theme for the writer. He has long been fascinated by Muslim youth's rejection of the freedoms British society offers them. "It saddens me that so many young people are turning to religion. I suppose it is because I believe that liberalism is to our (Asians') advantage. Asian people need liberalism to flourish. I am puzzled that people would want something that would not help them," he explains.
This view has not endeared the 44-year-old to a substantial section of theMuslim community. While filming My Son the Fanatic there were protests in Leeds about the movie and Kureishi was "frog-marched from a mosque" after hanging around with young Muslims. But many of the writer's conclusions derive from time spent with young people in Bradford after his friend Salman Rushdie had a fatwa - in effect, a death sentence - placed on him for writing The Satanic Verses.
This period helped him forge the conversations in the film between Farid and Parvez. In one scene, Farid tries to convince his father - and the audience - of the reasons for his conversion to Islam. He explains the local police "do not care about racist attacks" and a career in accountancy is "just capitalism and taking advantage. You can never succeed in it unless you get to the pub and meet women".
Kureishi was brought up in Bromley in south London. His father came from a "privileged background ... an upper class Indian family" whereas his mother was"lower-middle class" English stock. "It was not a question of who was marrying up or down ... they simply married across."
The writer was "very close" to his father - who died five years ago and never fulfilled his ambition to be a writer. The mixed-race young Kureishi sought solace from the everyday racism of Sixties suburbia in books. Those he chose as relief included Richard Wright and James Baldwin - who was similarly indisposed to extreme Muslim movements, albeit of the kind practised by the Nation of Islam.
Kureishi used early experience to mould his work. Never strictly autobiographical, Kureishi can transmute the base, ordinary experiences of life into golden prose. So Kureishi's teenage friendship with a skinhead spiralled into Daniel Day Lewis's part as Johnny, the homosexual fascist, in My Beautiful Laundrette. "Everything kicks off from something that happens to you. I had an uncle who had a laundrette, but I wrote about a bloke who ran one."
His latest novel, Intimacy, tells of the night before the departure of a forty-something writer from a loveless marriage. Billed as fiction, the novel appears to be a thinly disguised exploration of Kureishi's own middle-age crisis. Rather than teasing the reader, it seems to offer a blunt, rather cruel assessment of Kureishi's own pitiless reaction to a relationship coming to a halt. In real life, Kureishi left his partner (Tracey Scoffield), and children; in his novel, the narrator, Jay, is about to do the same. Jay has family in Pakistan, so does the author. Jay's partner works in publishing. Ditto for Kureishi - Scoffield is his former editor at Faber. This level of detail even has Jay as an Oscar-nominated writer. Surprise, surprise, so is Kureishi.
The autobiographical details would be fine, but one finds oneself loathing Kureishi for his apparently confessional, mean-spirited, and at times hateful, outbursts. When Jay masturbates with his partner's anti-ageing cream and ejaculates into her dirty underwear by recalling his mistress's face, it would be classic Kureishi farce - but it is difficult to remove the feeling that it is a vindictive swipe at his former partner. Kureishi disagrees. "The only thing that occurred to me in Intimacy is a bloke leaving his wife. Not everything happened to me."
What about all the similarities? "I left home. And I had a girlfriend and broke up with her. But Intimacy is set over one evening. It is a mistake to believe I experience everything I write about. They are all acts of imagination."
Whether fact or fiction, Intimacy is still better than anything that devotees of the new school of the laddish novel can produce. It may be filled with agony and pain but it is on the waves of human emotion that Kureishi effortlessly surfs class, race and sexual preference - leaving his middle-aged peers trailing in his wake.
'Intimacy' is published by Faber and Faber, pounds 9.99. 'My Son the Fanatic' is out now
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