Is fiction following fact in Hanif Kureishi’s new novel The Last Word?

ImageMamoon Azam is a once-feted giant of the literary scene, a distinguished Indian-born novelist, essayist and playwright. Think Salman Rushdie. Or better still, think VS Naipaul for reasons that will be explained later. Over-the top (aka deranged) book editor Rob Devereaux has brokered the deal with Mamoon’s second wife, Liana, half fiery saint half golddigger for it will rescue Mamoon from rapidly onset obscurity and financial hardship. It will be “extreme biography”. An event. A “big bang” and it will prompt the re-issuing of all Mamoon’s books.

Harry Johnson, who had once published a well-received biography of Nehru, is commissioned to write the biography Harry, who has admired Mamoon since “he was a teenage book fiend, a nerdy connoisseur of sentences, a kid for whom writers were gods, heroes and rock stars,” is terrified and ecstatic at the prospect. Here is the chance to escape from reviewing books and teaching and give him a new project, something that could make his name, and secure him a “rosy” future. If he has to sell his soul just a little, so be it.

Soon Harry is “embedded” at Mamoon and Liana’s house in the country and receiving Liana’s version of the biography: ” You will write a gentle book, remembering that all he has, apart from me, is his reputation. Anyone who besmirches that will suffer from nightmares and boils. As Harry embarks on his task he finds Mamoon is a less willing participant than he had been led to believe. Extracting information becomes a battle of wills between a biographer increasingly intent on reaching the truth and author with a very real aversion to revelation. For Mamoon, this means overt displays of petulance, occasionally violence. For Harry it means  frequent recourse to the seemingly endless series of women (including on-and-off, his fiancé) based on meaningless sex.

Dialogue in The Last Word is frequently over-blown – “I couldn’t make his penis smile. He would go with them and it would put some lead in his pencil”; “You are a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin”; “God didn’t grant me children, Harry, but He granted me Mamoon” – but had me chuckling. And Mamoon is a fabulous creation: part manipulative monster part psychologically-withered genius.

Several commentators have drawn connections to the relationship between Harry and Mamoon to that between real-life literary icon VS Naipul and his biographer Patrick French.  In this case, I’m going with fiction being stranger than fact.

The Last Word is published by Faber and available now. For a recent conversation with Kureishi read Hanif Kureishi: Buddha of Suburbia is a self-made man. Other work by Kureishi includes The Buddha of Suburbia, Intimacy and the screenplays for My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

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