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Man to man

Man to man
Fiction is written because ‘art’ ultimately is not ‘life’ but borrows from experiences. This is why some of the greatest books are the ones where some of the characteristic moments remain undefined; relationships seem to be full of postmodern duplicity; and, individuals persistently search for the last word. Hanif Kureishi, whose creations have traversed multiple genres in fiction (from plays to novels, operas and short stories), manages to evoke an excruciating and painful laughter from the reader in his latest offering, The Last Word.

The plot is deceptively simple. A young writer Harry is commissioned to pen the biography of the postcolonial literary giant (born in India, hibernated across countries before settling in England), Mamoon Azim . The ‘purpose’ is clear – a fashionable name would ultimately lead to a work which would translate into good market figures. A whole host of other characters in the book – Alice, Liana, Peggy, Julia, Marion, Rob – become important, within the larger context of constantly evolving and transforming relationship, between two men, possessing immense intellect and zeal for life.

In one of his recent interviews, Kureishi observed that the book is some sort of an ‘English country comedy…with two people talking about their relationships, discussing women…’ In some of the major reviews on the book, the tendency has been to either dismiss it as an exercise of Kureishi’s narcissistic sexual extravagance, or, to read it as being largely based on V S Naipaul’s life. Without getting into whether these considerations have been apt or not and while also conceding aptness in the point about overdoing of sexual extravagance, the book merits serious consideration for quite a few reasons.

Firstly, the central relationship between the two main characters of the book – Harry and Mamoon – stands out. The strongest moments in the book are, when these two overzealously perceptive men, talk, argue and then make up. Although knowing that they are different from each other, they begin to find strength through knowing each other. Sample this: ‘…must have been the Faustian idea of Mamoon as hero and holy transgressor…that Harry had fallen in love with.’ Or, ‘…he had completed his work, which was to inform people that Mamoon had counted for something as an artist.’ Even, ‘...insisting that Mamoon had become very fond of him, Liana asked Harry to sit down.’

The greatest moments in the book are those, when a retelling of past lives of both Harry and Mamoon happens, through the central event of a writer being commissioned to write a biography. While having slightly unconventional and isolated childhood, both also come together in their search for an appropriate definition of life through creative experiences.

This is where the second strongest element of the book comes into picture. While being a fascinating elucidation of cultural differences through highlighting the specifics of Indian and the British society, the book also has some of the best one-liners which define the significance of relationship between ‘art’ and ‘life’: ‘…an artist you must remember is at his best in his art’, and, ‘the best stories are
the open ones.’

Though the momentum of the book does tend to lose its edge at certain places, yet its greatest moments are given by its amazingly honest characters. Be it a whole host of women associated with the two men in varying sexual and emotional capacities with relations largely being tumultuous, or a reflective gaze at the concluded ‘greatness’ of British society, or even no sense of having found an answer to who – out of Harry and Mamoon – ultimately has had the ‘last word’, the novel really works the best in its greatest ‘open’ moments.

Go for it if you are keen to celebrate both art and life.

The author teaches at Delhi University

Guntasha Tulsi

Guntasha Tulsi

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