Thursday, May 30, 2019

Reading group: The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Once again I'm afraid it's a while since we had this discussion, and a lot has happened to me in the meantime (both on a day-to-day-living level and with regard to writing), so as I begin this report I'm expecting my memory to be hazy.

What I remember most distinctly is that Trevor, who suggested this book, talked and talked about how much he loved it, and we were all swept up by his enthusiasm until later one or two caveats emerged. Set in seventies south London (and later, west Kensington), it's the first-person narrative and coming of age story of Karim, the son of an Indian father and an English mother, and his negotiation through a  changing family situation and the changing mores of the time as his father leaves his mother for another woman, Karim's life becoming divided between three family houses, and as Karim tries to find his way in the world as an actor and playwright.

We all agreed with Trevor that the prose was wonderfully vivid and witty, the characters brilliantly drawn, some with searing harshness and others with touching compassion. Trevor spent a lot of time recounting the particular situations and characters that had tickled him, and we all fell in with this, and there wasn't really a lot of objectively critical discussion for some time. Then I said that I didn't feel there was much of a story arc (although I didn't particularly mind that), and others agreed, and someone said that that was perhaps linked with the fact that the ending rather petered out (with which others also agreed), without any real conclusion. I note that some critics have seen the book as a picaresque adventure, but that somehow wasn't how it struck me, perhaps because there really wasn't that sense of striking out and away into the world that tends to characterise picaresque novels - Karim is very much embedded in the communities that already surround him at the start - his own cross-cultural family, and their artistic and hippy-bourgeois neighbours, who indeed push and aid Karim into the theatre. (And indeed the title refers to Karim's father whose activities and behaviour set in motion the course of events for Karim.)

Ann noted the amorality of the book (which is not simply sexual - Karim doesn't have much of a conscience about anything for much of the time), and I said that I thought that that was a pretty typical attitude of the period. Others demurred, and reminded me about the saying that if you remembered the sixties you weren't actually there. This is true of course, but I do think it was an aspiration of the seventies, that attitude of overthrowing all the old moral shackles, by which many people tried to live their lives, however unsuccessfully, and that the book brilliantly captures that.

At this point Mark, who had been unusually quiet, spoke up. He said that although he had had the very same mixed parentage as Kureishi - and indeed has the same name -  he simply couldn't identify with the experience depicted in the novel. Growing up in north Manchester, at a later date, he had suffered the kind of racial abuse that seems only to glance at Karim, and none of the ready social acceptance and mobility, and we all came to the conclusion that the book really only depicts the cultural particularity of London at that time.

Ann (I think) also commented that the book was very apolitical - which I thought was another aspect of the insularity of the hippy attitudes of the time, though I don't think people were very convinced.

And that's all I can remember, I'm afraid.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here