The Washington Post
Something to Tell Youby Hanif Kureishi
In the early 1980s Hanif Kureishi emerged as one of the most compelling new voices in film and fiction. His movies My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and his novel The Buddha of Suburbia captivated audiences and inspired other artists. In Something to Tell You, he travels back to those days of hedonism, activism and glorious creativity. And he explores the lives of that generation now, in a very different London.
Jamal is middle-aged, though reluctant to admit it. He has an ex-wife, a son he adores, a thriving career as a psychoanalyst and vast reserves of unsatisfied desire. "Secrets are my currency," he says. "I deal in them for a living." And he has some of his own. He is haunted by Ajita, his first love, whom he hasn't seen in decades, and by an act of violence he has never confessed.
With great empathy and agility, Kureishi has created an array of unforgettable characters -- a hilarious and eccentric theater director, a covey of charming and defiant outcasts and an ebullient sister who thrives on the fringe. All wrestle with their own limits as human beings; all are plagued by the past until they find it within themselves to forgive.
Comic, wise and unfailingly tender, Something to Tell You is Kureishi's best work to date, brilliant and exhilarating.
The Washington Post
Prolific screenwriter, playwright and novelist Kureishi has a gift for smart, sparkling prose and expertly crafted characters, and it is on full display in his latest, the funny and heartbreaking story of Jamal Khan, a successful middle-aged London psychoanalyst dogged by a crushing secret and a long-burning torch for his first love. Jamal's son, Rafi, and ex-wife, Josephine, are still very much involved in Jamal's life, but nobody knows that Jamal is still profoundly in love with his high school girlfriend, Ajita, or that his connection to her is soiled by his complicity in a long-ago violent crime. As an analyst, he knows just how haunting the past can be ("Secrets are my currency," he informs the reader), and he makes a convincing and often comedic case that madness is an ordinary, unsurprising part of contemporary life. The father-son relationship is especially brilliant, and Kureishi is adept as ever in balancing humor and his piercing insight into the human condition. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kureishi (The Buddha of Suburbia) may not be well known as a novelist in the States, but cinema buffs will recognize him for his numerous screenplays, including the Oscar-nominated My Beautiful Laundrette and Venus. A Londoner of British and Pakistani descent, he differs from Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, who focus on the outsider's internal conflict, instead turning his microscopic lens toward those who manage to find a cozy niche in an ever more diverse England. London psychoanalyst Jamal suddenly finds himself in midlife, trying to reconcile what has happened since his youthful escapades in the 1970s. He's not lost or disillusioned, but the people around him comically carry the burden of broken promises from their bohemian youth. His sister Miriam is a particularly wonderful character, offering occasionally deep cultural insights packaged in a body that bears tattoos, piercings, bangles, and lots of baggage; old friend Henry, a high-minded theater director, has hit the skids and personifies the flight from responsibility. The story takes Jamal back to his first love, Ajita, who gave him pleasure, danger, and a devastating memory that won't go away. A good story full of vibrant characterizations, this book will be most appreciated by readers who enjoy looking at modern culture, warts and all. Recommended for large fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ4/1/08.]
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Read an Excerpt
Secrets are my currency: I deal in them for a living. The secrets of desire, of what people really want, and of what they fear the most. The secrets of why love is difficult, sex complicated, living painful and death so close and yet placed far away. Why are pleasure and punishment closely related? How do our bodies speak? Why do we make ourselves ill? Why do you want to fail? Why is pleasure hard to bear?
A woman has just left my consulting room. Another will arrive in twenty minutes. I adjust the cushions on the analytic couch and relax in my armchair in a different silence, sipping tea, considering images, sentences and words from our conversation, as well as the joins and breaks between them.
As I do often these days, I begin to think over my work, the problems I struggle with, and how this came to be my livelihood, my vocation, my enjoyment. It is even more puzzling to me to think that my work began with a murder today is the anniversary, but how do you mark such a thing? followed by my first love, Ajita, going away forever.
I am a psychoanalyst. In other words, a reader of minds and signs. Sometimes I am called shrinkster, healer, detective, opener of doors, dirt digger or plain charlatan or fraud. Like a car mechanic on his back, I work with the underneath or understory: fantasies, wishes, lies, dreams, nightmares the world beneath the world, the true words beneath the false. The weirdest intangible stuff I take seriously; I'm into places where language can't go, or where it stops the "indescribable" and early in the morning too.
Giving sorrow other words, I hear of how people's desire and guilt upsets and terrorises them, the mysteries that burn a hole in the self and distort and even cripple the body, the wounds of experience, reopened for the good of the soul as it is made over.
At the deepest level people are madder than they want to believe. You will find that they fear being eaten, and are alarmed by their desire to devour others. They also imagine, in the ordinary course of things, that they will explode, implode, dissolve or be invaded. Their daily lives are penetrated by fears that their love relations involve, among other things, the exchange of urine and faeces.
Always, before any of this began, I enjoyed gossip, an essential qualification for the job. Now I get to hear a lot of it, a river of human effluvium flowing into me, day after day, year after year. Like many modernists, Freud privileged detritus; you could call him the first artist of the "found," making meaning out of that which is usually discarded. It is dirty work, getting closely acquainted with the human.
There is something else going on in my life now, almost an incest, and who could have predicted it? My older sister, Miriam, and my best friend, Henry, have conceived a passion for each other. All our separate existences are being altered, indeed shaken, by this unlikely liaison.
I say unlikely because these are quite different kinds of people, who you would never think of as a couple. He is a theatre and film director, a brazen intellectual whose passion is for talk, ideas and the new. She couldn't be rougher, though she was always considered "bright." They have been aware of one another for years; she has sometimes accompanied me to his shows.
I guess my sister had always been waiting for me to invite her out; it took me a while to notice. Though an effort on occasion her knees are crumbling and can't take her increasing weight it was good for Miriam to leave the house, the kids and the neighbours. She was usually impressed and bored. She liked everything about the theatre but the plays. Her preferred part was the interval, when there was booze, cigarettes and air. I agree with her. I've seen many bad shows, but some of them had great intervals. Henry, himself, would inevitably fall asleep within fifteen minutes of the start of any play, particularly if it was directed by a friend, his furry head resting on your neck while he gurgled gently in your ear like a polluted brook.
Miriam knew Henry would never take her opinions seriously, but she wasn't afraid of him or his pomposity. It was said of Henry, and particularly of his work, that you had to praise him until you blushed, and then build from there. Miriam was not a praiser; she didn't see the need for it. She even liked to needle Henry. One time, in the foyer after an Ibsen or Molière, or maybe it was an opera, she announced that the piece was too long.
Everyone in the vicinity held their breath until he said through his grey beard, in his deep voice, "That, I'm afraid, is exactly the time it took to get from the beginning to the end."
"Well, they could have been closer together, that's all I'm saying" was Miriam's reply.
Now there is something going on between the two of them who are much closer together than before.
It occurred like this.
If Henry is not rehearsing or teaching, he strolls round to my place at lunchtime, as he did a few months ago, having rung Maria first. Maria, slow-moving, kind, easily shocked, indeed mortified originally my cleaner but a woman I have come to rely on prepares the food downstairs, which I like to be ready when I've finished with my last patient of the morning.
I am always glad to see Henry. In his company I can relax and do nothing important. You can say what you like, but all of us analysts go at it for long hours. I might see my first patient at 6:00 a.m. and not stop until one o'clock. After, I eat, make notes, walk or nap, until it's time for me to start listening again, into the early evening.
I can hear him, his voice booming from the table just outside the back door, before I am anywhere near the kitchen. His monologues are a torment for Maria, who has the misfortune to take people's words seriously.
"If only you understood me, Maria, and could see that my life is a terrible humiliation, a nothing."
"It is not, surely? Mr. Richardson, such a man as you must "
"I am telling you I am dying of cancer and my career is a disaster."
(She will come to me later whispering, fearfully, "Is he really dying of cancer?"
"Not that I know."
"Is his career a disaster?"
"There are few people more eminent."
"Why does he say such things? What strange people they are, artists!")
He continues: "Maria, my last two productions, the Così, and the version of The Master and Margarita in New York, bored me to death. They were successes, but not difficult enough for me. There was no struggle, no risk of annihilation. I want that!"
"Then my son brings a woman into my flat more beautiful than Helen of Troy! I am universally hated strangers spit in my open mouth!"
"Oh, no, no, no!"
"Just look at the newspapers. I am more hated than Tony Blair, and there's a man who is universally loathed."
"Yes, he is terrible, everybody says, but you have not invaded anyone, or permitted them to be tortured at Guantánamo. You are loved!" There was a pause. "Yes, you see, you know it!"
"I don't want to be loved. I want to be desired. Love is safety, but desire is foul. 'Give me excess of it...' The awful thing is, the less one is capable of sex, the more one is capable of love, the pure thing. Nobody but you understands me. Is it too late, do you think, for me to become homosexual?"
"I don't believe it's a choice, Mr. Richardson. But you must consult Dr. Khan. He should be along shortly."
The doors were open onto my little garden with its three trees and patch of grass. There were flowers on the table outside and Henry sitting at it, his stomach out front, a convenient cushion for his hands to rest on, if he wasn't scratching. On his knee was my grey cat, Marcel, given to me by Miriam, a cat who wanted to smell everything, and who had to be regularly hauled from the room where I saw patients.
Having already dismissed half a bottle of good wine "I don't believe there's any alcohol in white!" Henry was talking to himself, or free-associating, via Maria, who believed it was a conversation.
In the kitchen I was washing my hands. "I want to be drunk," I could hear him saying. "I've wasted my life being respectable. I've reached the age when women feel safe around me! So alcohol improves my temper everyone's temper."
"It does? But you did tell me, when you came in, that they want you at the Paris Opera."
"They'll take anyone. Maria, I am aware you like culture far more than I do. You are a darling of the cheap seats, and every morning on the bus you read. But culture is ice creams, intervals, sponsors, critics and the same bored, overrefined queens who go to everything. There is culture, which is nothing, and there is the wasteland. Just leave London or turn on the TV and there it is. Ugly, puritanical, prurient, stupid, and people like Blair saying they don't understand modern art, and our future king, Charles the Arse, rushing towards the past. Once I believed the two might overlap, the common and the high. Can you believe it? Oh, Maria, I knew my life was over when I decided to take up watercolours "
"At least you don't clean toilets for a living. Come on, try these tomatoes. Open wide and don't spit."
"Oh, delicious. Where did you get these?"
"Tesco's. Use a napkin. It's all gone in your beard. You're attracting the flies!"
She was flapping at him. "Thank you, Mother," he said. He looked up as I sat down. "Jamal," he said, "stop giggling and tell me: Have you read the Symposium lately?"
"Hush, you bad man, let the doctor eat," said Maria. "He hasn't even put a piece of bread in his mouth yet." I thought for a moment she was going to smack his hand. "Dr. Khan's heard enough talk this morning. He's so kind to listen to these people, when they should be chained up in the asylum. How smutty some of them are! When I open the door, even the ordinary ones like to ask me questions about the doctor. Where does he take his holidays, where has his wife gone? They get nothing from me."
We were eating. To his credit, Henry couldn't stop talking. "'We sail with a corpse in the cargo.' Ibsen is saying here that the dead dead fathers, the living dead, in effect are as potent, even more potent, than actually existing ones."
I murmured, "We are made of others."
"How do you kill a dead father? Even then the guilt would be dreadful, wouldn't it?"
He went on: "Ibsen is such a realistic writer in this play. How do you symbolise the ghosts? Do you need to?" As he often did, Henry reached over to eat from my plate. "This friendly aggression is surely a sign," he said, holding up a bean, "of a man who would enjoy sharing your wife?"
"Indeed. You are welcome."
If speaking is intercourse for the dressed, Henry certainly had a good time; and these histrionic rambles at lunchtime were enjoyable and relaxing for me. When Maria was washing up and Henry and I were glancing through the sports pages, or looking at the line of gently nodding sunflowers my son, Rafi, had planted against the back wall of my little garden, Henry became less ecstatic.
"I know you don't work at lunchtime. You have your salad. You have wine. We talk rubbish, or at least I do. You just discuss Manchester United and the minds of the players and manager, then you take your walk. Hear me, though.
"You know I hate to be alone. I go mad in the silence. Luckily, my boy, Sam, has been living at my place for nearly a year. It was a breakthrough in our relationship when he decided he couldn't bear to pay rent or bills. That brat has had one of the finest educations his mother's money could buy.
"His childhood was dedicated to electronic devices, and as I might have told you, he's doing well in trash TV, working for a company that specialises in showing disfigurements and plastic surgery. What do they call it, car-crash television? You know what he said the other day? 'Dad, don't you know? The era of high art is over.'"
"You believe him?" I asked.
"What a large bite that was, torn from the middle of my existence. Everything I've believed in. How come both my children hate high culture? Lisa is a virtuoso of virtue, existing on a diet of beans and purified water. Even her dildos are organic, I'm sure. I dragged her into the Opera House one night, and as we sank sighing into the velvet she became giddy and delirious, so rococo did she find it. I took a bet on how long it would be before she used the word elitist. She had to leave at the interval. My other kid adores kitsch!"
He went on. "At least the boy's healthy, vigorous and not as stupid as he'd have you believe. He comes to live with me and brings a girlfriend to stay, when she's in London. But he has other girlfriends. We go to the theatre, to a restaurant, he makes more girlfriends in front of me. You know I was considering a production, in the far, unimaginable future, of Don Giovanni. I lie in bed in the room next to his, wearing headphones, crying for the Don, trying to see it. Most nights Sam makes love. At the beginning of the night, in the middle, and just for luck in the morning. I hear it, I overhear it. I can't escape the fluttering moans. The music of love without the terror and premature ejaculations I experienced as a young man, and indeed as a middle-aged one.
"Then I see the girls at breakfast, matching the faces to the cries. There's one, the most regular, a 'writer' for fashion magazines, with this puff of screwed-up blond hair. She wears mules and a red satin dressing gown, which falls open as I am about to penetrate my egg. For one kiss from such a chick you would flood St. Mark's or burn a hundred Vermeers, if there are a hundred. This," he said, finally, "is a kind of hell, even for a mature man like me, used to taking the blows and carrying on like a true soldier of the arts."
"I can see that."
He said with comical pretentiousness, as though he were me, with a patient, "What does it make you feel?"
"It makes me laugh my head off."
"I read these contemporary books to see what's happening. I wouldn't dream of buying them, the publishers send them over, and they're full of people sexing. These are irregular pleasures, my friend, involving she-men, stuff like that, and people wee-weeing on one another or wearing military fatigues, pretending to be Serb fighters, and worse. You wouldn't believe what people are up to out there. But are they really? Not that you would let on."
"They are, they truly are." I giggled.
"Oh, Jesus. What I want," he said, "is some dope. I used to smoke cigarettes but gave up. My pleasures disappeared with my vices. I can't sleep and I'm sick of the pills. Can you score for me?"
"Henry, I don't need to become a dealer right now. I have a job."
"I know, I know...But "
I smiled and said, "Come on. Let's stroll."
We walked up the street together, him a head taller than me and a third wider. I was as neat as a clerk, with short, spiky hair; I usually wore a shirt with a collar, and a jacket. He was shambling, with his tee-shirt too big: he seemed untucked everywhere. As he went, bits seemed to fall from him. He wore shoes without socks, but not shorts, not today. With his arms full of books, Bosnian novelists, the notebooks of Polish theatre directors, American poets and newspapers bought on Holland Park Avenue Le Monde, Corriere della Sera, El País he was returning to his flat by the river.
Carrying his own atmosphere with him, Henry swung around the neighbourhood like it was a village he was brought up in a Suffolk hamlet continually calling out across the street to someone or other and, frequently, joining them for talk about politics and art. His solution to the fact that few people in London appeared to speak understandable English now was to learn their language. "The only way to get by in this 'hood is to speak Polish," he announced recently. He also knew enough Bosnian, Czech and Portuguese to get by in the bars and shops without yelling, as well as enough of several other European languages to make his way without feeling marginalised in his own city.
I have lived on the same page of the A-Z all of my adult life. At lunchtime I liked to stroll twice around the tennis courts like the other workers. This area, between Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush, I heard once described as "a roundabout surrounded by misery." Someone else suggested it might be twinned with Bogotá. Henry called it "a great Middle Eastern city." Certainly it had always been "cold" there: in the seventeenth century, after the hangings at Tyburn, near Marble Arch, the bodies were brought to Shepherd's Bush Green to be displayed.
Now the area was a mixture of the pretty rich and the poor, who were mostly recent immigrants from Poland and Muslim Africa. The prosperous lived in five-storey houses, narrower, it seemed to me, than North London's Georgian houses. The poor lived in the same houses divided up into single rooms, keeping their milk and trainers fresh on the windowsill.
The newly arrived immigrants, carrying their possessions in plastic bags, often slept in the park; at night, along with the foxes, they foraged through the dustbins for food. Alcoholics and nutters begged and disputed in the street continuously; drug dealers on bikes waited on street corners. New delis, estate agents and restaurants had begun to open, also beauty parlours, which I took as a positive indication of rising house prices.
When I had more time, I liked to walk up through Shepherd's Bush market, with its rows of chauffeur-driven cars parked alongside Goldhawk Road Station. Hijabed Middle Eastern women shopped in the market, where you could buy massive bolts of vivid cloth, crocodile-skin shoes, scratchy underwear and jewellery, "snide" CDs and DVDs, parrots and luggage, as well as illuminated 3-D pictures of Mecca and of Jesus. (One time, in the old city in Marrakech, I was asked if I'd seen anything like it before. I could only reply that I'd come all this way just to be reminded of Shepherd's Bush market.)
While no one could be happy on the Goldhawk Road, the Uxbridge Road, ten minutes away, is different. At the top of the market I'd buy a falafel and step into that wide West London street where the shops were Caribbean, Polish, Kashmiri, Somali. Along from the police station was the mosque, where, through the open door, you could see rows of shoes and men praying. Behind it was the football ground, QPR, where Rafi and I went sometimes, to be disappointed. Recently one of the shops was sprayed with gunfire. Not long ago a boy cycled past Josephine and plucked her phone from her hand. But otherwise the 'hood was remarkably calm though industrious, with most people busy with schemes and selling. I was surprised there wasn't more violence, considering how combustible the parts were.
It was my desire, so far unfulfilled, to live in luxury in the poorest and most mixed part of town. It always cheered me to walk here. This wasn't the ghetto; the ghetto was Belgravia, Knightsbridge and parts of Notting Hill. This was London as a world city.
Before we parted, Henry said, "Jamal, you know, one of the worst things that can happen to an actor is that he gets onstage and there's no excitement, only boredom. He'd rather be anywhere else and there's still the storm scene to get through. The words and gestures are empty, and how is this not going to be communicated? I'll admit this to you, though it is hard for me to say and I am ashamed. I have had my fair share of one-night stands. Aren't strangers' bodies terrifying! But I haven't slept with a woman properly for five years."
"Is that all? It'll return, your appetite. You know that."
"It's too late. Isn't it true that a person incapable of love and sex is incapable of life? Already I'm smelling of death."
"That odour is your lunch. In fact, I suspect your appetite has already come back. That's why you're so restless."
"If it doesn't, it's goodbye," he said, drawing his finger across his throat. "That's not a threat, it's a promise."
"I'll see what I can do," I said, "in both matters."
"You're a true friend."
"Leave the entertainment to me."
Copyright © 2008 by Hanif Kureishi
Meet the Author
Hanif Kureishi won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for The Buddha of Suburbia and was twice nominated for Oscars for best original screenplay (My Beautiful Laundrette and Venus, which starred Peter O’Toole). In 2010 Kureishi received the prestigious PEN/Pinter Prize. He lives in London.
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This is the one book that I couldn't finish. Usually with a book I don't enjoy, I force myself through it to have at least completed it. Unfortunately, this novel was so outlandish that I couldn't survive it. The characters lacked development. At nearly halfway through the story, I still was waiting for the plot. This was one I would have liked to return...