Hanif Kureishi’s father, like many fathers, hated his job (he was a clerk at the Pakistani Embassy in London). But unlike many fathers, he tried in his spare time to forge for himself an alternative, fulfilling career as a writer. He was proud, humiliated, persistent. He wrote at least four novels, all of which were turned down by publishers and agents. Kureishi recalls mornings in the family terraced home in Bromley: ‘I’d always had a paper round; I liked getting up early, when you could feel the quality of the air. Dad would be up and dressed already, writing at his desk in his suit before he left for work.’ The occasion that gives rise to My Ear at His Heart is the discovery of a manuscript written by his father in one of his agent’s filing cabinets. Entitled ‘An Indian Adolescence’, it is, Kureishi believes, the last novel his father wrote. Having been unearthed, the manuscript sits in the corner of Kureishi’s study for a while; he spends time ‘glancing at it, looking away, getting on with something else, thinking about it, doing nothing’ before finally settling down, with a cup of tea, to read it.
My Ear at His Heart is a memoir of Kureishi’s father and of himself as son; it is a meditation on the relationship between parents and children. The ties and the rows between fathers and sons are a theme Kureishi has been exploring throughout his writing life: in his novels, most noticeably in The Buddha of Suburbia, and in his screenplays, including My Beautiful Laundrette and My Son the Fanatic. His essay ‘Something Given: Reflections on Writing’, in his collection Dreaming and Scheming (2002), introduces his father the writer, ‘hammering at his big typewriter’, the sound ‘rocking the house’. With the discovery of ‘An Indian Adolescence’, Kureishi is ambushed into writing a much longer piece on his father and the writing life. The memoir becomes an act of self-analysis as much as a reassessment of his father:
For me, this has become a quest, for my place in father’s history and fantasy, and for the reasons my father lived the semi-broken life he did. I’m looking for the way in which a particular adult life is a response to childhood, an answer to the questions that a particular childhood asked. From this point of view an adult is someone who had an overwhelming childhood, and renewal means remembering, filling in the gaps, in order to forget for good.
Kureishi’s book fills in these gaps, as he uncovers facts he never knew about his father – facts that seem to fit. On the other hand, it always seems unlikely that he’s going to ‘forget for good’: is this a reflexive assumption about the value of confession, that once something has been spoken it can be put away? Does he really want to forget?
‘An Indian Adolescence’ opens with 16-year-old Shani, a thinly disguised self-portrait (‘my father’s nickname was “Shannoo”’), alone in the family home in Poona with his mother while removal men pack up their belongings: his father has recently resigned as an army doctor and bought a soap factory, and the family are off to Bombay. Shani wanders through the house and into the garden, wondering what will happen to them all, and Kureishi quotes this attractive passage: ‘As he walked, he touched the trees – tamarind, mango, neem, peepul and the spreading Banyan. Under them he had studied, chatted, joked and ate raw mangoes with his friends, and was sad that he was leaving them.’ The strange grammar aside, the direct quotations from ‘An Indian Adolescence’ are occasionally strong. Would other quotations have given a different impression?
There’s no way of knowing, but Kureishi has successfully framed his father’s story within his own narrative in an attempt to control our response to it. He points out the faults of ‘An Indian Adolescence’ early on: his father, he tells us, isn’t good at arranging his material; his story drifts, ‘by “mistake”’, from first to third-person narrator. (The quotes around the word ‘mistake’ dangle perplexingly: presumably they mean the mistakes are deliberate, but if they are deliberate, what exactly is their intention? Or are they merely the son’s insertion, defensive of the father?) Kureishi seems to be pre-emptively shielding his father from a too-critical examination, but at the same time he is hustling him into the world, turning the father into the public writer he wanted to be while making his own decisions about how that writer should be read. Kureishi is aware of the difficulty. He reports a conversation his father had with his own agent, who suggested that Kureishi senior might find it easier to find a publisher if he described the book as a memoir rather than fiction. But ‘father continued to argue that it was fiction. “I am sticking to my guns over this,” he said firmly.’ Kureishi junior writes: ‘Perhaps father needed it to be a novel because it contained so much truth.’ It’s worth remembering that no one who isn’t a Kureishi could possibly recognise how much truth the manuscript contains – even Hanif has to do a little detective work to establish which real-life people some of the more minor characters are based on – and that if the father had had his way, and the book was being read as fiction by an unfamiliar public, no one would have been any the wiser.
It’s clear how important Kureishi senior the part-time writer was to his published and successful son, and how much his son respected him. Kureishi mentions ‘a narrative’ he had discussed with his father: ‘Can a parent choose their child’s sexual partner and, if they do, what are the consequences?’ They each, as it turns out, wrote this up: the father in ‘The Redundant Man’ and ‘Grocer and Son’, the son in The Buddha of Suburbia. But the father’s texts are chopped up and it’s hard to get a sense of them here. This is a typical piece of plot summary:
The chapter ends with Shani, who we learn is school cricket captain, being begged by a boy called Visram, the son of a powerful and influential man, to be included in the cricket team. When my father refuses – the kid can’t play well – Visram’s mother visits the family house in order to have it out with my very religious grandmother, Bibi – a woman I never met. I want to know more about her.
‘Shani’ metamorphoses quietly into ‘my father’, and Shani’s mother becomes ‘my very religious grandmother’, ‘a woman I never met’: the identifications are no doubt accurate, but the summary spirals out from the book to ask further questions, questions other readers might not need to ask. Some of the summaries (there are several) are given an ironic and reductive slant: ‘So far in the course of this story, Shani has moved from one city to another, lost his virginity to a prostitute, been responsible for burning a policeman to death, saved a friend from arrest and kissed the girl he is in love with.’ The plot, it seems, moves easily from childhood elegy to adult sexuality to world affairs. Perhaps, without Kureishi’s protective mediation, it isn’t such a wonderful book.
What really sparkles in My Ear at His Heart is what is written around the father’s text. London is prominent in Kureishi’s memoir, as it is in all his writing. His father writes about exotic and romanticised versions of Poona and Bombay; Kureishi gives us London in all its unsummarisable localness. His father’s elegant descriptions of his family home with its lush fruit trees are intercut with Kureishi’s descriptions of the North London street where he raises his own sons: ‘Wealthy families with au pairs and cleaners own some houses, but many are still divided into flats. Next door lives a Spanish madman who suspends his washing out of the window on a piece of string. He causes a row when he wrings out his wet underpants over the head of a builder working below.’ A Somalian drinks beer and talks politics in a nearby park; there are smart bars and old pubs; the hairdressers are Portuguese. Kureishi, a child of the suburbs, is constantly fascinated by London, a city he has written memorably about (his influence can be felt in such recent novels as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth). But he’s never written about it quite as well as he does here: the grime and grit that drive the episodes of The Black Album, for instance (‘Two people lay end to end in a rain-swept doorway under a mound of newspapers and cardboard; empty cider bottles stood at their head like skittles. The streets of deserted burger bars, kebab houses and shuttered shop fronts mocked him, as they did, he realised, anyone who’d contrived no escape’), are replaced in My Ear at His Heart by the undramatic presentness of places.
Kureishi does more than decode his father’s writing: he uses it as a launch-pad. When, in ‘An Indian Adolescence’, Shani’s mother is visited by the mother eager to promote her son’s sporting talent, Kureishi shifts in his own story into a digression (in the manner of his father’s many digressions) on his father and cricket. Kureishi’s father originally wanted him to be a professional cricketer; he was useless at the game, but
Father persisted and would take me around cricket clubs in Kent, trying to get me a game, which he did, on occasions. Far from any bus stop there would be rotting pavilions which smelled of socks; there’d be big West Indian fast bowlers, cucumber sandwiches and milky tea. Dad would stand on the boundary watching, shouting instructions and encouragement, as I, usually freezing cold, struggled not to fail, attempting not to make him disappointed, knowing he could do better than I.
This plausible Naipaulian impression of England – never mind that it’s not the 1950s – is intriguingly complicated by the transposition of ‘Father’ into ‘Dad’ (from a combination of solidarity and a sense of duty), and that aspirational phrase, ‘he could do better than I.’ The young Kureishi is trying hard, and trying hard to please.
Kureishi’s father couldn’t help telling his son what to do: his son was an ally, a prop, but also a continuation of himself. The son was to be a successful version of the father. Accordingly, the idea of the son as cricketer was quickly replaced by the idea of the son as writer (cricketers’ careers end too early). Luckily, Kureishi was comfortable with this idea from the beginning, and in the course of his research he is surprised to discover notebooks he had written in from the age of nine. But the early acquiescence or delight seems to have given way to a form of competitiveness: Kureishi never read his father’s work while his father was alive, and couldn’t bear to think of what his father might say about his own writing, so kept it to himself.
As ‘An Indian Adolescence’ comes to its faltering end, Kureishi turns to his uncle Omar’s memoirs to help continue his father’s story. Through them, he discovers that his father left India for Britain earlier than he thought. ‘My brother Shannoo,’ Omar writes, ‘had left for Glasgow to study Marine Engineering. Fat chance he had of becoming a marine engineer. He had wanted to be a writer.’ But the uncle’s story is important not only for the gaps it fills. Omar, it becomes clear, is an alternative father figure. Later, in England, Kureishi’s father is bedridden after many heart operations; Omar, in Pakistan, is a successful writer and journalist, and his memoirs are bestsellers. Omar, however, is a role model Kureishi’s father is anxious for his son to resist, just as the bedridden father in My Beautiful Laundrette is desperate for his son not to turn out like his financially successful but morally bankrupt brother. Kureishi realises that his father
might want me to be successful, as his father had required him to be, but he was afraid of me becoming too powerful or rivalrous. He didn’t, for instance, want me to turn into his brother who was more talented and, moreover, something of a boaster and show-off, a man who could bear being enviable. If I was to be a brother to Dad, I had to be the weak, little one, the role he had had thrust on him. At the same time, I had to be good company, and educable. Really, I was to be like him in every way; if we deviated, there would be trouble.
Towards the end, as Kureishi senior grows iller and eventually dies, My Ear at His Heart becomes an account of Kureishi’s own writing life: this is, after all, the legacy his father has left him. Experience (the cricket grounds of Kent, his first girlfriend) gives way to work; and the work, Kureishi says, ‘is not a reflection of experience so much as a substitute for it’: reimagining, or daydreaming, or fantasy.
Kureishi’s account is littered with famous names (Philip Roth tells him he should stick to fiction rather than films because of his verbal precision; Raymond Carver appears at Bill Buford’s for dinner; Claire Bloom has a passing and unjustified role). If there’s an excuse for the name-dropping, it’s Kureishi’s belief that a writer must have an intelligent and involved audience, something his father never had. ‘One thing you do need in order to write,’ he says, ‘is to have others around you who are writing too, books you admire.’ Writers ‘have to find good readers, friends who can grasp what they’re trying to do’. ‘No writer can afford to forget that a good story is always irresistible, that it is narrative rather than aesthetics which compel.’ These injunctions betray his father’s influence: he dispenses advice, is interested in the craft and the problems of writing. There are two things, Kureishi thinks, that his father couldn’t manage: he never had readers, and he couldn’t do narrative.
Kureishi can’t exactly do narrative either: his plots are predicated on bold oppositions, between parents and children, immigrants and the settled, the sexualised and the repressed. They are neat and formal: from the premise, clear consequences follow, often in a series of episodes. For Kureishi, there is something infuriatingly not neat about his father’s involvement in his own story. He is furious when a later version of his father’s novel turns up at his mother’s house; he badly wants the story to be over, to be able to move on to other things, and yet he has to go back to his memoir, to add another chapter taking in the new manuscript, disclosing the information it holds: that his grandfather was cruel and a womaniser; that his father was a lonely child, and unwanted by his parents. (‘Opening the green folder and reading, I discovered that my father had been writing for years about what it was like to be unwanted, and to have a more talented and favoured elder sibling.’) He can’t put his father away so easily – fathers can’t be put away so easily – and this is one of the things that makes My Ear At His Heart so remarkable and so complex, its living material constantly moving beyond Kureishi’s reach. He wants to ‘forget for good’, but he will never be done with this story. The book finishes implausibly, as if Kureishi realises the futility of trying to wrap it up; the last lines read like a parody of a cheap ending: ‘I slip Dad’s manuscript back into its green folder, place it under a pile of papers, and walk away, out of the room.’ These things aren’t over; nor should they be.