When I read Kureishi’s first novel The Buddha of Suburbia I loved it so much that I pressed copies of it into my friends’ hands willing them to like it as much as I had. How exciting then to be given Kureishi’s latest (and possibly last?) novel The Last Word.
Mamood is an Indian born writer now in his seventies, with a great reputation as a writer and an even more fearsome one as a man. He has a new young wife, Liana, with expensive tastes, but a fall in book sales has led to a severely depleted income. Harry, a young writer, is chosen to write Mamood’s biography because he is ‘the cheapest of the decent’ and the one Liana feels can be intimidated into writing the biography they want to stimulate new interest in Mamood’s work. Harry too has recently realised the benefits in being ‘well off’ and as Rob, his editor, points out his fate will be terrible if he fails with this book: he’ll ‘have to teach creative writing… being lost forever in a dark forest of uncompleted first novels that require your total concentration’ – the joke here is that Kureishi himself is a Professor of creative writing. They all, therefore, want something from this biography. Harry who admires Mamood wants to write a serious book that reveals the truth of the man, his work and his life. Rob wants something salacious and sexy that will sell and Mamood seems to want something else entirely, often that it is not written at all. Harry decamps to Mamood’s house in the West Country and in the suffocating atmosphere attempts to uncover the life of the man, but who will have the last word?
In the course of his research Harry tells Mamood that he’s
‘learned something. You taught me that it’s frustration which makes creativity possible. You wrestle with the material, and become inventive, even visionary’.
This is an area Kureishi has explored recently in an article in The Daily Telegraph, using Kafka’s Metamorphosis as an example. He says how Kafka had turned ‘the emergency of his life’ into a metaphor: Gregor Samsa finding one morning that he’s turned into a dung beetle, and in doing so put ‘the malady in the reader so that it might change our lives’. Through Mamood, Kureishi pushes Harry to the limits of his endurance, seemingly to create a similar crisis so that he’s able to become equally creative and inventive and write a worthy biography of the man he ‘had at one time, wanted to become’, to be as daring and brave a writer as the writer he admires. Whether Harry succeeds or not is a moot point.
Kureishi also forces us to consider the problems inherent in writing a biography of a living person. Rob explains ‘that it was an advantage and a nuisance writing about someone who was alive’. Mamood is obviously available to help Harry, but Harry’s also open to manipulation by both Mamood and those around him who want to twist Harry into writing their own versions of the truth. This conflict creates much of the humour in the novel, but often this descends into slapstick and isn’t always as funny as perhaps it would like to be.
Any Cop?: The Last Word is a sometimes humorous book that has some interesting things to say about the creative process and the writing of biography in particular, but the book often falls into silliness, the characters aren’t as impressive as they’d like to be and the prose at times often fails to impress (‘You are a succulent woman, juicy as a dolphin’?). So as a book that you’re likely to press into the hands of your friends? Not so much.