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Hanif Kureishi is getting the last word on postmodern biography

To say this is not a book based on V S Naipaul is taking the mickey.

V S Naipaul in 1968. Photo: John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images

The Last Word
Hanif Kureishi
Faber & Faber, 286pp, £18.99

Hanif Kureishi’s new novel has attracted a great deal of pre-publication notice, not because it’s a new novel by Hanif Kureishi (whose recent work has, in truth, not been particularly newsworthy) but because the story revolves around a young writer commissioned to compile the autobiography of a crotchety and celebrated literary elder. The relationship between the two men closely mirrors that between V S Naipaul and Patrick French, whose 2008 authorised biography of the Nobel laureate, The World Is What it Is, was remarkable for its unflattering candour.

Kureishi’s grandee, Mamoon, is an Indian-born novelist turned English country gent with “a wide chest, goatee beard, black eyes” who is notorious for his brusqueness, his flamboyantly protective younger wife, his right-wingery and his uncompromising views on foreigners – despite being one himself. His first success as a writer is with “an amusing and well observed novel about his father”. Mamoon’s biographer, Harry, has written a biography of Nehru.

V S Naipaul, meanwhile, is a Trinidadian Indian with a wide chest, goatee beard, black eyes and so on. His first successful book was A House for Mr Biswas, a novel about his father. Patrick French has written about the founders of Indian independence. Although the similarities between Mamoon and Naipaul are too abundant to catalogue, Kureishi has claimed that his novel is not based on real people – which tips disingenuousness into taking the mickey.

Where once biography was a simple two-up two-down, it has these days been extended into a house of many mansions, and The Last Word could be seen as just the latest addition. To think of it, though, as an exercise in postmodernism or even as a roman-à-clef would be misleading: however many attributes Mamoon shares with Naipaul and however much the relationship between biographer and subject borrows from real life, the book is a fully imaginative endeavour.

So, in the fictional world, Mamoon needs money. His second wife, Liana, has expensive tastes and yearns for a flat in London as well as their pile in Somerset. Liana, an opera buffa figure with more than a hint of Nancy Dell’Olio about her, does not understand that a grand literary reputation does not mean equally lofty sales figures. Mamoon is “the sort of writer of whom people asked ‘Is he still alive do you know?”’. A biography offers the chance to confirm his continuing existence, shape his legacy and, above all, whip up interest in his books.

For Harry, “a nerdy connoisseur of sentences” who is nevertheless irresistible to women, Mamoon represents both a career-defining opportunity and a fraught one. As his publisher, Rob Deveraux (a boorish drunkard whose depiction must have elicited some nervous laughter in the Faber offices), puts it, if Harry doesn’t do a good job “you’ll be so fucked up you’ll have to get work as an academic”.

When Harry goes to stay with his subject in the country he finds himself beleaguered. He can hardly get Mamoon to talk to him (“You’re in the remembering business while I’m in the forgetting game”, Mamoon points out) while Liana flits between hectoring, flirting and neediness. Harry has to mine his material from the diaries of Mamoon’s callously treated first wife, Peggy (op cit Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia) and a later Colombian lover Marion (ibid Margaret Murray) with whom Mamoon had an unconventional sex life. To take his mind off his work, Harry has his fiancée, Alice, and Julia, a chav with a heart of gold who helps around the house.

The mystery in this country-house set-up is the game of cat and mouse between Mamoon and Harry, which Kureishi lays out with great aplomb. Who is really the subject and who the writer here? This is a novel conducted in dialogue and Mamoon gets the best lines, not least about writing itself: “Only women or poofs write now – otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomised by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” There are numerous instances when you sense Kureishi is using Mamoon to say the things he would really like to say in his own voice.

This verbal jousting, which eventually leads to a half-twist, takes the place of plot – drama is limited to Mamoon beating Harry about the head with a walking stick. Writing for both Mamoon and Harry – and presumably Kureishi, too – is a visceral business and the patter between all the characters has a sharp edge. It is not so visceral, however, that Kureishi forgets to be thoroughly entertaining or steer his conversations with great variety and skill. Biography, as he notes, “is a process of disillusionment”; fiction though, as he shows here, can be every bit as perceptive but also much funnier.