The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

buddhaeHanif Kureishi’s novel is set in the 1970s in England, in a turbulent era when everything kept changing and evolving, and new political and cultural movements regularly surfaced overnight. The story deals with a single family and their circle of friends who all come from different backgrounds and nationalities (English and Indian; working-class and elite) and who all try to find their way in life and fulfill their potentials in very different ways.

The protagonist and narrator of the novel is Karim, a boy coming from an Indian and English family background, who lives in one of the bleak and boring suburbs of London. At the beginning of the story, his father – a fake Indian guru pretending to be a wise „Buddha” – leaves his family to start a new life with Eva, a wannabe artist whose main ambition is to move in to the „real” London and find herself a place in the artistic world of the city. The falling apart of his family takes its toll on Karim, and it’s probably due to this that he grows up to be an exceptionally troubled young man. He tries himself in a lot of roles and tries to adapt to several different cultural and artistic scenes (e.g. he tries his hands in acting; he becomes a punk for a while; he moves in together with a bunch of hippies), but he never feels at home – in fact, Karim is always on the road but never arrives anywhere.

But Karim is not the only one in the novel who lives like this – every single character constantly feels the urge to change (the world or themselves), no matter how old they are or what their situation in life is. Karim’s father, for instance starts out as an assiduous clerk and ends up as the „Buddha of Suburbia”, preaching the importance of spirituality; Karim’s childhood friend, Jamila, who lives in a prearranged marriage with a husband she doesn’t care about becomes a hippie; and his mother, who contentedly lived the life of a „simple” wife and shop assistant suddenly chooses a new vocation for herself when her husband leaves her. And so on.

Kureishi does a very good job depicting the atmosphere of England in the 1970, and he also writes in a convincing fashion about the way natives and immigrants, artists and wannabe artists, anarchists, communists, hippies and punks lived their life. The novel is full of that mood which The Smashing Pumpkins describes as the „urgency of now” in their song „1979”: the characters are restless, their minds are full of plans and they want self-realization – but immediately. Thanks to this, this is not a novel to get lost in: everything happens too quickly, but I often get the feeling as if I were missing out on the „real” events, the real moment, or as if the whole novel were only the introduction to something „big”, and real life would only start after the end of the story. This feeling is all the more powerful because in several cases we are not shown what happens – we only hear about it. For instance, Karim once talks about being seriously depressed, but his depression is barely perceptible, we only know about it because he mentions his condition – and this I may or may not believe. What I mean is that not only do we miss out on the events but also on the reality of the characters – but it’s not that surprising, given the fact that they themselves miss out on their own lives, being forever occupied with changing something, and they tend to forever postpone the start of their „real” life.

Because of all this, The Buddha of Suburbia is a very annoying and frustrating read – it’s definitely not pleasant to try to live the lives of characters who in turn refuse to live their own lives. Moreover, I haven’t for a long time met as disagreeable a narrator as Karim. Anyway, as a portrait of an era and its general mood, this is a very good book.

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Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi

There are a couple of books which get better and better with each re-reading. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, or The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald are such books for me. And Hanif Kureishi’s Intimacy is also such a book. This was the third time I read it, and it’s slowly becoming one of those books I must re-read every two or three years.

The narrator of Intimacy is Jay, a man in his forties, and the book tells the story of a single night, „the saddest night”. The night is sad because Jay is planning to leave his long-term partner, Susan and their two children on the following morning. Jay uses the eve of his take-off to glance back at the years he has spent with Susan and to think about his feelings, motivations, desires, fear and frustration – and this way make sure that he really has to go.

One of the good things in Intimacy is that it’s a novel – and I don’t really care if it features many autobiographical elements. Since Intimacy is a novel, I don’t have to care about „real” questions: I don’t have to censure Jay for the ugly deed he is about to perform, and I don’t have to wonder how his decision will affect Susan’s and the children’s life – not to mention his own.

Sure, Jay is a rather disagreeable, immoral, selfish, pathetic and cowardly man – but I can perfectly understand his feelings, his arguments, his selfishness, his itchiness and his great desire for the new and the exciting – and in the case of a novel, this is what counts for me, because I can moralize about questions of e.g. children growing up in broken homes enough in reality.

Intimacy is an embarrassing, sometimes uncomfortably honest novel – something like Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. This novel can encourage the reader to openly acknowledge thoughts and fears he usually only thinks about when he’s all alone, lying awake in the middle of the night, but would never tell anyone. Of course I won’t air any such thoughts here, but let me mention an example from the book which sheds some light on what I’m thinking of.

We learn from Jay’s reminiscences that at one point in their relationship, he and Susan attended couple counseling sessions. During one of the sessions, Jay mentions that Susan no longer kindles any interest in him. Then the counselor tells him it’s perfectly natural that the original fire disappears from a long-term relationship after a while, but there are good consolations for the loss of enthusiasm, for instance, contentment. Jay is absolutely flabbergasted by this reasoning – and to be honest, I’m not at all surprised to learn that someone doesn’t look for consolations in a relationship and that someone may think that contentment is not the best feeling a relationship can offer – but of course thoughts like this are not easy to admit.

And of course you don’t have to be an unfaithful forty-something man in order to understand Jay’s feelings, because everyone who ever left someone went through a very similar phase. Therefore even though Intimacy shows everything from a male perspective and the arguments in the book follow a kind of „male logic”, this is not a „men’s novel”. This is a human novel. And it’s a good one.