Mamoon is an ageing literary legend, born in India, pushed by his father to get the best education in England, where he settled down, and became more English than the English. He has been acclaimed for decades for his brilliant art and incisive political commentary, which, incidentally, seem to be full of the sort of dismissive conservatism that few white English writers would dare express anymore. Harry is a promiscuous young writer, white and English, brought up in metropolitan, multicultural London by left-leaning parents. When Harry is commissioned by Rob, an eccentric publisher, to write the official biography of Mamoon, he finds himself in a country cottage, faced by ghosts from his and Mamoon’s past, Mamoon’s socially ambitious second wife, and the great writer himself, whose literary brilliance has been matched by a genius for brutally running down other people.
Does it ring a bell? If you read on, it will: for instance, when you meet Mamoon’s dead English wife—a devoted editor and promoter of his work, who is slowly left behind by the increasingly successful writer, but never totally abandoned. Or when you meet his South American lover, whom Mamoon, no knight in shining armour, abandons to marry his second wife, a younger Italian woman who, surprisingly, sounds almost Pakistani at times. Surely, this is an oversight? As is the fact that Kureishi’s narration of Mamoon’s background in India remains consciously unconvincing: how many Indian schools have school nurses? No, some knowing readers might say, they do ring a familiar bell.
Whatever they might be, the fact remains that, at its best, The Last Word presents a narrative vaster than just the tinkle of that gossipy bell. What is the past, and how does it distort the present—or vice versa? What are the wellsprings of genius, if any? How can one be true to oneself without being false to others? What is fact and what is fiction, and what is their relationship? Is there a muse, or is there only Eros? These, and other questions, are raised by this funny novel, narrated at a rip-roaring pace by Kureishi. In at least the first half, Kureishi has written a major comic novel, frothy and hilarious. The second half does not match the first half—a common complaint I have with many of Kureishi’s novels, which tend to accelerate so much in the second half as to leave the slower bits and pieces of their characters behind.
Still, I read this novel at a stretch and with great enjoyment. It might well be his best novel since The Black Album. Like the great male stars of Bollywood—Dilip Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh, Shahrukh—who start off with something like flashes of genius and then usually end up playing caricatures of themselves, many of the big South Asian names (male too) of the older generation have been writing weak copies of their earlier novels. Not Kureishi. His art stands renewed in this novel, and his language retains its vigour: “The madness of writing was the antidote to true madness”.