Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Karim lives with his English mother and ex-pat Indian father. That is, at least until his father starts to attain some reputation as a wise Oriental in their suburban English neighbourhood. (I'm using Oriental intentionally, with the reference to Orientalism, the romanticization of the other, and the mishmash of different traditions the father combines.) Then he leaves his wife for a younger woman. Meanwhile, Karim tries to become an actor, and encounters all sorts of stereotypes of what he should be and what roles are available for him to play. His cousin is faced with an arranged marriage, with her father bringing over a prospective bridegroom from India, and although she marries him, the results are fairly far from what you could imagine.

This book was a lot of fun. It has that wryly English sense of humour. Through Karim, muddling through playing Mowgli in the Jungle Book, his attachment to his father's new girlfriend, guilt about his mother, his stepbrother's move from mediocre musician to punk icon, the book captures a certain time period in England, and mixes in second-generation immigrant issues. And a lot of sex.

I feel like I'm doing a lousy job of explaining the feel of this book. It's frequently very funny, and the eye Kureishi turns on all his characters, no matter their background, is sharp and merciless, yet somehow never cruel. Karim at one point runs into an issue where he can't portray the character he wants to in a collective creation, even though he has based it on his uncle, because another cast member objects to how it shows non-white people in a negative light. Kureishi accepts no such limitations.

And yet, you fall for these characters anyway, because their foibles make them endearing, and their mucking about, trying to find themselves in many different ways are entertaining and sometimes touching. Life doesn't unfold the way you want it to. Life is frequently more absurd than you thought possible. And failure happens, and doesn't have to be the end of the world. Success can be measured a hundred different ways. And perhaps neither is as important as we think.

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