Tuesday, 13 October 1998

Hanif Kureishi: The Black Album (1995)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1995
The Black Album cover
Review number: 135

Like Kureishi's earlier novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, The Black Album deals with the issues surrounding growing up in London as a young man of Asian background. It is set just over a decade later, in the summer of 1989. It is a darker novel; the setting is rather more sordid (student digs in Kilburn rather than a rich house in West London), and the forces of racism against Sahid are now matched by the growing strength of Islamic fundamentalism, in the year that the fatwah was declared against Salman Rushdie.  

The clash between Islam and Western liberal culture is one of the main themes of the novel. As a student, Sahid is being taught the value of the intellect, that censorship is a crime, and the vague Marxism common among British intellectuals. At the college, there is a group of Islamic fundamentalists; to begin with, Sahid values being part of their group, as it is putting him in touch with the religion and culture of his forbears (though, as his sister-in-law reminds him, the upper classes in Pakistan viewed Islam mainly as a way to keep the lower classes under control). The third force in his life is the drug culture which came out of the raves that made 1988 known as a second 'summer of love'.

The forces confusing Sahid are symbolised and concentrated in the three most important people in his life: his tutor and lover Deidre (Deedee) Osgood; Riaz, the guru of the Islamic group' and Chili, his brother. His conflicting loyalties come to a head over a demonstration by the students at which the Satanic Verses is to be burned; this arouses Sahid's unhappiness with some of the ideas of Riaz's group, as a book lover and an admirer of Rushdie's earlier Midnight's Children. The tensions this creates lead to the group discovering his relationship with Deedee and the drug taking, neither considered to be actions appropriate for a committed fundamentalist Muslim.

It is clear that Kureishi has little sympathy for the fundamentalists; this antipathy of a provocative author of fiction towards anyone who advocates book-burning is understandable. It is quite easy to provoke contempt for them in his readers - a scene where one of the other members of the group asks Sahid to tell him what value a book has, and responses to the reply that they make you think by questioning the value of thinking is one example. The novel generally is a convincing portrayal of the rootlessness probably felt by many British Asians.

The title comes from an album by Prince, itself a response to the Beatles' White Album, proclaiming his own racial identity.

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