Sometime before the world began perceiving him as a once-brilliant success-cliché who’d simply gone stark raving mad and taken to penning scathing novellas about intolerable ex-wives, Hanif Kureishi produced his debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia – a curiously satirical work that drew almost entirely from Kureishi’s own tumultuous teenage years growing up in the suburbs of South London.
The book is an-almost Bildungsroman of sorts, as it is the chronicle of a short time in the life of half-Indian teenager Karim Amir, (‘an Englishman born and bred. Almost.’) whose narration is a sardonic account of the in-between-ness of his origins: suburban, non-white, (‘more beige than anything’). Pop music, sexual explicitness and suburban self-denial come together in a raucous clash of cultures in ‘70s Tory England, with little doubt as to which side Karim favours.
So what sets Karim apart from the legions of leather-and-Levi’s clad punk heroes found in Beatnik literature, sniffing in disdain at the inanities of suburbia? Young, disrespectful and suspicious of bourgeois working-class pretensions, Kureishi creates in Karim a peculiar anti-hero who is vain, foolish and prone to too many chatty exclamations of hyperbole and superficial witticisms, but somehow rises to any satirical occasion with a laconic, exaggerated insight that is uncomfortably close to the truth.
The ‘Suburbia’ is Chislehurst, snug in its complacent manicured lawns, racist attacks on Pakistanis, and absurd fascination with all things Oriental and exotic, where deadly conformity rules supreme and deviations from established norms are not tolerated kindly.
The ’Buddha’ in the title refers to Haroon, Karim’s father, buttoned-up bureaucrat by day and velvet-waistcoat-clad-mystic yogi by night, dispensing a vague mish-mash of Buddhist and yogic philosophy to suburban yuppies seeking redemption of a higher call than polished wood flooring. Haroon’s mystic stint and eventual relationship with the dilettantish Eva Kay, opens up a world of staggering new possibilities for Karim, as it is she who unfolds the world for his restless ignorance to delve into.
Eva’s unforgivably cool son, Charles, a mediocre musician, with his platinum blonde hair and emotional coldness, is the sexual focus of Karim’s Chislehurst years, who later markets himself as a punk rocker Charlie Hero to the musically forgiving Americans.
It is in London, less than 20 miles away but an alternative universe itself with its hot promise of endless drugs, sex and excitement, that Karim eventually discovers a talent for acting and develops the first of many disillusionments with love and politics. Karim’s maturity can be measured by the distance he travels from Chislehurst, and the perspective he gains on Charlie.
Kureishi’s beginnings as a playwright make plenty of appearances in the technique and narrative of the novel, evident in the precedence of speech over description. Karim’s calculated colloquialisms and the ambiguity between speech and thought are liberally interspersed with mock-dramatic cliché and theatrical narcissism. The comedy of the novel relies on the narrator’s determination to stay on the surface of things – to combine candour with caricature, espousing an irreverent take on his surroundings while remaining absolutely straight-faced.
“Perhaps in the future I would live more deeply,” he says with comic solemnity as the novel ends, “But that is not for now”.