A Tangled Knot

Review of Hanif Kureshi's novel 'The Black Album' by Anita Nair

The novel follows the life of a young man named Shahid, who moves from the outskirts to an inner-city London area, and encounters a turbulent ride through a world of religion, racism, drugs and love

Divisions of nationality, regardless of the country you live in, can be identified through ethnic, religious and cultural class lines.  As a result of multicultural societies, racism and conflict has grown between ethnic groups.  Hanif Kureshi's ‘The Black Album’ is a novel that is set against a backdrop of social issues that are linked to race, religion and culture.

Kureshi was born in 1955, in the white suburban area of Bromley, Kent.  His dad was Gujarathi, Muslim, and thus living on the outskirts of south London, i.e. National Front areas such as Lewisham, he was prone to racist abuse.  In the early 70s he had his first experience of racism following Enoch Powell's speech on immigration on 20th April 1968; 'like the Romans, I seem to see the River Tibet flowing with much blood'.  He felt like an outsider.  In 1980 he began writing for the Royal Court theatre.  His first essay was, 'The Rainbow Sign but he got his big break in 1984 with, My Beautiful Laundrette; criticising Thatcherite culture.  In 1987 he wrote, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid reflecting the plight of the Inner-city areas, it was criticised as betraying English heritage of films.  Thus his work can be seen to be politically enforced as well as ensuring controversy.  His book, ‘Buddha Of Suburbia’, was written in 1990, for which he won the Whitbread Prize for best first novel, which was later adapted for television.

'The Black Album’, was published in 1994 but was set in 1989.  The Black Album was seen to explore, possibilities and effects of a search for freedom and personal liberty.  Essentially, the novel follows the life of a young man named Shahid, who moves from the outskirts to an inner-city London area, and encounters a turbulent ride through a world of religion, racism, drugs and love.  It explores areas of art and literature and portrays fundamentalism as amoral, i.e. the burning of books.

The book conveys messages of religion, politics, education, sexuality, love and leisure.  Race, culture and religion dominate the novel and they arguably can be considered as being one and the same.  Colonisation and inter-racial mixing mean that there are no simple racial distinctive groups justify.  Physical and cultural differences however, are the basis for social definitions of ethnic difference.  In ethnic groups shared culture is usually linked to national and religious identity.  The belief of ethnic inferiority is an ethnocentric perception, traced back to imperialism and colonial rule, in an effort to justify their conquests and exploitation of other social groups.

Even though the times when Kureshi grew up were liberating, tension still resided for the blacks and the Asians in all sections of society.  Kureshi presents race in its extreme forms, he contrasts the white middle class, western image of Didi, with the fundamentalist working class image of Riaz and his militant group and Chili's representation of a 'high classed businessman', wearing a slick grey suit.  His 'crocodile shoes’, is flawed by the fad that he lives off drug money, is a womaniser and also an alcohol and drug abuser.  Hence, in comparison especially to the group, Shahid and Didi remain to be the only pragmatic characters represented with little defects.  However, in pursuing the immoral love of his married teacher, Shahid is eventually outcast as a spy by Riaz's group and Didi chastised as an evil influence.  This highlights the issue of race and interracial relationships.  Ironically, Riaz's cult are fighting for equality In a multicultural society, however it is their narrow-mindedness which ignites the issue of racism.

Religion is used as a form of security for Shahid, in order to fit into society.  It is this acceptance which he sought, later entrapped him.  As he learnt more about the group, his feeling of dislocation grew.  Religion was not firmly instilled in Shahid and his older brother Chili by their materialistic ‘papa’, when they were young, enjoying drinking and eating ham, considered taboo in the Muslim religion.  When the religious enthusiasm is so strong it envelopes every aspect of life.  This is reflected in the words of Shahid to Didi, “I want to follow rules”, and when she questions, “even if they are foolish?”, he replies, “there must be a reason for them.  Those rules have been followed by millions of people for hundreds or years”.  It can henceforth be seen that in their strive for freedom, they limit themselves of free thinking, causing the whole race to act in a fanatical, brainwashed manner.  The scene of the burning of the book, presumed to be Salmon Rushdie's ‘The Satanic Verses’, by Riaz's gang highlights their fanatic, ignorance and blind faith.  When queried, ‘did you read the book?’, no one could reply.  Thus their anger is simply aroused because the book attacks established ways of the Muslim community.  However, when the reasoning voice of Shahid asks, ‘Isn't the individual voice important?’ the reply from Riaz is, 'The importance of faith is deeper than the ravings of one individual's imagination'.  Zulma, Chili's wife, cannot stand their lack of freedom within the community, warning Shahid that, ‘Religion is for the benefit of the masses’.

Benefits of religion are also conveyed between Shahid and Didi's dialogue, Didi states ‘alcohol is one of the great pleasures’, where Shahid retorts, 'Is life just for pleasures?'.  Thus religion can be seen as part of the cultural system, giving meaning to life, answering mans questions about himself and the world he lives in.  Through Riaz and followers we witness the formation of religious cults.  These sects and cults are not a new phenomenon and have existed for centuries.  Despite this, most existing sects and cults originated in the twentieth century and the 1960's saw the appearance of many new organisations.  The growth of sects and cults can be explained either in terms of why particular individuals choose to join or in terms of wider social changes.  In reality these reasons are closely linked, for social changes affect the number of people available as potential recruits.

Culture primarily concerns the way in which we understand and relate to social situations.  The issue of culture is articulated in many ways throughout, ‘The Black Album’.  We are able to witness this in terms of leisure, and the euphoria of clubs and hence drug culture.  We witness this the first time Shahid and Didi go out.  It seems to fulfil a need for escapism for Didi, i.e. her marriage to Brownlow, and for Shahid in his need for acceptance.  This issue parallels that of religion, i.e. the mental ecstasy of drugs contrasted with that of praying or meditation, as it too serves as a form of escapism and acceptance, for Shahid at least.  Gender and sexuality provides an issue of exploitation (it is not clear of who) unconventional gender culture and need for acceptance, i.e., Shahid, Didi and her husband.  When Didi questions what Shahid's friends think of her, he replies, 'they don't discuss women, they just respect them'.  Zulma personifies the image of a ‘good Muslim wife’, beautiful, talented, obedient to her father-in-law and husband.

The continual theme of the novel is the culture of education.  It is through Shahid's pursuit of this, that the novel achieves its pinnacle, forming a 'bildungsroman' technique, i.e., a coming of age novel.  Through this, the reader along with Shahid attains an understanding of his allegorical journey towards self knowledge.  Individual characterisations all represent forces of the wider world in terms of race, politics and history.  Racial feelings of culture run high within the novel, thus English is used little in conversation between the group, preferring their mother tongue of Urdu.  Unlike Shahid, Riaz, could never consider England as his home believing, 'If we absorb western morals, it makes us individualistic', thus meaning that he would be too self concerned and unable to fight for his people.  Even Zulma, Shahid's sister-in-law remarks, 'when we are westernised, families bust up and we become like everyone else'.  Family unity is depicted as an important part of Asian culture, i.e., Zulma advises Shahid, to get back home and dedicate himself to helping their aged mother in running the family business.

It is indeed surprising how a sense of dedication and service can go with blind superstition.  'The Black'

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