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March 25, 2013 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Black Album – Hanif Kureishi

Set in 1989 against a backdrop of fear, aggression and anxiety, Hanif Kureishi’s 1995 the Black album skilfully explores a Britain in flux: Thatcher’s reign nearing its end, the Berlin Wall crumbling, the country continuing to reconcile itself with the collapse of empire. The novel’s title, taken from the eponymous Prince album, is emblematic of an American cultural imperialism taking hold in Britain, a shift Kureishi chooses to celebrate, while also examining the consequences of a growing heterogeneity among Britons.

As a second-generation Pakistani-Brit, Shahid Hasan shares in this hybridity. Beginning the novel attending a subpar university, housed in a dormitory block “filled with Africans, Irish people, Pakistanis and even a group of English students” he soon meets the charismatic Riaz Al-hussain, who employs Shahid as part of an anti-racism campaign turned fundamentalist group. Even from this first meeting, Riaz and the reader are able to see Shahid’s essential weakness as a character—his malleability.

Much of the novel is concerned with this flaw. When Shahid embarks on an affair with his Cultural Studies lecturer, Deedee Osgood, he begins a pattern of fluctuating between her hedonism and Riaz’s piety. Herein lies the book’s weakness. Deedee’s episodes of drug taking and descriptions of sex seem intent on being unconventional, eventually becoming distractions from the plot, and Riaz’s comrades sometimes become weak caricatures. This possesses none of the warm humour of Kureishi’s earlier works, at times he borders on facetiousness.

Where the novel redeems itself is in bringing cultural intersections to the fore: Deedee’s late-second wave feminism creating a tendency to orientalise Shahid, an examination of the changing role of language and literature – framed by the Rushdie Fatwa – and the impotence of the left in arguments over free speech and respect. Read in a post-9/11, post-Iraq context, The Black Album acts as a pertinent reminder of two decades of continued systematic alienation; an atmosphere in which identity is so fragile that hostility is allowed to ferment. It doesn’t have any answers to persisting post-colonial identity crises, but it illuminates a time and place close to our own, managing to eloquently discuss ideas often left unexplored.

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