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(Re)Mapping the centres Membership and State

Trevor Harris

Epic Realism and the Western Canon in Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia

Philip Whyte

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1In the opening lines of Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Buddha of Suburbia (1990), the central protagonist, a young Anglo-Pakistani pop fan, proclaims his desire to exchange his mediocre lower-middle class existence in the London suburbs for a life of adventure: "I was ready for anything". Right from the beginning, the novel thus announces the contemporaneity of its themes, based on racial and cultural hybridity, while proclaiming its affiliation to the conflict between individual aspirations and social pressures which constitutes one of the topoi of the traditional realist novel. This affiliation is explicitly proclaimed by Kureishi in his preface to the anthology of pop writing, The Faber Book of Pop (1995), when he reiterates Tom Wolfe’s regret that the "tremendous social upheavals of the post-war world" – had not yet found their Balzac or their Dickens (Kureishi, 1995, xvii).

2This nostalgia for the Western canon seems paradoxical on the part of a second generation immigrant and exuberant baby-boomer whom one may readily associate with the centrifugal forces which have contributed to pushing Britain away from the historical pre-eminence established during the Victorian period. One of the most spectacular symptoms of this process is constituted by the presence in Britain of immigrant populations long confined to the periphery of the Empire.

3It is hardly surprising that much literary criticism since the war has been devoted to examining the evolution of the realist novel itself considered, along with the Empire, as one of the bastions of Victorianism. What emerges from these studies, however, is that Kureishi’s attitude is hardly exceptional among postwar British writers. Hence the continuing relevance of Margaret Drabble’s much-quoted remark concerning her wish to be "at the end of a... tradition" which she admires rather "than at the beginning of a tradition which [she] deplores" (Bergonzi, 1970, 78).

  • 1 A similar idea is expressed by Timothy Brennan: "It was the novel that histoncally accompanied the (...)

4Quite apart from the continuing thematic preoccupation with "the condition of England" question, one can only be struck by the extent to which the postwar fad for rewriting Victorianism implies a dependence on the continuing survival of some sort of communal memory. Attempts to explain this continuity have concentrated on the much documented permanence of certain aspects of a British society no doubt more insulated than others to the atrocities of recent history. In the words of George Orwell: "In Europe... things have been happening to middle-class people which in England do not even happen to the working class" (Orwell, 1961, 237). But recent criticism has also emphasised the role played by the nineteenth-century novel in forging a sense of national identity. Steven Connor, for example, relates what he calls the "teeming inclusiveness" of the social-realist novels of Dickens and others to these writers’ attempts to tackle the problem of "imagining the whole of a nation" (Connor, 1996, 44).1

5In a very real sense, The Buddha of Suburbia is also just such an attempt to "imagine the whole of a nation". Naturally, Kureishi’s aim is not to write in the manner of Dickens, which, as he says himself, would be mere pastiche; but his attack on modernist introspection in The Faber Book of Pop preface indicates that he has little inclination to go along with the centrifugal forces and write an account which would, as it were, mimic the disintegration of a world whose "centre cannot hold". He wishes, on the contrary, to contain the forces of change within the bounds of a coherent vision.

6In this article I wish first to examine briefly the strategies which the author adopts in his attempt to achieve his aim, before looking at some of the difficulties endemic to this type of enterprise.

7In spatial terms, centrality of perspective is announced by the author’s choice of a first-person narrator whose attributes – mixed blood, sexual ambivalence, classlessness – are designed to grant the reader access to a wide range of cultural and social milieux. In temporal terms, the novel’s plot is centred on the pivotal point at which the hopes raised by the prosperous sixties are being challenged by the social disintegration characteristic of the seventies. This spatio-temporal coherence is consolidated by the evolution of the narrator’s own life. In spatial terms his rise to fame as an actor follows a process which takes him from the suburban periphery to the social centres of upper-middle class London. Temporally, this process parallels Karim’s passage from enthusiastic adolescent to world-weary adult.

8Kureishi’s novel thus reproduces what Bakhtin refers to as the chronotope, the correlation of individual and historical development which he considers as the fundamental generic trait of the realist novel (Bakhtin, 1978, 237). For Bakhtin, the chronotope finds its most perfect realisation in the apprenticeship novel (Bakhtin, 1979, 249-253) whose canonical reference, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, constitutes one of The Buddha of Suburbia’s sub-texts. Karim’s discovery of the world, like Wilhelm’s, passes through the actor’s privilege of being able to try out various roles. This experience provides the material for the narrative whereby Karim seeks to establish a meaningful relationship with the society around him.

9The passage from lived experience to organised narrative enables Kureishi to present the chaos of the contemporary world in such a way as to limit the fragmentation which this invites. Though the novel abounds in descriptions of an off-centred world recalling Jean-François Lyotard’s evocation of post-modernist society as a "patchwork of laws and customs", Kureishi strives to place his narrator at a critical distance from the events he is describing. To give one example: the impressionistic flux characteristic of Colin Maclnnes’s pioneering evocation of the postwar pop scene in Absolute Beginners (1959) is largely avoided in The Buddha of Suburbia, by the traditional manner in which change is presented through the narrator’s attempts to relate it to the psychological evolution of the other protagonists. Thus, Karim’s friend, Charlie, certainly illustrates the various stages of postwar pop (from early Bowie to punk revolt) but in a way which is inseparable from his obsessive quest for fame. Conversely, the manner in which Karim’s Pakistani girlfriend, Jamila, passes from a relatively carefree identification with the American civil rights movement (Afro hairstyles, Tamla Motown music) to a radical commitment to revolution is related to a wider evolution occurring in Western society at the time.

10This attempt to integrate the particular and the general is particularly noticeable in Kureishi’s handling of language. The narrator’s idiom is typical, up to a point, of the period’s youth speech, but nevertheless seeks to distance itself from the hypertrophied, disarticulated style of conventional pop writing, many examples of which are indeed to be found in The Faber Book of Pop. Moreover, unlike many socalled "regional" or ethnic writers, Kureishi’s narrator avoids dialect thereby underlining the other protagonists’ deviations from standard English. The author here reaffirms the codes of conventional realist writing whereby mimetism is largely limited to the reproduction of actual dialogue. As with Dickens, this device provides Kureishi with the critical distance needed for him to indulge his bent for the humorous highlighting of social mannerisms.

  • 2 Other references to this text are given as page numbers in brackets.

11An example of this is found in the approximate English used by the protagonist called Changez. Just released from puritanical Bombay, the sex-starved Changez quickly succeeds in mastering the familiar English words for the sexual act – "getting it, stuffing" and so on –, but his initial inadaptation to life in England is revealed in slightly off-beat remarks, as when he says: "English people are gentlemen, especially the women" (Kureishi, 1990, 223)2, or when he obstinately refuses to understand his father-in-law when the latter asks him whether he has at last succeeded in rendering his wife pregnant: "Expecting?", says Changez. "Expecting what?" In these cases humour makes visible the narrator’s control of the linguistic high ground.

12This attempt to hold the centre is apparent also in the narrator’s apparently unflappable attitude to the incongruities of a turbulent period in which the typically English owners of a suburban TV rental shop can suddenly transform themselves into mantra-chanting adepts of Buddha or Lao-Tsu. The potential for chaos contained in this type of cultural blurring is largely neutralised once again by the way such changes are integrated into a wider vision of the world’s evolution. From the point of view of the appropriately named Changez, for example, poverty-stricken Brixton with its large Asian population does not assume the nightmarish dimension it probably would in a Martin Amis novel, but appears, on the contrary, as a perfectly familiar reconstitution of Calcutta.

13Where the protagonists are concerned, Kureishi follows realist conventions by seeking to balance the centripetal drift of his narrative with characters of sufficient psychological autonomy to interest the reader. More to the point, one of the novel’s preoccupations concerns the manner in which individuals attempt to escape from the stereotypes established by dominant ideologies. In an amusing twist of Edward Said’s well-thown theories on Orientalism (Said, 1978), Kureishi alludes to the manner whereby certain Indians in the West have their identities reconstructed in conformity with the ideological preconceptions of left-wing militants. Some members of Jamila’s revolutionary commune thus regard Changez as a typical representation of the "disabled immigrant", provoking Karim’s wry comment: "He’d obviously had the sense not to talk at length about being from a family who owned racehorses" (222).

14The discrepancy noted here between the individual and the type constitutes a means whereby certain protagonists seek to come to terms with the society around them. Charlie, for example, ensures his triumph as a pop star in the U. S. by putting on a Cockney accent. This "selling of Englishness", as Karim puts it (247), enables him to conform to the American public’s image of what constitutes an authentic Briton.

15Karim’s attitudes, by contrast, are largely dictated by his unwillingness to accept any form of classification whether social or ethnic. When his upper-class girlfriend, Eleanor, refers to his South London accent, he seems surprised to discover he has one. His naivety here assumes the form of a certain confusion in his understanding of how others see him. That this confusion stems largely from his inability to situate his origins is illustrated by his reaction to the shock which he and Charlie feel when first confronted with the contempt of the London punks. As if oblivious of his origins, the half-Indian Karim innocently remarks: "(Where they were concerned), we could have been from Bombay" (128).

16The humour in this instance serves to underline Karim’s contradictions. However, it is at this juncture that one begins to note the tensions raised by Kureishi’s attempt to register the contemporary world with reference to the realist tradition. It has become commonplace since Lukács to state that the novel’s strength as a genre lies in its ability to invest large-scale historical processes with an individualist dimension. In Kureishi’s case, however, the need to distinguish the concrete individual from the abstract type is bound up with an ideological concern with stereotyping of all kinds, whether racist or idealistic. In My Beautiful Laundrette, for example, a successful Pakistani landlord justifies his extortionist attitude to fellow immigrants by defiantly distancing himself from racial stereotyping: "We’re professional businessmen", he exclaims, "not professional Pakistanis" (Kureishi, 1986a, 82).

17Individuation becomes problematic, however, in novels devoted to recording large-scale historical change. In Dickens, for example, the act of integrating complex social and historical processes entails a solidification of reality into patterns so that the London of Bleak House becomes, as Steven Connor has put it, a "synecdoche of Englishness itself" (Connor, 1996, 123). It is striking, from this point of view, to note how such colourful characters as Karim’s Uncle Anwar progressively adopt behavioural patterns – in Anwar’s case a sudden idealisation of his country of origin – which Kureishi himself has described as typical of ageing Westernised Indians in England (Kureishi, 1986b, 36).

18Significantly, the tensions involved here surface in the text in the form of a discussion devoted to the difficulties of artistic representation. Having been selected to act in an avant-garde production, Karim is asked to choose a model for his part and opts for Anwar. For Karim the former’s new attitude provides interesting material for reproducing the eccentricities specific to what he considers as an individual Indian man. But the play’s producer, Pyke, rejects Anwar as a role-model on the basis that his behaviour is too politically incorrect to be put on stage. In other words it is typical, but in a negative sense.

19This highlighting of problems associated with modes of representation emphasises Kureishi’s preoccupation with the consequences of his own compositional choices. The fact that these are not fully resolved in the novel emerges in the tensions inherent in a narrative where the need to present a broad image of reality is constantly challenged by the narrator’s psychological need to affirm his individuality. These tensions come to the fore in the second half of the novel when Karim’s preoccupation with his Indian origins suddenly begins to emerge as a major issue.

20The reader has already been struck by the way certain members of the Indian community are reduced to the margins of Karim’s early account and when he actually meets non-Anglicised Indians, he refers to them as "strange creatures" (212). Certainly, his own sexual attitudes have little to do with those of the Pakistani who rushes away from the English girl Helen, muttering:'"Pork, pork, pork, VD, VD, white woman, white woman'" (84).

21What is at stake here is the narrator’s ability to make an imaginative leap beyond subjectivity, what he calls the "act of creation" (213) which will enable him to integrate his "Indianness" into a larger vision of the world. Karim succeeds in doing this in so far as the preparation for his part in Pyke’s play involves projecting himself fully into the mind of the central protagonist, a newly-arrived Indian immigrant. The latter’s seduction by a sexually curious upper-class English lady who has grown up in pre-independence India is intended by Pyke as an allegorical representation of Britain’s decline (179). But by rejecting his earlier position concerning the uniqueness of each individual, Karim now comes to see himself as a representation of the immigrant condition itself, transforming his seduction by Eleanor into a Pyke-style allegory of the ambivalent bond linking the Imperial centre to the colonised outsider: "We pursued English roses as we pursued England; by possessing these prizes... we stared defiantly into the eye of the Empire and all its self-regard" (227).

22At this stage the narrative’s concern to avoid an excessively "modemist" or impressionistic representation propels it in the direction of an all-inclusive view whose abstract nature invites the ideological dangers inherent in all stereotyping – the traditional realist novel’s mimetic passage from the particular instance to the general law. Karim’s mimetic logic here – though directed at British domination – is similar to that of the Colonial Office administrators who, in keeping with a traditional Aristotelian conception of mimesis, put English literature on the syllabus of the Indian Civil Service examination in the mid-nineteenth century in the belief that the society and characters represented therein would serve as an ideal model for the colonised elite (Loomba, 1998, 85).

23It would of course be exaggerated to claim that Kureishi wrote what remains an entertaining novel with the sole purpose of presenting the issues here being raised. It is equally true, however, that his initial desire to revive the forms of the realist novel leads him to ask questions concerning the importance of aesthetic choices at the present time. The Buddha of Suburbia poses the problem more than it provides any answer to it. It is worth noting, however, that this novel remains Kureishi’s sole incursion into the tradition of panoramic reconstruction. His latest novel, significantly entitled Intimacy (1998), announces a retreat from the social and historical concerns commonly associated with the world of epic realism.


Works cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail, trad. fr. 1978. Esthétique et théorie du roman. Gallimard: Paris.

—, trad. fr. 1984. "Le Roman d’apprentissage." In Esthétique de la création verbale. Gallimard: Paris.

Bergonzi, Bernard, 1970. The Situation of the Novel. London: Penguin.

Brennan, Timothy, 1990. "The National Longing for Form." In Homi K. Bhabha, ed. Nation and Narration. London and New York: Routledge.

Connor, Steven, 1996. The English Novel in History 1950-1995. London and New York: Routledge.

Kureishi, Hanif, 1986a. My Beautiful Laundrette. London: Faber and Faber.

—, 1986b. The Rainbow Sign. London. Faber and Faber.

—, 1990. The Buddha of Suburbia. London: Faber and Faber.

Kureishi, Hanif and Jon Savage, eds., 1995. The Faber Book of Pop. London: Faber and Faber.

Loomba, Ania, 1998. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London and New York: Routledge.

MacInnes, Colin, 1959. Absolute Beginners. London: Allison and Busby.

Orwell, George, 1961. Collected Essays. London: Penguin.

Said, Edward, 1978. Orientalism. London and Henley: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


1 A similar idea is expressed by Timothy Brennan: "It was the novel that histoncally accompanied the rise of nations... by mimicking the structure of the nation, a clearly bordered jumble of languages and styles" (Brennan, 1990,49).

2 Other references to this text are given as page numbers in brackets.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2000

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