I’m thankful the downtown branch of my public library has an “International Authors” section. Over the years I’ve been exposed to a number of quality authors from other countries, authors who otherwise would have remained unknown to me had it not been for my public library. Not long ago while looting that particular section of the library I came across Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album. After inspecting the book and noticing that Kureishi is a Pakistani expat living in London, I decided to take it home with me. After finishing it last week, I’m glad I did. I Enjoyed The Black Album.
It wasn’t ’till I got home that I noticed this particular edition of The Black Album also contains Kureishi’s short story “My Son The Fanatic”, which I read years ago in The New Yorker, and was the inspiration for a pretty good movie of the same name. Published in 2009 by Scribner, this edition also contains a recent interview with the author, which serves as a nice bridge linking the world of The Black Album, which was originally published back in 1995, and today.
Set in early 1990’s London, Kureishi’s novel traces the adventures of Shahid, a young Pakistani immigrant and college student attending a low-end urban community college, an institution so pathetic that both students and faculty joke that alumni reunions are held at the local prison. Shahid’s world is one of extremes, pulled from one direction by his literature instructor turned girlfriend Deedee and her love of sex, recreational drugs, and late night raves. Pulling Shahid from the opposite extreme are his apartment neighbors Riaz and Chad and their puritanical world of radical Islam. Keeping Shahid company in the middle of this are his brother Chili, a ne’er do good drug dealer and playboy; and Chili’s shrewish wife Zulma, a spoiled princess with penchants for gossiping and deflowering young Pakistani cricket players.
This is not the squeaky-clean London of travel guides and Masterpiece Theater. It is a gritty underworld of decaying public housing projects, run-down taverns and quasi-legal late night dance parties held in abandon warehouses. It’s in this world the various characters of Shahid’s polarized universe collide with each other. Just like the highly charged forces in a massive particle accelerator, when these characters do ultimately collide with each other the results are devastating.