I have recently read Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album, where he quotes an anecdote about a Frenchman who somehow got lost in Russia after Napoleon’s hasty retreat and after being captured by villagers ready to lynch him he was rescued by an aristocrat who was looking for a French and piano teacher for his daughters. It didn’t matter that the said Frenchman couldn’t actually play the piano, his Frenchness gave him all the credibility he needed.
We find a similar situation in the Buddha of Suburbia where Karim’s father, Muslim raised according to very English ideals, all of a sudden decides to become a yoga, meditation, all the New Age mumbo jumbo guru and rises to fame in the suburbs of London, where his dark skin serves for all the credentials he might need.
Karim, his mixed-race, second generation immigrant son doesn’t really suffer from an identity crisis until people tell him to and try to tell him to be this or that. He plays Mowgli in a play and is told by the director to fake an Indian accent to be more authentic. When he joins a different theatre troupe he is reprimanded by fellow ‘people of colour’ for not representing his race the way he should.
But here is the beauty of this book – Karim doesn’t define himself in any way. He does start his book by saying he is an Englishman of a new breed but that’s all you will hear about it. He seems to be attracted to men and women both, but he will never say whether he is heterosexual, or homosexual, or even bisexual. For most of the book he doesn’t seem to need any labels and is bemused by the fact other people need them to categorise their world. All he wants is just to get laid and get out of the suburbs before they smother him. This is what he will go on doing leaving the hard task of making sense of everything to the reader.
As far as coming of age novels go, this one is a gem. This is what Vernon God Little tried to be but failed – a satire that despite being genuinely funny feels also raw and authentic. The emotions don't get lost in caricatures.
There is still the feel of a late day hippy liberalism but with the birth of punk you can already see the signs of proto-Thatcherism and Kureishi captures that zeitgeist superbly.
I have heard that in his later novels Kureishi have shown some sexist tendencies (please note this is only anecdotal and I don’t actually know what I’m talking about), but I can’t see any traces of this in ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ which features a few great female characters who provide us with very interesting background plotlines to concentrate on when the main character needs a break.
All in all, a well rounded debut novel, deservingly described as a kind of modern classic.