Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Black Album - A Review

There was something scary about this book. Maybe it was the theme (religious fundamentalism) or the timing, (I started the book a day or two after Salman Taseer’s assassination) or maybe it was the honest truth that no matter where we live in the world, we cannot shut our eyes towards extremism and intolerance.

Set in the London of 1989, The Black Album tells the story of young Shahid who is torn between two extremes. He wants to live by a certain code of ethics and yet, he does not want to forfeit his freedom. Thus, he wants to maintain his relationship with Deedee Osgood, his lecturer at university and also, wage jihad on the white race with his Muslim friends. Kureishi describes an ugly side of London; a place rife with racism, drugs and intolerance where Shahid is torn between liberalism and fundamentalism.

1989 was the year when the fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s book, Satanic Verses, was passed by Ayatollah Khomeini. This fatwa provided Shahid’s new friends; headed by the philosopher cum wanna-be-cleric Riaz, a reason to protest against the injustice meted out by the white race towards the minorities. Shahid has a choice; he can either be with Riaz and his fundamentalist followers or against them.

Kurieshi portrays Shahid’s dilemma very aptly. Having grown up in London and exposed to a lot of things (drugs, alcohol, and sex) at a young age, it is difficult for Shahid to accept things at face value. He demands explanations, especially when his fanatic friends burn a copy of the Satanic Verses publicly but Riaz and his followers want blind obedience and not debate.

1989 was a year full of historic events with . There was the famous fatwa, which led to Iran breaking off diplomatic ties with the United Kingdom. Benazir Bhutto had come into power in Pakistan after Zia-ul-Haq perished in an air crash. The Berlin Wall was demolished. George H.W. Bush became the President of the United States. The war in Afghanistan came to an end and Russia made its exit, leaving behind destruction and religious fanatics.

The book touches on a sensitive issue which has gained literary attention after 9/11. There are many people like Riaz in Pakistan, also, who are gaining support among the masses. The sad part is that religion is being used by people like Riaz for political gains and not, as they make it appear, spiritual fulfilment.

The title of the book is after an album of Prince. Shahid is a huge fan of Prince and has a collection of all his works. The one mention of The Black Album in the book is when Chad, a fundamentalist Muslim friend of Shahid goes through the cardboard box containing Prince’s records.

Kureishi’s prose was crisp and moving. Unlike his other novels, The Black Album, had a grim feel to it and humour was almost non-existent. At times the discussions felt very sermonic. A little Kureishi humour was much needed. A good read and one which does make you think about the future. 

Photograph: Google Images