A Review of Hanif Kureishi’s GABRIEL’s GIFT

One lazy Saturday afternoon while surfing TV channels I was hooked onto a English movie channel where Om Puri starred in a Hollywood movie. Bollywood fans’ chests swell when they spot their actors in Hollywood movies. I too was and more so as I liked Om Puri as an actor. The movie was My Son the Fanatic. I liked the movie and went over to research about the movie. That was my first encounter with Hanif Kureishi. His short story by the same name was made into a movie with substantial changes to the story. This incident dates a year back.

This monsoon, in a nearby community library, I spotted Hanif Kureishi’s Gabriel’s Gift. It was concise at 178 pages and without hesitation I picked it up. The grammatically imperfect enquiry that opens the novel – ‘School – how was, today?’ and the reply by the teenager protagonist – “Learning makes me feel ignorant” made me fall for the novel at first sight.

Our teenager protagonist, Gabriel, is being ‘looked after’ an inexperienced, non-English speaking Eastern European au pair, Hannah at Gabriel’s mother’s insistence. Gabriel’s father, Rex, has been thrown out by his mother, Catherine, as he was not earning money, was living off the earnings of Gabriel’s mother and was idling away his time in melancholy. Father’s exit has had metamorphosing effect on Gabriel’s behaviour. Mother had taken up job as a waitress and had started to see a younger guy whom Gabriel seemed to dislike. Gabriel has Archie, his twin brother who died of meningitis at two and a half, as his daemon to whom Gabriel talks. Gabriel nurtured dream of making a movie

To him the word ‘Action’, preceded by the particularly intriguing ‘Turn over!’, had a mesmeric effect. He couldn’t wait to use these words himself

All this while he possessed the gift of being able to paint, copy panters’ works and bring the object of painting alive as real. The strange gift terrified Gabriel whose nerves only his daemon could soothe who was ‘sensible and always knew what to do.’

Gabriel’s mother is able to see through the superficial changes in her son’s behaviour (from a fun loving child to a one who is serious and looks mature) but is unable to understand the transformation that was taking place beneath the skin she saw. She is searching for love and peace.

Gabriel’s father likes to spend time with his son and takes his son along to pubs and places he frequented. Gloom and failure filled up the spaces that Rex inhabited. His one room rented ‘roof-over-the-head’ is the hiding corner for Rex where he escapes his failure as musician. Rex had played guitar and performed with successful contemporaries like Lester Jones. Gabriel likes Jones’s music and the turn in his search for the creative side of himself takes place when Rex takes him to met Lester Jones. Lester hands him a painting with his signature on it and narrates to Gabriel stuff about imagination, madness and how interesting things could be turned out of the madness.

Lester went on, ‘I write songs but I don’t know how. When something occurs to me, I write it down and put it in the song. What does an imagination do but see what isn’t there?’

‘I get that a lot’, said Gabriel. ‘Sometimes I think I’m going mad with all the stuff that’s going on.’

‘Oh everyone’s mad. But some people can do interesting things with their madness.’ Lester was looking at Gabriel. ‘You’re talented’… ‘I’m telling you – and now you know for ever. Hear my voice and carry these words wherever you go.

…’Talent might be a gift but it still has to be cultivated. The imagination is like a fire or furnace; it has to be stoked, fed and attended to. One thing sets another ablaze. Keep it going.’

This sharing and encouragement from Lester propelled Gabriel deeper into his creative pursuits.

Apart from attending to the fire of his imagination Gabriel has his parents to attend to. Lester’s painting and its prospective pecuniary benefits put Gabriel’s father after it. To Gabriel the painting is form of expression and art to which no monetary value could be attached. He prepares two copies of the painting and saves the original. One of the copies in hands of Rex, lands at Speedy’s Splitz pub. Gabriel has copied work of a known artist and fears landing in jail.

Whether Gabriel is able to realize his dreams amidst the tumultuous event of his parents separating is what Gabriel’s Gift is all about.

I am not going to put in spoilers here for those who have not yet read the novel.

However, a few words on Kureishi’s story should not play spoilsport. The delight of the novel lies in its pithy phrases on learning, imagination, creativity and education. Sample these.

Lester introducing himself to Gabriel – ‘I was brought up to be neat, but I was able to teach myself to be messy and disorganized, noisy and loud. It took some learning! Good boys achieve nothing!’

Dad liked to say that school was the last place where anyone could get an education. But outside, if your eyes were open, there were teachers everywhere.

The characters are precisely placed in their skins. Hannah, the au pair is portrayed as one ‘whose only qualification with the children was the possibility that she might once have been a child herself…’ Hannah would ‘watch TV and keep an eye on him at the same time, while pressing boiled sweets into the light little hole under her nose.’ Hannah thought ‘being a kid … was to be automatically in the wrong and those wrongs – which were going on all the time – had to be righted by adults who were never in the wrong.’ Gabriel tried all tricks to drive her out but ‘Hannah would make him clear’ the mess he created; she would turn the TV louder when Gabriel whinged and was indifferent to his sulking.

Some dialogues do make you laugh but they do not leave any memorable mark like the ones between Lester and Gabriel, excerpted above. When Lester exhibits his spontaneous work with crayons on a sheet of paper after profuse dwellings on works of imagination, he pours out

 ‘You can’t will a dream or an erection. But you can get into bed,’ he said. ‘Any mad stuff that comes into my mind I put down.’

Is this coming from Kureishi’s experience in his first writing job as pornography writer? May be. More clues for this could be found in the name of one of the characters in the novel named Karim (a half-Indian actor and school friend of Charlie Hero, once co-performer with Rex). Kureishi wrote pornographic material under the pseudonym of Karim. So much for my wild imagination, with which I could go mad, but fortunately penned it down here as a trivia for those who have encountered Hanif Kureishi for the first time and have not bothered much about his writing career till now. Kureishi has vast body of work in form of novels, collection of short stories, screenplays and non-fictional works including one on pop music as editor. His latest came out in 2014 named The Last Word.

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Review of A Man of The People by Chinua Achebe

This review was written on March 20, 2013

Some stories are indelibly marked in the memories of its readers. Some stories are prelude to the history and the memories are pre-empted. These are not mere stories. They transcend the present; relive the past and trace a future that eerily matches the real life incidents about to occur – though such a future would have remained unknown even to the author of the story.

Chinua Achebe had unknowingly foretold coup in Nigeria – as if a prophet had emerged to warn the African people that times ahead are strewn with shattered dreams, despair and more importantly, struggle.

This work of Achebe mirrored the following incidents in Nigeria which became a sinister playground for counter coups through the year of 1966. The short time gap between the publication of the book and coup (not military coup as depicted in the novel) led to serious aspersions, of bearing foreknowledge of the impending coup, being laid on Achebe. However, in the novel the name of the country is nowhere mentioned. This may thus be understood that Achebe may very well be drawing upon his experience from coups in other African nations.

Irrespective of this peculiarity rendered to the novel one would be delighted to listen to the original voice from Africa. Achebe, being from the land about which he can yarn out extraordinarily yet common story, blesses the narrative with unconventional credibility – impossible without making the narrator admit at the very outset of the novel that the Man of the People was indeed a man of the people.

No one can deny that Chief the Honourable M.A. Nanga, MP, was the most approachable   politician in the country. Whether you asked in the city or in his home village, Anata, they would tell you he was a man of the people. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I’m going to tell will make no sense.

The natural flow in the narrative does engage the reader well. However, it has a strong memory to aide it in establishing itself as credulous to a stranger reader (at least it was so for me who was till now immensely ignorant of the African politics in turbulent 60s). The climax of the novel reiterates and reaffirms the position of Nanga as the Man of the People.

The protagonist (if I dare to place the Man of the People as an antagonist here), Odili Samalu, of the story is a teacher at the Grammar School in Anata. Nanga is visiting the school to address the staff and the villagers. Political undercurrents were soon to rise as strong tides that will upturn lives around it. In the first chapter (yes the novel is in chapters and I was amazed at how it aided my memory in keeping track of the developments in the story) itself, Odili makes clear that he bore hatred towards Nanga. Such was not the situation some 16 years back when Nanga was his teacher until when he plunged into politics and was chosen to the Parliament. His rise to forefront of the politics in the country came (from back-bench of Parliament) in form of failure of coffee-based economy which was leveraged by the Prime Minister and “Men of the People” to oust the reformist ministers by alleging them of conspiracy against the country in connivance with the Western world.

Soon the beans were spilled and truth came out (though no-one in the country cared to listen as they had given in to the idea that how could anyone getting the juicy morsel, as good fortune, not enjoy it). Odili took up the job of a teacher to avoid stooping down to lick a Big Man’s foot. However, his pursuit for higher studies landed him with Nanga at his palatial residence.  Meanwhile, Odili fell in passionate love for Elsie. While Odili remained unimpressed by the filthy wealth accumulated by Nanga (now Minister of Culture), Elsie went to bed with Nanga in presence of Odili – to the hurtful humiliation of Odili who then pledged himself to avenge the disgrace he suffered at hands of his love for unimpressive wealth of his arch-enemy.

Odili’s audacity to have spat at Nanga while walking out on him led to Nanga’s sinister yet silent revenge dragging Odili’s father into it. Added to this loss was his later discovery of how dangerously he misunderstood Samalu senior.

Odili debased Elsie in his thoughts but his revenge was directed against Nanga. An eye for an eye – that is the form his vengeance took. Odili decided to snatch away Edna (to-be parlour wife of Nanga) from Nanga. Odili fails at this too as he is unable to keep the motive intact in face of lure of politics and love for Edna. The personal struggle at work in Odili’s mind was like a tripod – three legs being unrequited love, toxicity of revenge and lust. There was an invisible braided axis of this tripod – politics, corruption and power.

Achebe has lent the hot setting of the story a blow from his blacksmith’s hammer reshaping the already extruded beam of history. Odili’s tripod destabilized (was destined so given the nebulous nature of his political aspirations) and this sacrifice of an individual was not to go in vain. Unprecedented developments had to interfere with the plans of everyone who craved for the ‘national cake’ or those who wished to replace the corrupt political groups.

The richness and honesty in the narrative is more than sufficient to completely discount the sporadic and belaboured metaphors. I feel one has to anyway discount these flight of thoughts that shape up in the mind of an author who has levitated to take a macro view of a nation in post-colonial strife for political space among the self-assumed power constituents. My favourite of such a metaphor is:

She had been like a dust particle in the high atmosphere around which the water vapour of my thinking formed its globule of rain.

It gives me a breather in an intense emotional story.

Dialogues are natural. Though the lavish use of pidgin makes it difficult for a reader, who is ignorant of the local culture and dialect, to bind his attention to the flow of the novel it does enrich the potency of the story.

The vantage point for Africans from where they could assess their people, themselves and their future in a country mired in post-colonial reshuffle of power positions had been changed on publication of this novel. Achebe had not only already established himself as a major voice in furthering African history, culture, its struggle to survive amidst the chaos and to fill the vacuum left by the white men by the time this novel was published he had now shown the much needed mirror to the people of Africa in general and Nigeria in particular. He had exhibited to them the undercurrents of power play that were being played at the cost of the people. The illusion of ‘A Man of the People’ needed dispelling and Achebe had enabled the Nigerians and fellow Africans to accept their disillusionment and march ahead.

By the end of writing this review I happened to open the wiki page for Chinua Achebe. He died at ripe age of 82 on March 21, 2013 in USA. And I wonder how many of the people who came across his works (dominated by essays, criticisms, political commentary, reflections and poems in last two decades while his fiction and lengthy works stopped way back in late 1980s) observed the passing away of the Man of the People.

The Hakawati’s Magic

Isn’t listening to stories more fun than reading them? Isn’t the solitude of a story book scary? More so in folktale cultures? Oral tradition of story-telling is fading away fast. My mother’s mother used to tell me stories to put me to sleep or to soothe my itchy nerves. My mother can’t tell stories like her. Will I be able to tell stories to my kids and grandkids? The Hakawati is a redemption of those days when telling and listening stories was the part of the day looked forward to; when stories were lived by families.

The Hakawati is a seemingly effortless and daunting effort by Mr. Rabih Alameddine to take the tales of Hakawati across lands, rivers, seas and oceans. The blend of Thousand & One Nights’s style with the modern novel form elevates the magic of oral tales. The reader is not left in scary solitude. The magicians, sorcerers, warriors, kings, imps, inanimate magical objects like flying carpets, desolate lands, starry desert nights, valour, embattled armies, humdrum of a local market abuzz with activities, their orderly chaos disordered by sudden attacks, the labyrinth of devil’s den, the seductive beauty, delusions, the evil of human minds, its lofty ideals, its desperation, its horrors, its joys, the endless & meaningless struggle for vague principles, love in its various forms, boundary less love, jealous love, taboo love, erotic love, simply love and hallucinatory quality of reality never let go off your hands.

The legendary tales of Fatima and epic tales of valiant warriors and schemers like Arbusto and Baybars run parallel to the historical settings in which the Druze family of al-Kharrat’s emerges and recasts itself to the modern stage of Lebanon. Lebanon, which is torn with civil war evidencing dispossession, alienation and yet a pinching desire to rise again, against the unyielding phlegm of loss.

Osama al-Kharrat’s father is bed ridden in a hospital in Beirut. Osama comes back from Los Angeles to Beirut to find the world of his youth changed from what he left behind a quarter of a century back. This is 2003. Memories of his childhood, his hakawati grandfather, the civil war era of later half of 20th century, the family and its friends flood on his mental landscape and he transports us back to the days when his grandfather was born to love in the tempest. The story takes us slowly ahead in time where his grandfather gets inspired to become a hakawati; family of al-Kharrat (meaning a fibster or one who spins yarns of tales) and its heritage, his special relationship with his Uncle Jihad (what a name, given the character’s disposition to art and not war) and his stiff relationship with his father.  Through the pages of The Hakawati you will discover that Osama is indeed a storyteller.

Subtlety abounds through the pages of The Hakawati. Way past half in the novel, our narrator Osama al-Kharrat tells about his Uncle Jihad’s collage of images from movie magazines (one of Uncle Jihad’s numerous obsessions being films). The narrator’s vision swathes the collage with rapt attention to details and the reader is compelled to recollect the classics of western cinema and its evergreen stars from Bette Davis of Jezebel fame to Jane Fonda to Steve McQueen to Judy Garland. While all the while the reader may just be busy recollecting the faces of the stars in the time frozen scenes of the classics, narrator deftly places an intrusion by his story-hating father: “After Uncle Jihad’s death, my father wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see the image of Alan Bates and Olive Reed kissing fiercely. My father must have spent quite a bit of time scraping.”

Forthrightness is the forte of the story. The words are not veiled in their synonyms when portraying a character or while unfolding the events. This directedness is not for seeking attention. It is rooted in the dialects of the characters and in the human acts of theirs. Telling about the hasty and indiscreet affair of his great-grandparents the narrator offers: “He consumed her right then, uncomfortably, outside the outhouse, the faint malodor acting as an aphrodisiac.”

It is a tale one may read aloud to a family gathered for a long holiday. The Hakawati also inspires a story lover to unearth the story of her family – the little tales & fables of a journey undertaken by relatives, who with passage of time, knowingly or unknowingly, became a ‘family’. The Hakawati instils passion in the hearts of lonely individuals lost to the grinding mill of sustaining a family. These are all subtle feelings the reviewer gets by reading, err… ‘indulging’ in the novel. Yes, this novel is indulging indeed. It is not a page-turner, dear bookworms. It has to be paced to sync with the rhythms of your heart. You may swiftly lift yourself up high to look at the eras gone by and with a nosedive you can have an innocent peep into a day of an individual. With no clichés and full of life in its essentials, the story of Osama Al-Kharrat is as personal as it is universal – the feeling of desolation in a place you had left behind (“I was a tourist in a bizarre land. I was home.”), the feeling of connectedness to your roots despite prolonged migration, the nostalgia that fills you when you step into a space which was once inhabited by you but is now filled up with strangers – I can go on with the list of themes. However, once you have read the novel yourself, you will feel that some very dominant theme has been left unmentioned here. The language is simple, flow of the words is lyrical and composition is lean. The expanse of the narrative is continental.

To an aspiring writer the novel offers a great deal of advice which are adorable and given their succinctness does not seem preaching. “A sound advice is adorable.” That is my adage that resounds in my mind while reading these compact pieces of wisdom. Hakawati grandfather is relating to his grandson (our narrator) the deficiency of his doctor father as a storyteller and when the grandson is curious as to “What was wrong with his stories?”, the grandfather lends a very simple and beautiful analogy to precede a thought-worthy one-liner. “They are just common. He always told his favorite stories from the Bible. Stories with obvious moral lessons are like eels in a wooden crate. They slither over and under each other, but never leave the tub. In my day, I told some of the same stories, but mine soared. His problem was that he believed. Belief is the enemy of a storyteller.”

I am still pondering over the last line here. There are many such moments that make you pause and take in the aroma and the taste of the broth prepared by Mr. Alameddine. This novel is for listening as it is from a hakawati.

Mr. Alameddine has treated the wars and strives of daily lives in Lebanon with his distinctive humor. The wars do not cloud over the enchanting stories and tales that envelope the air. The thriving hope in the hearts of the well-developed characters of the novel render the graveness and sadness that accompany wars neutered. At the end when Osama tries to make his father listen to the stories about him, about himself, about the family, about everything that the grandfather hakawati told him, a listener’s heart shall melt and geld away the most stoic and artless soul.  “Listen… Let me tell you a story.