Whisky & Culture

Difficult second album

Jefferson Chase looks at the battle between the secular and religious.
By Jefferson Chase
Critics didn’t much care for Hanif Kureishi’s second novel The Black Album when it appeared in 1995.The story of a British-Pakistani university student torn between secular pleasures and Muslim fundamentalism was deemed too dour, too political and, astonishingly for the author known for his skill with the erotic, not sexy enough.But I’d make the case this book was ahead of its time, six years ahead, to be precise.The hero, Shahid Hassan, is British born and bred but unsure of where he belongs. One option is the world represented by his criminal brother Chili and his dissipate late father.A Glenn Miller record played whilst he swigged whisky in a long glass, half Bushmills, half carbonated water. This bed Papa took to whenever he was not at work. He lay there like a pasha, with a pile of comics on his bedside table.The ‘centre of operations’ he called it.Shahid leaves the security of his suburban boyhood home for the confusion of London, including the obligatory, squalid bed-sit.A Pakistani neighbour introduces him to a radical Muslim preacher named Riaz, with whom he has the following bit of dialogue.“Excuse me, can I ask you – I know you won’t mind – but your family has some distinction, I can see.” “To me they have, yes.” “How, then did they let you come to be at such a derelict college?” With his shy air and none of the whiskydrinking braggadocio of Shahid’s uncle, for instance, Riaz seemed polite. But all the same, he wondered if he wasn’t being slightly coerced...as if [Riaz] were trying to find out about him for some ulterior purpose.At the same time, Shahid bonds with a libidinous cultural-studies lecturer over their mutual love of Prince (hence the novel’s title), leading quickly to an affair he has to keep secret from his new Muslim “brothers.” Ecstasy-fuelled raves by night, prayer meeting and politics by day – it’s a balancing act that Shahid manages to pull off until Riaz’ group plans to petrol bomb a bookstore for displaying Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in its front window.Kureishi researched this and other works by visiting mosques in East and North London.As he would recall roughly a decade later, he wasn’t impressed by what he heard in some places of worship.“I found these sessions so intellectually stultifying and claustrophobic that at the end I’d rush into the nearest pub and drink rapidly,” Kureishi wrote in The Guardian.Those were the days, when compensation strategies were so simple.Reading Kureishi’s Black Album, I found myself remembering scenes from the carefree 1990s.Strangely, what I seem to recall most vividly are train rides through England, the feeling of being whisked through a sunny post-Cold War landscape with a drum-and-bass soundtrack in my ears and visions of the bright dot-com future in my mind.Drum and bass is old hat now, and the sparkling future, of course, never materialised — for reasons Kureishi presciently depicted in his underrated second novel.