(Note, I wrote the review that follows for a magazine just after Sept. 11, 2001. The subsequent War on Terror has made The Black Album a very prescient book, a sort of embryonic look at such extremism.)
Hanif Kureishi excels in exposing the sour taste of tired overworked, spoiled radicalism. In Buddha of Suburbia, he conveyed the decay of the 60s idealism leading to the advent of Thatcherism. But he's no neo-conservative. Kureishi takes on political correctness with imagination as a weapon, rather than wanting to restrain thought.
The Black Album is Kureishi's response to the fatwah more than a decade ago issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. As well as the novel exposes the foolishness of being "devoid of doubt," post Sept. 11 it can also be read as a precursor to the terrorism that killed more than 3,000, or even the recent Boston bombings. Kureishi's fanatical students who inhabit a third-rate London university, being deceived by a quiet madman, show a potential for violence as the novel concludes.
The protaganist is Shahid, a young student pulled in two opposing radical ideologies. He arrives at the college because he idolizes professor Dee Dee Osgood, who is in her late 30s. Her classes mix Prince with Baldwin, Cleaver, Angela Davis, Marvin Gaye and others. For Shahid, it's intellectual stimulation. He begins a friendship with Dee Dee that soon leads to a sexual relationship between the teacher and student. Kureishi pulls no punches in his description of the affair. There are explicit scenes of lovemaking, but the sex is not pornographic.
Pulling Shahid in the opposite direction is a clique of radical Islamic fundamentalists led by Riaz, a quiet, almost wimpy older student who can hold an audience in the palm of his hand while speaking. Shahid lacks a central of authority. His father is dead, his mother does not command authority, his sister in law is a conservative bore and his flashy older brother Chili is succumbing to drugs. The meaning of life offered by his religious friends and their efforts to combat racism is attractive to Shahid, and much of the novel involves his tug of war between Dee Dee's influence and Riaz's. Eventually, the controversy over The Satanic Verses results in a book burning that forces Shahid to make a final choice. The consequences lead to violence.
Kureishi knows how to deliver humor and farce. And there are several instances: The radical clique worships a decayed eggplant that is rumored to contain holy verse; a communist professor develops a stutter that gets progressively worse as Eastern Europe become more democratic; and Riaz's clothes, while under Shahid's watch, are stolen from a coin laundrette.
The Black Album is populated by vivid, very creative characters. Besides Shahid, Dee Dee and Riaz, there's Chili, Shahid's brother who idolizes Al Pacino and Martin Scorsese but is discovering that crime and drugs in the real world suck. There's Dee Dee's estranged husband, the stuttering Communist professor Brownlow who lusts after Moslem girls in veils. Chad, a former drug dealer turned convert to Riaz's doctrines, is a compelling tragic figure. Adopted by a white couple, his discovery that he has no identity causes him to leap too far into fanaticism, with tragic results. The novel is also populated with drug dealers, foolish politicians, racist council inhabitants and scared Asian immigrant families.
A theme to The Black Album might be Imagination. It certainly combats religious rigidity. Late in the novel, Shahid tells a sympathetic member of the Moslem clique that he can't have any boundaries, even one set by God. That may offend some readers, but given the choice the young student faces, he's making a wise decision. Notes: Dee Dee Osgood's fate is mentioned in passing in Kureishi's later novel, Gabriel's Gift, where she's now a successful psychologist. The time frame is just after the millennium.
-- Doug Gibson