The Last Word is an uncomfortably honest read which deals with universal themes of the human condition such as love, ageing and the baggage of the past. Hanif Kureishi’s novel sets up these themes by centering the plot on the relationship between a young writer and Mamoon, an ageing, well-respected and controversial author whom he has always admired and who he is researching presently. By digging up the past, Harry, our protagonist, also dredges up issues in his own history, creating a fascinating parallel and juxtaposition between his own and Mamoon’s torrid past. The Last Word offers an interesting exploration of character development by having the plot revolve around authors interpreting and “unveiling” the truths (and identities) of the larger world around them. Each character expresses a need or a desire for a voice of their own that cannot be subsumed into that wider world: in Harry’s use of the author’s late wife diaries for example, as well as an ex-lover’s desire to write a tell-all about the famous author. These ‘primary sources’ become secondary sources and the question of truth and subjectivity come to play. In giving voice to the supposedly “minor” characters of Mamoon’s life, whilst having the latter’s role in Harry’s life eventually fade, effectively existing simply so that Harry can write a book about him, the novel tackles the important question: why are certain individual’s stories supposedly more worthy of being written about than others?
Despite all the characters being deeply flawed, Kureishi depicts them with warmth, understanding, and deep empathy. A reader can find their own inadequacies reflected in the diversity of characters who are integral parts of the two main male protagonists’ narratives. Despite often being relegated to just love interests, female characters offer fascinating portraits of women who love these men, and who often possess the tragic flaw of having loved too intensely. The lives of the male characters, on the other hand, bear witness to their rampant hedonism and libido. Nonetheless, and despite the almost oppressive immorality and irrationality apparent in the actions of the novel’s main characters, Kureishi manages to create deeply sympathetic characters. I would even go as far as to suggest – tentatively – that this novel contains some loosely autobiographical threads. Both Mamoon and Kureishi, for instance, share very personal British identities while having to navigate states of “otherness” due to their race. Although Mamoon and Harry’s narratives revolve more closely around their sexuality and their relationship with female figures, race is certainly a subject that is never far away, and emerges especially as a point of conflict between the Indian Mamoon and the white, bourgeois Harry.
Kureshi’s novel handles the almost obsessive and manic madness ingrained in the act of writing, writing as a way to change the world or as a way to memorialize yourself. This is evident in the parallels between Mamoon’s novels and real life experiences that Harry discovers during his research. Kureishi writes with chagrin about these authorial conundrums, deliberately brushing up against that line where ingenious writing stops and madness begins. Whilst literature and literary ambition are constant themes, he still manages to focus on the question what really is important in life – what feeds the pen. As my first foray into Kureishi, The Last Word is an insightful and thought-provoking look at humanity and their very human and endearing flaws; despite it cynicism, it more than makes up for this in its warmth and wit, and, for this reason, I recommend this novel.