Is this not a consummately Western reading of human nature? What could be more conducive to expansion and achievement and aggression than a kind of desire that nothing can truly satisfy? While Hanif concedes that Islam focuses more on ‘moral constraints’, he does not agree that such an understanding of the mechanism of desire is peculiarly Western, and he cites Buddhism as an example of an Eastern religion in which desire plays a similarly prominent role as in the West.
Hanif describes himself as interested, however, in the ways in which ‘the West uses the East’. This is an idea he says he explored more fully in earlier works such as the Whitbread prize-winning Buddha of Suburbia (1990): this notion of Easterners being at the same time ‘starving’ and ‘wise’ that comes from the images Hanif saw of India on the television as a child. The Beatles/Ravi Shankar phenomenon, and the New Age movement it spawned, is all symptomatic of an ingrained Western belief that knowledge and wisdom are located in the Other.
On the general subject of ethnicity, I ask him why it is that of late his central characters have tended to be more Anglo-Saxon than was the case in his earlier novels. Have racial themes become less important to him? ‘I am still very interested in race’, is the emphatic and immediate answer. He explains that, in a sense, The Body are variants of the same theme of identity, and that he is currently looking for a ‘new way of thinking’ when it comes to writing about race.
I tell him that when we asked our last interviewee, the treasury minister Paul Boateng MP, what ‘multiculturalism’ meant to him, he replied ‘not much… it is a word that people interpret to suit their own ideological purpose’. Hanif’s response, by contrast, is immediately much more positive: indeed, he warms to the theme more than any other we have so far discussed.
‘Multiculturalism’, he says, ‘is the idea that one might be changed by other ideas’. It is a movement based on the dialogic exchange of ideas, even traditions, based on ‘the idea that purity is incestuous’.
According to Hanif, multiculturalism forces the individual to justify his own beliefs. Bringing Western society up against fundamentalist Islam, he suggests, allows more informed debate as to the merits and demerits of the secular nation state. It allows ‘the possibility of vigorous and constructive intellectual debate’, in which ‘Paul Boateng and others in New Labour would do well to participate’.
Does ‘globalization’ denote much the same process as ‘multiculturalism’, the difference being that it invokes what Paul Boateng might call an alternative ‘ideological purpose’?
‘No. The point about globalization is that it is fatuous and banal. Globalization is about the reduction of ideas’.
In France, writers are often more dignified and patrician than their British counterparts, perhaps because they tend to be more revered figures in public life. Hanif Kureishi would fit comfortably into such a literary tradition. His tone is courteous and co-operative, but his writerly eminence doesn’t predispose him to informal chit-chat or debate.
That Hanif Kureishi should be thus, and not the non-conformist chronicler of anti-Thatcherite rebellion and the rave generation; that the enfant terrible can make such an emphatic transformation into grand auteur, seems only to confirm his ideas on the thoroughly mobile nature of identity.