Menaces and Zanies

Nicholas Spice

  • Something to Tell You by Hanif Kureishi
    Faber, 345 pp, £16.99, March 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 20977 4

Sometimes what is left out of a poem or a story creates a more arresting sense of reality than what is left in. Keats’s poetic fragment ‘This Living Hand’ ends with the hand thrust towards the reader: ‘See here it is/I hold it towards you.’ The poem’s rhetoric conjures a space in which the spectral hand appears like a hallucination, hovering somewhere between us and the page. The hand has been offered to us before we or the poem know it. A rather less dramatic example of the technique is the moment in Emma when Harriet Smith, disabused of her infatuation with Mr Elton, casts the pathetic relics of that love (a bit of ‘court plaister’ and the stub of a pencil) into the fire:

‘But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court plaister? I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court plaister might be useful.’

‘I shall be happier to burn it’, replied Harriet. ‘It has a disagreeable look to me. I must get rid of every thing. – There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! Of Mr Elton.’

The finality of Harriet’s gesture – her symbolic immolation of the egregious Elton – is given its force by not being represented in the text. By the time Harriet says ‘There it goes,’ the plaster and the pencil have been thrown. The event that is missing creates a vacuum which we rush to fill. In doing so, it is as if we find ourselves actually present in the room with Emma and Harriet.

Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You, a novel which suffers badly from feeling obliged to include too much, nonetheless achieves some of its best effects through what it leaves out. There are two scenes in particular where the reader is drawn to identify closely with the main character, Jamal Khan, because of what is missing from the text. In the first scene, about halfway through the novel, Jamal re-encounters Mustaq, the younger brother of Ajita, the girl he fell in love with when he was a student. Jamal, now in his early fifties, is a psychoanalyst with a growing reputation in smart London circles; Mustaq has become a pop star. Mustaq doesn’t know what the reader has known since the second page of the novel: that when he was a student Jamal was directly involved in the death of Mustaq and Ajita’s father. When he meets Mustaq, Jamal is wearing the dead man’s wristwatch and Mustaq notices it:

‘This may seem odd to you, but something is making me quite curious,’ he said. ‘Can I see that?’

He wanted to look at my watch.

I showed it to him.

Suddenly, the past seems about to burst through the smooth surfaces of the present and cause havoc with Jamal’s life. Jamal must know that very little now separates him from ruin. But the text stays silent. Nothing of Jamal’s turmoil is recorded, an absence which makes our awareness of Jamal’s inner state all the more acute.

Fifty pages later a second scene repeats this pattern. Jamal is talking to Ajita, with whom, as a result of his meeting with Mustaq, he is once again in contact:

I said: ‘We were a dissenting generation. People like your father – we called them capitalists then – we hated on principle. In other European cities, people like us were kidnapping and killing capitalists.’

‘You didn’t want to do that. You couldn’t kill anyone.’

I said: ‘I was always furious with my parents, my father in particular. It seemed odd to me that you loved your parents without any hatred.’

Again the novel swerves towards the precipice we have been expecting it to plunge over from the beginning, and what Jamal does not say and the cost to him of not saying it become intensely present.

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