Title: The Nothing
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 167; Price: Rs 1,335
It is said the most important thing about writing a good book is, to hook the reader from the first sentence. Hanif Kureishi, known for his alluring openings, does not fail to deliver with his latest work The Nothing. One night, when I am old, sick, right out of semen, and don’t need things to get any worse, I hear the noises again.
With these words, Hanif introduces us to Waldo, a once-prolific filmmaker now destined to experience the remainder of his life withering away in a wheelchair blighted by ill health. He is tended to and cared for by his wife, Zenab, a woman much younger than him, one he stole way from her husband in India, and that he considers an achievement of his life. Now confined to his London apartment and semi-forgotten by the industry that once revered him, Waldo has gone from being a strong and ruthless man to a bitter and spiteful one. It doesn’t help that he’s no longer the gorgeous and attention-drawing personality he used to be, but instead overweight, sickly and rather unattractive. To make matters worse his life’s distaste and frustrations are fuelled by jealous suspicion about Zee sleeping with Eddie, a film critic and prodigal ‘yes-man’ whose sole purpose in life is to mooch off the wealthy by massaging their egos. Waldo has never considered Eddie a good friend, but the chap has systematically inserted himself into their lives, helping with nursing Waldo, and providing Zee with much-needed company, thereby becoming practically indispensible.
Right from the get-go, Waldo makes it his mission to unearth and railroad the adulterous romance between his wife and Eddie. Soon he engages the services of his long-time friend Anita, an actress, to uncover the real story about Eddie to deter Zee from falling deeper for his dubious charms. He discovers some rather upsetting and ugly realities about Eddie’s youth and devises a revenge plan to crush Eddie and remove him form Zee’s graces. In this rather confusing narrative, characters swing between loyalty and deceit and I too found myself swinging between feeling sorry for this surely fading man, and feeling repulsed by his obscene bedside manner. Hanif keeps you riled up as you read how Waldo meticulously unravels this tale steeped in dark humour. An unusually short piece, the book leaves you a bit unsettled which is exactly the author’s intention.
Hanif does not shy away from painting a candid picture of this vengeful, vile man with crass and blunt language. Most of the story is situated within the walls of the apartment and the resultant sense of cramped discomfort only adds to the stifling atmosphere of the book. Waldo makes no apologies for his selfish, cruel nature when he says, I don’t want her to be happy. I just want her to be with me. Is that too much to ask. And though he is physically frail, his libido is unfailing which makes you pity and loathe him with equal measure. Hanif’s portrayal of the most vulgar sentiments of the human psyche generously dosed with expressions of primal sexual desires is alarming while being straightforwardly honest. A man who thinks with the combined effect to his genitals and ego, Waldo owns his dark mind with pride, which is unsettling and forces you to the edge of the comfort zone.