Who will have The Last Word?

July 1, 2014
Author: Hanif Kureishi
Publisher: Penguin India Books
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9780571277520
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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Harry noticed that Mamoon was looking at him with some amusement. Harry said, ‘Am I a weak young man, do you think? Or someone who has more pleasure than they deserve?’

‘Pleasure?’ Mamoon laughed. ‘Most people don’t know how to maximize their pleasure, Harry, they sexualize their pain.’

Hanif Kureishi, in his seventh novel, writes the tale of Harry Johnson, a young writer, who is commissioned to write a biography to revitalize the career and bank balance of Mamoon Azam, a giant of post-colonial literature, who has slowly and with age shrunken into irrelevance. 

The Plot

As a young biographer who is yet to have been published, Harry is faced with a formidable challenge. Not only does he have to write a book that changes the course of events for Mamoon, but far more importantly, he has to get the old man to speak.

Mamoon has many stories to tell. Born in India, Mamoon moved up the ranks because of his sheer genius. Once widowed, currently married and with a sordid string of sexual relationships, Mamoon is and always has been a ladies’ man and his new wife, Liana, has expensive tastes, which necessitate Harry’s biography to be a success!

He is needed to write a tell-all about a legend who is yet to pass away, and this makes Mamoon’s past indiscretions harder to digest for his friends and family.

And yet, the discourse between the two men, one suffering the frailties of age and the other experiencing the pinnacle of his youth, is anything but boring. From art to sexuality, and further ahead to issues of multiculturalism, Kureishi traverses from one topic to another with ease using the voices of the two main leads. 

‘Mamoon, you made your women into fictional characters rather than loved them as real people.’

‘Think what you’d achieve, Harry,’ said Mamoon sorrowfully,  ‘if you didn’t always go too far.’

‘It’s only when I go too far that I think I’m getting somewhere.’

Why You Should Read This 

If the tabloids are to be believed, the plot for The Last Word is startlingly similar to the real-life meetings between VS Naipaul and his biographer Patrick French.

French, a British writer and historian, first visited Naipaul in 2001 to interview him for his authorised biography The World Is What It Is. The Nobel laureate spoke with unusual frankness about his marriage to his university girlfriend Pat, who died in 1996. He told French: “It could be said that I had killed her… I feel a little bit that way.

Naipaul did not ask for a single word of the biography to be changed.

The Hook 

Harry and Mamoon find themselves in a battle of wills; both belonging to different places and eras in time. While both have enough to say and loads to reveal, their words are more often misleading and used as shields to hide their true selves.

The spotlight may be on Mamoon, but as a biographer studying the life of a luminary, Harry is forced to introspect and focus on his life and actions.

Mamoon wants nothing more than for this book to not be written, and Harry wants nothing more than to get it over with.

The question remains, which of them will have the last word?


The Last Word has strokes of genius spread through its pages sporadically. These nuggets of wisdom make the book at least a one-time read.

However, beware! The nuggets of wisdom to bad dialogue ratio is 1:1. 

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Paridhi Rustogi

Paridhi Rustogi

Writer at IndiaBookStore
Environmental Engineering student. Love words and languages and art. Currently suffering from wanderlust.
Paridhi Rustogi

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