This debut novel by Guy Gunaratne doesn’t really need much by way of introduction. It has won the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Jhalak Prize, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize. The author is a film-maker, covering post-conflict areas around the world, and this sensibility serves him well in presenting London as a place of multicultural influences and friendships, yes, but also simmering resentments, occasionally exploding into full aggression and rioting.
Yoos, Selvon and Ardan are three lads growing up on or around a council estate in Neasden, North London. They all have ‘elsewhere’ in their blood (i.e. their parents were immigrants) and they are mates: they bus together to school, they are in the same year, they play football on the estate. A loose, unspoken friendship binds them, but is it enough to make up for their differences? Selvon is training hard and listening to motivational podcasts, keen to get a sports scholarship and make his way out of the place. Ardan’s way out is through his music, he writes lyrics and dreams of success as a grime artist. Yoos (Yusuf) is Muslim and doesn’t much like the wave of radicalism engulfing his brother and the mosque where his father used to be the Imam.
In a normal world, they could remain friends, a proud showcase for diversity and integration. But this is London one hot summer when a black boy struck down an off-duty soldier with a cleaver, shouting something about what happens to infidels. So races and religions are pitted against each other, and London’s ‘scowling youth’ are at the end of their tether, ‘fury was like a fever in the air’. There is no possibility of leading a normal life, of not taking sides. Over the course of just two days, we move from the gritty everyday to tragedy to comedy and back to tragedy again, all conveyed in a language that closely follows oral traditions, belonging to several generations and cultural backgrounds. It is both deeply depressing and ultimately uplifting. It is impossible to read this book without feeling somehow changed. It reminded me, both in terms of subject matter, and the friendship of the main characters, of the cult film La Haine.
Alongside the three boys and two additional older characters whose relationship to them is initially somewhat unclear, there is a sixth character, perhaps even THE main character in the book: the city itself. The description of London in all its confused, noisy, vast, pluralistic muddle made me think instantly of Paris at the time of the Commune, and not just because I was reading the two books at nearly the same time.
Neither of the two cities prove to be a haven; idealism and hopes for a better life are doomed, whether it’s the dreams of immigrants or those trying to build a new utopian social order.
I know this city and its sickness of violence and mean living. These things come in sharp ruptures that don’t discern. It was the fury. Horror curled into horror. Violence trailing back for centuries… Each of us were caught in the same swirl, all held together with our own small furies in this single mad, monstrous and lunatic city.
Compare that to the description of Paris of the years 1869-1874 by Rupert Christiansen in Paris Babylon:
… a noisy multifariousness and confusion, and a hostile resilience to all attempts to placate or silence them. Like every city, it argued with itself, constantly pulling in a thousand different directions, growing like a virus, in an unreasonable organic fashion. The reality of Paris is its people’s voices and stories, motivated by the pressure of immediate daily experience and the ceaseless flow of misinformation we call ‘news’; it cannot be reduced to a thesis, an image or a generalization.
It’s these ‘other voices’, often forgotten voices but nevertheless an organic part of the city, that finally take centre stage in the novel. Although the three young men have the most seductive voices, it is old and frail Nelson who has some of the best lines about the high price the city demands of its inhabitants.
This grey, miserable place what hold the young in like a pig pen… Lord, I wish I could tell my son what I know. All that I know about how the city raise a young man’s fury. How it bend him back, beat him down with so much hard rain he want shelter with whoever will carry him.
In Christiansen’s view, the Commune too was not so much a calculated political strategy and rebellion, but a furious instinctive response to the destruction of a way of life to give room to the modernisations of Haussmann and the humiliation of the Prussian siege. It ‘simply had to happen… for reasons beyond reason.’
I found reading the two books in parallel to be an enlightening experience. And both of them, in a way, end with a declaration of love to the great cities which somehow remain elusive, annoying, impossible to capture in their full complexity. The cities and their infuriating, maddening, heroic people.
So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feelings its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place. The joy. The lights lies in the armoured few, those willing to run, run on and run forever just to prove it possible.