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The Body

Hanif Kureishi
The narrator of Hanif Kureishi’s novella is a British playwright in his mid-sixties called Adam who experiences the difficulty of living as an aging man. His struggle to maintain his self-esteem and joie de vivre prompts him to give a very cynical account of the old people’s situation in a society ruled by beauty, youth and desire. Adam’s gloomy life takes a favorable turn – or so he thinks … - when he meets Ralph, a handsome and young admirer of his, who secretly informs him he can look just as healthy and fit as he: he may be operated on to have his mind transferred from his old, decaying body to a New Body. Adam decides to give up his old body and life for six months, and sets off for a series of new travels, adventures and encounters. By doing so, he once again enjoys the privileges of being young and beautiful, the object of men and women’s desires. However, it is not long before he misses his previous life, his wife and son’s presence as well as people’s more respectful, deferent attitude towards his work and person. In the end, our hero comes to understand his new life is endangered when he meets a New Body looking for an attractive and young body exactly like his for his dying brother. Adam manages to escape but realizes he will not be able to come back to his former self: the secret hospital facility where he was given his new body has been burned down, along with the old bodies which were kept there. Adam is thus condemned to immortal life as a body, a soulless body.

I knew the game was up when I had to wear my reading glasses in order to see the magazine I was masturbating over. (Adam as an old body)
I was all sex, a walking prick, a penis with an appended body. (Adam as a New Body) 

 

The first quote afore-mentioned clearly underlines the narrator's self-derision, which alternates with a certain feeling of bitterness.

The Body is most obviously the story of an aging man who wishes he were still in the prime of his life and did not have to worry about sickness and death; the state of his body speaks for his age and the time he has left to live. This is why the first dozen pages are devoted to the crude description of very trivial details of his physical condition: when he eats, it feels like he is "chewing nails and shitting screws", when he looks at himself in the mirror all he can see are his rotund stomach, his veiny, spindly legs, his left-leaning posture, which remind him of his father before death and he refers to his peers as "old fucks with watery eyes" and "faces as wrinkled as old penises". The use of such vulgar expressions - which suggests how much Adam despises himself and his situation - shocks and disgusts the reader, as if he or she were attending some freak show.

Hanif Kureishi does not indulge in the usual clichés that depict the elderly as wise and respected people; old people are submitted to the reign of flesh over society, just as much as anyone else. Neither does the author care about political correctness: euphemisms such as "the elderly" tend to soften reality. One must admit the fact old people are old farts and are treated and perceived as such. Indeed, because old people are weary and often unhealthy, they cannot actively take part in social events and are therefore cast aside. This is what Adam notices when he attends one of his friends' parties: everyone is dancing around him while he is looking for a bench to alleviate his back pains. Moreover, Adam suddenly feels uneasy because he becomes aware he is surrounded by presumptuous, hyperactive and disrespectful young people. The young appear as sheer enemies, whose needs terrify the old: their vocabulary is incomprehensible, their presence is threatening. In Adam's words, "the elderly seem to have been swept from the streets". Therefore, The Body is more than a mere personal account of the horror of ageing: it expresses in a fearful manner the way youth, beauty and fitness have become the basic criteria to social integration.

 
The Body can also be read as a satire of our superficial and vain society. Although New Bodies do not exist, it seems that we are only a step away from such a creation. Cosmetic surgery allows people to change some of their physical features, both on their faces and bodies; there also has been great talk about creating clones and choosing the right genes for one's children. Therefore, I do not think The Body should be read as science fiction - as 1984 was - but as a very clear-sighted and plausible vision of our near future.

The second satirical aspect of the novella lies in the description of New Bodies, set up in a line as if they were dummies; Adam walks back in forth in front of them in order to make up his mind as to which one he wants to buy. Bodies are similar to any other good - food, clothes, washing-machines, etc. All one needs is money to buy one. In this sense, Hanif Kureishi is a clear disciple of Jonathan Swift: his intuitions are frightful but remain plausible.

 
What I enjoyed most about The Body is its display of subtle echoes and the play with different types of literary genres. For instance, the fact that the main character is called Adam is quite significant: Adam in the Bible was the first man on Earth, made of bones and flesh, destined to die; whereas Adam in our story refuses to grow old and ends up immortal because he cannot recover his old body. Cf. the last sentence of the novella: "I was a stranger on the earth, a nobody with nothing, belonging nowhere, a body alone, condemned to begin again, in the nightmare of eternal life." The use of the worlds "earth", "condemned to begin" and "eternal life" immediately reminded me of the genesis. Except here, there is a total inversion: Adam fears eternity because it is linked to inhumanity. Adam appears to be one of the first real men in a new world.

Furthermore, placing most of Adam's adventures in Greece, Hanif Kureishi implicitly compares his character to Greek mythological figures such as Apollo and Dionysius: Adam has Apollo's wonderfully built body superbly crafted features, and Dionysus's taste for orgies and sexual pleasure. And of course Adam resembles them in the sense he has become immortal... Or one might also be reminded of Ulysses, especially when Adam has to fight some sexual temptations while on a cruise boat.

But The Body is more of a modern mock-epic than a true and sincere epic: although the reader sympathizes with the narrator because he shares his reasoning, he feels he has made the wrong choice and is rather justly punished for being so vain, abandoning his wife and telling her he is going on a trip to Australia when he is simply having sex with girls all around the world. His adventures and travels are grotesque: he is attacked by New Bodies who want his body and he runs away because he does not want to give it up. Therefore, the reader does not pity him too much when he ends as a new Sisyphus, bound to live forever and ever, to make meaningless encounters and discoveries, and to remain unable to share true thoughts and feelings with his loved ones.

The novella can very interestingly be compared to a mock-epic but also to a fantastical-like tale: when Adam feels old and sorry for himself, Ralph appears as a Deus Ex Machina, a fairy who has come to save him and help him overcome his despair. Ralph is depicted as a nearly perfect character - "He was a beautiful young man, tall, handsome and confident, without seeming immodest"- and the environment is indeed fantastical: Adam speaks of the "luminous, almost supernatural quality of the night". But the ending is far from happy; therefore, it seems that once more Hanif Kureishi has played with well-known and easily recognizable genres only to subvert them and show that the new world to come will be nothing but a grotesque and unhappy one.
 

Laura Menard
mai 2008

 

Hanif Kureishi, The Body. Faber and Faber, 2002

 

More

Read Nicholas Royle's review of The Body on The Independent's website.
 
 
mise à jour le 10 mars 2009
Créé le 3 mai 2008
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues