Hanif Kureishi: The Body (2002)
Contributed by Markus Oppolzer
The Body is a provocative novella that uses a science fiction premise – the transplantation of old brains into young bodies – to explore the moral and psychological implications of immortality. It is centrally concerned with the young healthy body as the fetish of our times and takes its commercialization to a shocking extreme. The main character's exclusive focus on the materiality of human existence raises questions of identity, the burden of old age, and the promise of eternal youth.
Hanif Kureishi was born in 1954 in London and is of Pakistani-British descent. He read philosophy at King's College, London and made a name for himself as a playwright, screenwriter, novelist, and one-time director (London Kills Me, 1991). In particular, his earlier work is known for its concern with social issues, sexuality, generational conflicts and multi-cultural London. He is married and has three sons. In 2008 he was awarded a CBE.
The King and Me (1980; publ.1983); Outskirts (1981; publ. 1983); Borderline (1981); Tomorrow – Today! (1981; publ. 1983); Birds of Passage (1983); Sleep with Me (1999); The Mother (2003); When the Night Begins (2004); Venus (2006; publ. 2007)
My Beautiful Laundrette (1986); London Kills Me (1991); My Son, the Fanatic (1998); The Mother (2003); Venus (2006); Weddings and Beheadings (2007)
The Buddha of Suburbia (1990); The Black Album (1995); Intimacy (1998); Something to Tell You (2008)
Love in a Blue Time (1997); My Son, the Fanatic (1998); Midnight All Day (1999); Gabriel's Gift (2001); The Body and Seven Stories (2002)
My Ear at His Heart (2004)
Dreaming and Scheming: Reflections on Writing and Politics (2002); The Word and the Bomb (2005)
The Faber Book of Pop (1996; editor)
ABC Radio National Australia: The Body by Hanif Kureishi (2004) abridged, produced and directed by Anne Wynter;
Kureishi has sold the film rights to Scott Rudin, who produced his screen adaptation of Venus (2006).
Adam: first-person narrator; ageing, almost forgotten playwright in his mid-sixties
Margot: his wife; her company makes getting old a little more bearable
Ralph: a "newbody"; 70-year old man 'reborn' in the body of a 30-year old; enjoys fulfilling his great dream of becoming an actor
Patricia: 60s feminist and ageing owner of a rejuvenation centre on a Greek island
Alicia: young London poet living at the centre
Matte: "newbody" millionaire and villain
The Body is mainly set in the cosmopolitan and highly superficial world of European art, fashion, and society events, yet takes its beginning and end in contemporary London where the main character has his family and roots. Apart from other European capitals, such as Paris or Rome, a longer stretch of the narrative is set in a "spiritual centre" on a Greek island, where elderly, rich women can relax and regenerate.
Adam, the first-person narrator of the novella, is an elderly, London-based playwright in his mid-sixties whose heyday of theatre production is long over. He is greatly troubled by his "ailing existence" and feels out of touch with real life. His children have left and together with his wife Margot he tries to make the best of his advanced years.
During a theatre party where the established directors and writers mingle with young, aspiring actors he gets to know Ralph, one of the young and beautiful. To Adam's surprise he turns out to be a great admirer of his theatrical work and claims to have seen some of the performances that took place long before his biological birth. Ralph is actually older than Adam. After the death of his wife and a life of failed opportunities he wanted a second chance. In South America he met a young man who offered him exactly that. In an experimental operation the brain of an old person can be transplanted into the corpse of a young one. Only three or four surgeons in the world are familiar with the procedure. Ralph seized the opportunity and now offers Adam the same chance to become young again and live out his dreams. After another meeting Adam is prepared to go ahead with the plan. He makes all the necessary preparations and convinces his wife that he needs a six month vacation for a "walkabout".
The operation takes place in a run-down warehouse in a bleak industrial estate outside London. Adam quickly settles the business side of this "short-term body rental" and is then asked to choose his new biological self. In the fridge he finds rows and rows of bodies. Suddenly he realizes that he cannot only change his age, but also his gender and race. He is momentarily worried about the large number of corpses and the idea of "shopping for bodies". Finally Adam settles for a "classically handsome", Italian-looking man with "a fine, thick penis and heavy balls". After the operation he wakes up a "newbody", an old person in a "new facility" that he can wear like a garment. The first few minutes are disturbing: Adam finds himself in a state of limbo – out of his old body and not yet inside the new one. As an elderly intellectual he must learn to accept the physicality of his being and the joy of touching and being touched. In this "new incarnation" he will have the "undeviating contact with reality" of which he has been deprived for a long time.
Adam meets Ralph in a hotel foyer where the two discuss important issues, such as having papers forged and choosing a new name. He walks out of the building as Leo Raphael Adams, eager to explore his new body. He spends hours in front of the mirror and tries to become familiar with himself. To his friends and family he is now invisible. Adam starts on a great European tour to explore his growing sexual desire but also, more reluctantly, his past. When he is not out chatting up girls, he reflects upon his old life and all the missed opportunities. He quickly becomes a fashion model and sought-after society "tart". He experiments with rough sex and drugs, yet, after the initial excitement, this self-indulgence becomes tiresome and far too expensive. His young, superficial friends are bores and Adam has his first severe doubts about the whole operation.
In Greece, he joins the staff of a spiritual and physical rejuvenation centre for rich, middle-aged women to earn some money and find peace. It is run by Patricia, a 1960s feminist. In Alicia, a shy poet, he finds a companion to talk about writing and literature, though he has to play dumb for most of the time to keep up appearances. Patricia strongly desires him and Adam gives in to her longings. While she wants him all to herself and to show him off, Adam contemplates fleeing. When they are all invited to a fashionable party on a yacht, Adam flees from Patricia and hides in one of the cabins. There he is found by Matte, the owner of the yacht, who recognizes him as a "newbody" by the marks on his neck. Adam is shocked by Matte's unscrupulousness concerning his vision of immortality. The poor and powerless have to die to guarantee eternal life for the wealthy. The situation becomes ever more threatening, and Matte finally reveals that he wants Adam's body as his brother is slowly dying and there is no suitable "facility" available. Adam refuses to sell his new self and manages to escape from the yacht. Matte's men follow him closely, but he succeeds in leaving Greece on the next ferry.
Back in London, Alicia suddenly turns up and reports what has happened in the meantime. Adam finds her a job and then returns to his old home, fearing the worst. He meets his wife and talks to her for some hours in the guise of his new self. Narrowly escaping the men who are waiting outside the house, he rings Ralph and manages to get the address of the warehouse as he desperately wants to slip into his old body again and spend the rest of his life with his family. He calls a taxi and goes to the place where he was operated on some months before. Matte and his men already await him there and threaten to take his body by force. A doctor is standing by to save the body and discard the brain. Adam has taken precautions by pouring petrol all over his body and is more than willing to ignite it, thus ruining all plans to save Matte's brother. Again he escapes, although he has to realise that he will never be able to return to his wife and family. He remains trapped in the body he so desperately wanted to have.
Like race, gender becomes an intriguing option in The Body, as the operation allows the transplantation of old brains into all kinds of young bodies. Adam's imagination, however, is strictly limited to living out the opportunities he seems to have missed in his own life. This entails nothing more than experiencing uninhibited promiscuity in a young, well-built, male body. He is far too self-obsessed to care much about alternatives.
In The Body, Kureishi imagines the creation of "newbodies", which entails the transplantation of an old brain into the carefully preserved corpse of a young person. This is clearly a fantastical device that cloaks an instance of magic in pseudo-scientific terms. Strictly speaking, such an operation is not a transformation of the body, as the old physical shell is still fully intact and stored away in a freezer to be re-entered at a later stage. The premise relies on the old Platonic idea that the body is only a shell for the soul. As a side effect, the operation renders the person invisible to family and friends.
The rejuvenation of the self through the acquisition of a new body is an interesting take on the question of immortality – not necessarily in the sense of an extended life span, but rather in terms of enhanced opportunities in life. Here, the material self can be shed like a garment and the new body promises a fresh start – a completely new life.
Kureishi's cosmopolitan world of the arts, fashion, and society events is a lair where old people trap the young and beautiful to consume their youth and energy. It is the older generation that controls and determines their lives through money and power. Adam eventually feels uncomfortable in the role of the mindless gigolo. His new body is a commodity and is consumed by others in precisely this way. Thus, Adam's sexual experiments quickly turn into prostitution.
"In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it." There may be no better summary of Hanif Kureishi's The Body than this line from Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. The novella is constructed around a central paradox: it starts with Adam's utter frustration with old age and the unattainable joys of youth and ends with his bitter regret of being young again and indulging all the excessive pleasures he could only dream of as a sexagenarian. Paradoxically, the fantastic extension of his choices and experiences ultimately leads to a dead end: Adam is more restricted, more insignificant and powerless than ever before. He finds himself trapped in the body of a young man, or rather, he is a ghost haunting a beautiful corpse reanimated only to serve as a plaything for his own wild fantasies.
Critics agree that the science fiction premise of The Body is only a device: it serves to present an allegory, parable, or cautionary tale, as the novella has repeatedly been referred to. In his review for The New Yorker, John Updike focuses on the mind/body dichotomy of the text and reads it alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (1922) as a possible literary progenitor. This transformation of a man who is born a senior citizen and dies a baby also foregrounds the novelty of such a fantastic occurrence and its social implications. In an interview with Bradley Buchanan, Kureishi explicitly invites a comparison with the British tradition of fantastic literature, especially with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-1). Both Jekyll and Gray use the guise of physical appearance to live out their depraved fantasies. All three, including Adam, are finally overcome and ruined by their alter egos.
As in his doppelganger story "Face to Face with You", Kureishi uses devices from fantastic literature to explore familiar themes, such as identity, relationships, and sexuality, from a fresh perspective. In his interview with Buchanan, he emphasizes that both the fantastic and the realistic modes are legitimate "ways of symbolizing human experience". He also argues that, like his earlier characters, the more recent ones are still "trying to enlarge their sense of self", always "struggling against constraint". The negotiation of identity through physical representation is another concern that can be traced throughout Kureishi's writing, from The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) onwards.
The Body has attracted surprisingly little attention and critical discussion. This may be due to the fact that it refuses to be read in a postcolonial context, as most of Kureishi's early work has been. More importantly, however, quite a few early reviews criticized the book for wasting its potential, such as in The Sunday Times, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, where Updike worried about its "bland, upbeat bio-horror". Kureishi's The Body straddles several generic boundaries, with the farcical second half containing the satire of a female utopia, Adam's sexual exploits, and the crime plot that begins to drive the narrative to its open end, seeming almost detached from the more cerebral beginning. Still, Kureishi manages to stay true to the basic plot structure and convincingly demonstrates how the greatest desire can turn into the worst nightmare.
- Buchanan, Bradley. Hanif Kureishi. New British Fiction. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
- Smith, Jules. "Critical Perspective". http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth57
- Thomas, Susie. Hanif Kureishi: A Reader's Guide to Essential Criticism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
Abell, Stephen. "Just touching". TLS, 8 November 2002.
Cowley, Jason. "You're as young as you feel …". The Observer, 3 November 2002.
Deveson, Tom. "Review: Fiction: The Body by Hanif Kureishi; Indelible Acts by A L Kennedy". The Sunday Times, 15 December 2002.
Kunkel, Benjamin. "You've Got to Have Pecs". The New York Times, 29 February 2004.
Royle, Nicholas. "The Body, and seven stories, by Hanif Kureishi". The Independent, 9 November 2002.
Updike, John. "Mind/Body Problems". The New Yorker, 26 January 2004.
http://www.hanifkureishi.com/ (official Hanif Kureishi website)
http://www.contemporarywriters.com/authors/?p=auth57 (British Council website)
http://www.doollee.com/PlaywrightsK/kureishi-hanif.html (list of Kureishi's plays)
http://www.nerve.com/screeningRoom/books/Interview_HanifKureishi/ (Emily Mead's 2004 interview with Hanif Kureishi)