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WHEN SPIRIT IS MADE FLESH

The Body By Hanif Kureishi, Faber, £ 7.99

Man has, for ages, sought the domain of the gods and the elixir of immortality. But the question is, does immortality lead to happiness and fulfilment' Does the image of an evergreen body give the mind a new lease of life'

In The Body, the eponymous short story in his new anthology, Hanif Kureishi has chosen as his central character a writer, Adam, now in his sixties and resigned to a future of boredom and anonymity. He plans out his future in great detail. After living a reasonably comfortable life so far, he now yearns to break free.

Adam comes upon the unique biological option of buying a fresh young body from a secret clinic that transforms “Nobodies into New Bodies for a fee”. The operation entails the surgical transfer of a person’s brain to a preserved cadaver of his choice. The making of the choice and the introspection involved in the process are sensitively portrayed. For instance, should Adam choose the body of a woman or a man, fair or dark' How much should his past life intrude into his present' Is the earlier identity of the cadaver relevant any more'

He makes his choice, valid for a period of six months. His quest is that of self-discovery. Adam now has a new body, and with it, a new identity. He can now enjoy a life of hedonism from the shelter of anonymity. The voyage of his new life is strange and fascinating. There are two worlds that Adam seeks to explore: his literary world and his family. He enters the first by joining a neo-literary commune as a lowly helping hand, and his family as a stranger.

The plot thickens at this point. Adam becomes uncomfortable with his new image, and his voluntary re-entry into his old world poses serious problems, as there are others who want his new body by fair means or foul. The narrative now speeds up into a thriller with all the attendant excitement of a chase.

Kureishi handles a difficult subject involving the complexities of the mind rather well. His prose is capable of putting the reader into a state of very pleasurable discomfort. I could not help feeling, though, that Adam could have read “The emperor’s new clothes” instead of putting himself under the scalpel. This is to extend the argument that in today’s complex world, the straight line is no longer the shortest distance between two points.

The Body is followed by a series of short stories. They form a kind of montage, connected by the theme of human relationships. The episodes trace the interactions between man and man, man and woman, woman and woman in a modern British setting. These are vignettes from apparently minor and insignificant exchanges, for instance between father and son. They touch a chord now and then and often leave the reader somewhat unsatisfied. The result is a continuum without any obvious origins or conclusions.

The Body is a collection which can be read quickly or savoured at leisure. It is a strange and volatile brew of the unworldly and the sensuous.

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