Carlo in Belgrade (in which a father loves a son)

15 March, 2022
Knez Mihailo­va, heart of Belgrade.

Hanif Kureishi

I won’t trav­el alone because of sad­ness. But once I trav­elled a lot, and went wher­ev­er I was invit­ed, since we had bare­ly adven­tured any­where as kids and I want­ed to catch a gan­der at the out­side world, and meet peo­ple who could tell me new things and sur­prise me, which they will do if you ask ques­tions and look at them right. Now I can­not bear the feel­ing of being no one and unseen, which Fer­nan­do Pes­soa describes so often it seems to have dri­ven him more than half mad.

My sec­ond son Car­lo is twen­ty-sev­en, and like me at his age, knows this is the time to work reg­u­lar­ly, find your sub­jects, twist them around, and get your name about. He wants to be a film and TV writer, and is aware that it’s a great game to be in at the moment. Yet writ­ing is test­ing, espe­cial­ly at the begin­ning when you don’t know if you’ll ever get any­where, or per­suade some­one to pro­mote or pay you. But the sen­su­al, almost erot­ic sat­is­fac­tion of writ­ing well, of being car­ried along by an idea, and feel­ing the work devel­op new dimen­sions in the silence of your room — if you’ve been lucky enough to expe­ri­ence this form of atten­tion and tran­quil­i­ty, it’s a con­tent­ment you nev­er tire of.

Like me, Car­lo is per­sis­tent; he’s start­ing to make progress. He came to Bel­grade with me for a few days — after eigh­teen months of lock­down — so we could be fla­neurs for the week­end, strolling about look­ing at build­ings, graf­fi­ti, peo­ple; talk­ing to jour­nal­ists, any­one who says hel­lo, or has a dog that resem­bles ours.

I get a lot of time to exam­ine him because he’s always look­ing down at his phone, which is where his world is: the first gen­er­a­tion to live their lives dig­i­tal­ly. He’s a bit taller than me, stocky, fit, unshaven, and walks rapid­ly, with a bounce, as if he belongs every­where. He’s sexy as hell; women look right at him and I won­der if he notices. I hope he takes advan­tage while he can. Being sexy is bet­ter than being rich, and almost as good as being talented. 

I strain to recall what I was like at his age, in 1981, get­ting my first plays pro­duced, work­ing with actors and direc­tors when­ev­er I could, and liv­ing with a polit­i­cal­ly busy, fem­i­nist woman in a two-room Hous­ing Asso­ci­a­tion flat in West Lon­don. It would be anoth­er four years before I’d make a liv­ing. I was used to hav­ing no mon­ey, didn’t know any­one who was rich, and nev­er imag­ined I’d be any­thing oth­er than a scruffy play­wright on the fringe.

Car­lo is cer­tain­ly more artic­u­late than I was then, more ambi­tious, less afraid of his own voice, bet­ter edu­cat­ed and more knowl­edge­able, less anx­ious, scared and wound­ed. And not as like­ly to dither and stall. Still, injuries and scars aren’t wast­ed on a writer, and he’ll have his own.

My three sons and I spent a lot of time togeth­er dur­ing lock­down. In the gen­er­al ennui, I wasn’t work­ing much, couldn’t fin­ish any­thing, or just threw work away. I thought I might be done, once and for all. But we walked and talked about sto­ries, dia­logue, space and orga­ni­za­tion. Help­ing the boys became a kind of cre­ation. It got me out of bed, and I thought: this is good talk, why can’t you say any­thing to any­one? After I left home at nine­teen, I saw my father reg­u­lar­ly but I need­ed dis­tance and to explore. Dad was ill and despair­ing about the nov­els he couldn’t get accept­ed. He often said he’d wast­ed his life. I can’t see that he did, hav­ing brought up a fam­i­ly in dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. But there was some pres­tige or esteem he want­ed. Car­lo says writ­ers always have that, though it came as news to me.

Bel­grade is shab­by in places, grand in oth­ers, but looked like an exclu­sive­ly white town. I still get a hit of para­noia on streets like this, look­ing for faces of col­or and won­der­ing how they man­age. I’m not sure Car­lo has to think about his race, or even his iden­ti­ty: it’s tak­en for grant­ed. He tells me that if we want to know what’s going on, we should talk to the young. The kids, he said, would be sub­ver­sive rather than rev­o­lu­tion­ary; sex­u­al­ly inno­v­a­tive rather than polit­i­cal­ly active. The cur­rent idea isn’t to replace one dom­i­nat­ing sys­tem with anoth­er, but to invent new forms of socia­bil­i­ty and meta­mor­pho­sis, to keep evolv­ing. Pol­i­tics is indi­vid­ual — sub­jects sur­viv­ing in the cracks of neo-lib­er­al­ism — rather than being class-based, as if all sys­tems are the same. The kid has real­ly only known Con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ments, right-wing pop­ulism, aus­ter­i­ty, and delu­sion­al shifts like Brex­it. His gen­er­a­tion can’t con­ceive of what pro­found social change would look like.

We meet mixed-raced young peo­ple, and a queer polyamourous woman, with one of her wives. At the end of the evening, Car­lo takes off to an ex-abat­toir, for a ware­house gig giv­en by Russ­ian punks in the style of The Prodi­gy who are big in Serbia.

We talk about foot­ball, friends, books, pol­i­tics. I learn that he likes to return to the sub­ject of food. It’s bizarre, I find, that he often he stands up before eat­ing, to pho­to­graph his meals. I won­der how pleased his friends are to receive pic­tures of Ser­bian piz­za. After each meal, and some time before the next, he likes to delib­er­ate in detail over what we just ate, or might be hav­ing lat­er.  It doesn’t shat­ter me to have a bad meal. I rarely have indi­ges­tion. We only had bad meals in the 1960s. The fruit came in tins.

Of course, in this world of vac­u­ous, deplet­ing con­sumerism and pop­ulism some things, like par­tic­u­lar peo­ple, can either lift or depress you, and tech­nol­o­gy can be soul-mur­der, where we sac­ri­fice too much of our­selves. Part of a parent’s job wouldn’t only be to lay down the law, but to pro­tect their child from the vul­gar­i­ty and stu­pid­i­ty of the age.

Hav­ing thought about it, I fig­ured that with his food talk, Car­lo was talk­ing about nour­ish­ment and regen­er­a­tion, about exchange and col­lab­o­ra­tion, and that which improves or extends you; where you find the sus­te­nance you might need to devel­op. For me it had always been in art, lit­er­a­ture, music and oth­er peo­ple.  And it still is. But it is a ques­tion that is worth ask­ing repeatedly.

Anoth­er ques­tion is this. Car­lo has a pros­per­ous, iron­ic acquain­tance doing well in the finan­cial field who, dur­ing drinks, likes to ask what the point of sto­ries is. The world’s full of con-men and women who deceive peo­ple; sto­ries are cov­er-ups, lies that hide impor­tant wrong­do­ings. And how, in all this once-upon-a-time, can we be sure of the bor­der between the what-hap­pened and the made-up? It’s not quite the world’s most stu­pid ques­tion. In reply, we can only ask him to envis­age a world with­out sto­ries or the imag­i­na­tion. That, of course, would be a dark, emp­ty sto­ry in itself.


Fernando Pessoatravel

Hanif Kureishi, the British author of Pakistani and English heritage, grew up in Kent and studied philosophy at King’s College London. His novels include The Buddha of Suburbia, which won the Whitbread Prize for Best First Novel, The Black AlbumIntimacyThe Last WordThe Nothing and What Happened? Among his many screenplays are My Beautiful Laundrette, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and Le Week-End. He has also published several collections of short stories and had numerous plays performed on stage. France awarded Kureishi the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 2008, The Times of London included Kureishi in its list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945. The same year, he received the distinction of Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Kureishi has been translated into thirty six languages.

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