Gautam Malkani is no Zadie Smith. You should know that going into Londonstani so that you don’t expect the likes of White Teeth or On Beauty, both brilliant explorations of British ethnic life. Malkani’s opening goes for the brutal and shocking, sort of a contemporary Asian A Clockwork Orange. And it works. For a while. As does the language, a combination gangsta and texting idioms: “U bhanchod be callin us lot Paki one more time n I swear we”ll cut ‘chyu up, innit.” But Malkani proves quite soon that he is no Anthony Burgess either. That’s maybe not quite fair since Malkani never intended his novel to be the kind of morality tale that A Clockwork Orange is, but he clearly intends his use of language to be startling and original, and Burgess does it all much better. The title is a bit misleading as well because the central figures in Londonstani are neither Pakistani nor Muslim, but Indian and Hindi. Or at least of that heritage.
So after sorting through all the things the book is not, what do we have? A sort of coming of age or at least breaking away book about a nineteen year old named Jas in a rough part of London seeking social acceptance by joining a gang of “rudeboys.” The group is a collection of wannabe’s, engaged in petty crimes, all living with their middle class parents and going to great lengths to hide their activities from their families.
Jas himself is a misfit in this group. Naturally inclined toward the intellectual and academic and squeamish about the brutal and law-defying aspects of his semi-underworld existence. He is the narrator, and his use of the gangsta dialect weakens noticeably as the book proceeds. I believe Malkani never quite figured out how to flesh out his tale with an inarticulate storyteller, so he drops the pretense for pages at a time. One example paragraph of such:
Apparently Vagabond’s big rival is some club called Tramp, which in’t as exclusive an top secret as this place although it was the first to name itself after homeless people. Vagabond nearly lost its licence in the 1980s cos it’d had one too many cocaine busts. They closed the private entertaining rooms an bedrooms in 1998 to keep the feds away for good.
Straight author narration except for the window dressing of the phonetic spelling.
Even with all these faults, the story is quite absorbing. The characters are interesting, and the action proceeds nicely toward the book’s main crisis. There’s a fine Romeo and Juliet plotline with Jas dating a gorgeous Muslim girl in defiance of family and friends on both sides of the religious faultline. Finally, Jas is forced into an act which both breaks the law and betrays his family. Here is the opportunity for redemption or damnation or something, but to my mind neither author nor character takes advantage. There’s been an enormous amount of talk in the book about the power of custom, about the inability and refusal of ethnic groups to break free of outmoded (and occasionally destructive) rituals. This nicely crafted dilemma fits right in with all that, and the reader has a right to expect either some resolution or explicit lack of resolution to it all, but the book comes to an inexplicable literatus-interruptus halt.
I personally think the thing needed another draft, but I suppose that’s just me. Who am I, after all, to argue with international best-sellership?