Over lunch at the Café Central, across the road from the Petofi Museum of Literature, the main venue for Hay’s first venture into Eastern Europe, a group of writers talk about money. ‘When people imagine writers getting together, they think we talk about art and philosophy,’ says Hanif Kureishi at the event which follows, ‘but we’ve just been talk about money, and how bad our lives are.’ He is partly joking of course, but there is a serious point here: ‘You have to make a living,’ he says, ‘writers operate where art and the commercial cross over.’
What Kureishi says next reinforces that, but also implies that despite the commercial imperative that to an extent governs the lives of all successful writers, Kureishi leans toward art. Talking about My Beautiful Launderette, his 1985 film that is to be screened later in the day, he asks, ‘Is there an audience for a gay Pakistani guy kissing a gay skinhead?’ I don’t know. If you thought like that, you’d be…’ Perfect pause. ‘Andrew Lloyd Webber.’
Kureishi is as sharp and funny on stage as he is in The Buddha of Suburbia. Humour is important to him, and – he contends – to all great writers. ‘Except Tolstoy – he wasn’t funny. But Dickens and Balzac and Gogol, they’re all comic writers.’ Jokes are vital in taking to task the ideologies that govern the world. ‘We should offend sensibilities of any kind,’ says Kureishi, ‘not just political orthodoxies, but anything that is accepted.’ For an idea to be generally recognised as truth – and therefore left unquestioned – is dangerous.
The subject of danger in the life of a writer – ‘the price of speaking is very high… we walk the razor’s edge’ – comes up in relation to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Talking of how one can still be beaten for asking in a bookshop in Pakistan for any of Rushdie’s work, Kureishi admires the way in which his fellow writer took Islam to task. ‘It was Salman who revealed that the emperor’s got no clothes… Someone’s got to tell jokes about Islam,’ he adds, ‘not me, but someone’s got to.’
The conversation turns to psychoanalysis: for Peter Florence, fiction writers are ‘a way back into dreaming’ with which Kureishi concurs, citing Freud’s idea about dreams being ‘the royal road to the unconscious’, the place where ‘we make stuff up.’ We also get a whistle-stop tour of many Kureishi touchstones – race, immigration, fathers, bisexuality – and the sounds of the suburbs. ‘Bowie was our Michaelangelo,’ he says, ‘you realised you could reinvent yourself. Music got us out.’
But it is the writer’s role in society that forms the core of the conversation. Now, as much as ever, it is particularly important to prioritise ‘one of the things writers need to do,’ according to Kureishi: ‘test the limits of [freedom of] speech.’