Who They Was
By Gabriel Krauze
HarperCollins, UK
ISBN: 978-0008374990
336pp.

Gabriel Krauze’s debut, Who They Was, was longlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize and deserved every inch of the valid, popular acclaim it received. The book is a work of creative non-fiction based on Krauze’s own experiences as a son of South Kilburn in the United Kingdom, who partly got roped into and partly chose a life of petty crime, which led to more serious drug-dealing and gang warfare.

The son of respectable Polish immigrants, Krauze aka “Snoopz” recounts his hair-raising, harrowing adventures with perfect accuracy — the book is written almost entirely in street jargon. This fact should not put off committed readers, however; if one adheres to the narrative one gets the hang of most of the key words and phrases, such as “zoots”, which refers to marijuana joints, for example, or “shanked”, which means getting stabbed.

Lest judgemental people feel that Krauze is an unmitigated loser, I urge them to think again. His passion for the rough and tough street life is more than equalled by his sincere commitment towards acquiring a university degree in English literature, towards which he works with dogged efficiency, even going so far as to repeat his second year after it was compromised by a prison term. This might well explain why Krauze writes with feeling as well as graphic authenticity.

His tone, while manly to the point of being harsh and gritty on occasion, conveys a fairly consistent reflection on the paradoxes of the human condition. In one particularly nasty scene, the anti-hero knifes a thug in the back remorselessly, then later experiences guilt over the act during — of all the junctures! — lovemaking with his girlfriend, Yinka. The pace of the story never flags. Muggings are followed by shootings, which are followed by vendettas, which are followed by anguished domestic scenes and, finally, grim descriptions of life in prison.

A work of creative non-fiction presents a gritty and frank portrayal of criminal life in the suburbs, written by a talented writer who has experienced and observed everything first-hand

It is fundamentally a sad book, since Snoopz, in his own way, suffers as much as he makes other people suffer. However, I personally found nothing repellent about either the style — which is mature — or the content — which is as realistic as it can get. Moreover, it is not unalleviated misery in terms of dark content.

There are glimmers of sweetness and humanity. For instance, Snoopz’s formerly Rastafarian uncle, Mr T, always provides the protagonist with a safe haven to go to when things at Snoopz’s home become unbearable. Also, Krauze possesses very fine powers of description: beautiful women and expensive diamond watches are described with as much attention to detail as gory fights in chicken shops and drug trips (both bad and good).

One of the strongest aspects of this already formidable work is the valid sense of there being honour among thieves, which is presented either implicitly or explicitly throughout the book. Tough street fighters/gangsters such as two of Snoopz’s friends — Rex and Gotti — are role models our anti-hero looks up to. Although life is not a bed of roses for either of them — Gotti is forced to go underground, and Rex ends up doing a longish stretch of rough prison time — the high regard in which Snoopz and several of his fellow criminals hold them is 100 percent genuine and, frankly, well-earned.

Gotti regards Snoopz with deeper brotherly affection than Snoopz’s own biological twin, Danny, does. Aside from a charged scene where Danny is threatened by Snoopz and rightly notes that his twin is incapable of harming him, very few interactions between the Krauze twins are demonstrated over the course of the book. In spite of his filial and familial love for his brother, his strict but morally upright mother and touchingly tolerant father, Snoopz’s real family are his street brothers, all hardened criminals who operate according to their own dangerously chaotic, but strict, sense of rules.

I touch one of the scars and say brudda what happened? He says Snoopz, I was walking into the estate and this whip pulls up beside me and three brers jump out with blue bandannas tied over their faces and this brer says what you think you’re a badman yeah? And he’s backed out one big shank. — Excerpt from the book

Betrayals are dealt with by means of major retaliation, and those who are too soft for a life of South Kilburn crime are dismissed and dispatched effectively; on rare occasions, permanently. More than one murder is alluded to, although the most disturbing one — that of an innocent female bystander — takes place towards the end of the book (virtually all the other major victims described are males).

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise that Snoopz has a very low opinion of the police, and though one does not admire the anti-hero per se (neither does he expect one to) one cannot help but marvel at the dexterity with which he avoids prison for the most part. Krauze portrays the feds as dim-witted at best, and sly, petty criminals themselves at worst. One of the book’s funniest scenes is when Snoopz is being frisked by a policeman and feels a ball of cocaine — that he has concealed about his person — slide down his jeans and get lodged in his shoe. Aside from the ignominious frisking, he escapes with his body and loot intact.

Yet even Snoopz cannot remain out of jail indefinitely, and some of the novel’s most anguished moments describe how prisons are designed to break the spirits of even the hardiest of men. There are no central female criminals presented in the novel.

Although this book has been glorified in social media with comparisons to The Iliad and other epic works, as a scholar of the canonical classics in general, and the epic genre in particular, I can attest to the fact that it deserves no such accolades. But that does not mean it lacks either merit or substance. It is an unremittingly severe portrayal of criminal life in the suburbs, written empathetically by a talented writer who has experienced and observed everything first-hand. I predict that it will eventually enter the post-modern literary canon based entirely on merit as opposed to politics, or even publicity.

Krauze’s criminal has much in common with Franz Kafka’s cockroach: both learn to negotiate a difficult mini-universe the hard way, and both are quietly menacing as well as memorable. Krauze may not be an Achilles figure but, in his own way, his alter ego Snoopz is darkly tragic, though not epic.

And that fact alone may well explain why a book that has come across as literally incomprehensible to some people made it to the Booker Prize committee’s prestigious longlist.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 28th, 2021

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