Thursday, 6 July 2006

Review: White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)

This book doesn't end neatly, it peters out. But the joy is in the journey, the development of the characters over a period of decades, and their personal efforts at salvation and fulfillment.

And the breadth of Smith's comic genius is staggering. Her delivery is crisp and rapid, making you keep up with the narrative. The construction is assured.

Like a cross between Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Salman Rushdie, the book has massive quantities of humour, pathos, irony and humanity. There are many characters, and we see them exposed at various times in their lives. This book is filmable, eminently so.

Archie and Samad meet Clara and Alsana. They marry. The two blokes have been pals since WWII. We see them negotiate its last stages. Clara comes from a Jamaican background, Archie from a working-class, white background, yet they marry and have a daugter, Irie. Samad and Alsana are both Bangladeshi. They have two sons: Millat and Magid. Shocked by the corruption of Western society, Samad has Magid sent back — at age nine — to Bangladesh to be raised. But Samad is a conflicted human being. He has an affair with his children's music teacher. Alsana doesn't find out about that but she's devastated by his legal kidnapping of the eldest of her twins.

The pace is irresistible:

It was a new breed, just recently joining the ranks of the other street crews: Acidheads, Sharons, Tracies, Kevs, Nation Brothers, Raggas and Pakis; manifesting itself as a kind of cultural mongrel of the last three categories. Raggastanis spoke a strange mix of Jamaican patois, Bengali, Gujarati and English. Their ethos, their manifesto, if it could be called that, was equally a hybrid thing: Allah featured, but more as a collective big brother than a supreme being, a hard-as-fuck geezer who would fight in their corner if necessary; Kung Fu and the works of Bruce Lee were also central to the philosophy; added to this was a smattering of Back Power (as embodied by the album Fear of a Black Planet, Public Enemy); but mainly their mission was to put the Invincible back in Indian, the Bad-aaass back in Bengali, the P-Funk back in Pakistani. People had fucked with Rajik back in the days when he was into chess and wore V-necks. People had fucked with Ranil, when he sat at the back of the class and carefully copied all teacher's comments into his book. People had fucked with Dipesh and Hifan when they wore traditional dress in the playground. People had even fucked with Millat, with his tight jeans and his white rock. But no one fucked with them any more because they looked like trouble. They looked like trouble in stereo. Naturally, there was a uniform. They each dripped gold and wore bandannas, either wrapped around their foreheads of tied at the joint of an arm or leg. The trousers were enormous, swamping things, the left leg always inexplicably rolled up to the knee; the trainers were equally spectacular, with tongues so tall they obscured the entire ankle; baseball caps were compulsory, low slung and irremovable, and everything, everything, everything was Nike™; wherever the five of them went the impression they left behind was of one gigantic swoosh, one huge mark of corporate approval. And they walked in a very peculiar way, the left side of their bodies assuming a kind of loose paralysis that needed carrying along by the right side; a kind of glorified, funky limp like the slow, padding movement that Yeats imagined for his rough millenial beast. Ten years early, while the happy acid heads danced through the Summer of Love, Millat's Crew were slouching towards Bradford.

Millat and Irie get involved with the Chalfens, a family of the middle class, parents both professionals. They help the kids with their schoolwork. Irie is changed, wants to go overseas for a year before university. One night she goes to her parents' bedroom to talk — Clara doesn't want her to go — and steps barefoot on Clara's false teeth. This wakes up her instincts and she ruminates.

But Irie was sixteen and everything feels deliberate at that age. To her, this was yet another item in a long list of parental hypocrises and untruths, this was another example of the Jones/Bowden gift for secret histories, stories you never got told, history you never entirely uncovered, rumour you never unravelled, which would be fine if every day was not littered with clues, and suggestions; shrapnel in Archie's leg ... photo of strange white Grandpa Durham ... the name 'Ophelia' and the word 'madhouse' ... a cycling helmet and an ancient mudguard ... smell of fried food from O'Connells ... faint memory of a late night car journey, waving to a boy on a plane ... letters with Swedish stamps, Horst Ibelgaufts, if not delivered return to sender ...
  Oh what a tangled web we weave. Millat was right: these parents were damaged people, missing hands, missing teeth. These parents were full of information you wanted to know but were too scared to hear. But she didn't want it any more, she was tired of it. She was sick of never getting the whole truth. She was returning to sender.

Mohammed Hussein-Ishmael, the local halal butcher who saves Archie from dying at the very beginning of the book, all those years ago, now joins in the ranks of the supporters of KEVIN — The Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation:

The second reason for Mo's conversion was more personal. Violence. Violence and theft. For eighteen years Mo had owned the most famous halal butchers in North London, so famous that he had been able to buy the next door property and expand into a sweetshop/butchers. And in this period in which he ran the two establishments, he had been a victim of serious physical attacks and robbery, without fail, three times a year. Now, that figure doesn't include the numerous punches to the head, quick smacks with a crowbar, shifty kicks in the groin or anything else that failed to draw blood. Mo didn't even phone his wife, no matter the police, to report those. No: serious violence. Mo had been knifed a total of five times (Ah), lost the tips of three fingers (Eeeesh), had both legs and arms broken (Oaooow), his feet set on fire (jiii), his teeth kicked out (ka-tooof) and an air-gun bullet (ping) embedded in his thankfully fleshy posterior. Boof. And Mo was a big man. A big man with attitude. The beatings had in no way humbled him, made him watch his mouth or walk with a stoop. He gave as good as he got. But this was one man against an army. There was nobody who could help. The very first time, when he received a hammer blow to his ribs in January 1970, he naively reported it to the local constabulary and was rewarded by a late-night visit from five policemen who gave him a thorough kicking. Since then, violence and theft had become a regular part of his existence, a sad spectator sport watched by the old Muslim men and young Muslim mothers who came in to buy their chicken, and hurried out shortly afterwards, scared they might be next. Violence and theft. The culprits ranged from secondary-school children coming in the cornershop side to buy sweets (which is why Mo only allowed one child from Glenard Oak in at a time. Of course it made no difference, they just took turns beating the shit out of him solo), decrepit drunks, teenage thugs, the parents of teenage thugs, general fascists, specific neo-Nazis, the local snooker team, the darts team, the football team and huge posses of mouthy, white-skirted secretaries in deadly heels. These various people had various objections to him: he was a Paki (try telling a huge drunk Office Superworld check-out boy that you're Bangladeshi); he gave half his cornershop up to selling weird Paki meat; he had a quiff; he liked Elvis ('You like Elvis, then? Do yer? Eh, Paki? Do yer?'); the price of his cigarettes; his distance from home ('Why don't you go back to your own country?' 'But then how will I serve you cigarettes?' Boof); or just the look on his face. But they all had one thing in common, these people. They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies and petitions the world could offer. It had brought him more securely within the fold of his faith than ever a visitation from the angel Jabrail could have achieved. The last straw, if it could be called that, came a month before joining KEVIN, when three white 'youths' tied him up, kicked him down the cellar steps, stole all his money and set fire to his shop. Double-jointed hands (the result of many broken wrists) got him out of that one. But he was tired of almost dying. When KEVIN gave Mo a leaflet that explained there was a war going on, he thought: no shit. At last someone was speaking his language. Mo had been in the frontline of that war for eighteen years. And KEVIN seemed to understand that it wan't enough — his kids doing well, going to a nice school, having tennis lessons, too pale skinned to ever have a hand laid on them in their lives. Good. But not good enough. He wanted a little payback. For himself. He wanted Brother Ibrahim to stand on that podium and dissect Christian culture and Western morals until it was dust in his hands. He wanted the degenerate nature of these people explained to him. He wanted to know the history of it and the politics of it and the root cause. He wanted to see their art exposed and their science exposed, and their tastes exposed and their distastes. But words would never be enough; he'd heard so many words (If you could just file a report ... If you wouldn't mind telling us precisely what the attacker looked like), and they were never as good as action. He wanted to know why these people kept on beating the shit out of him. And then he wanted to go and beat the shit out of some of these people.

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