In April 1990, Norman Tebbit, the former chairman of the British Conservative Party, made a speech on the subject of immigration. He imagined Asian and Afro-Caribbean citizens of the United Kingdom watching a cricket match between their former homelands and their adopted country, and posed a question:
Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still looking back to where you came from or where you are? Well, you can’t have two homes. Where you have a clash of history, a clash of religion, a clash of race, then it’s all too easy for there to be an actual clash of violence.
“The cricket test,” as it came to be called, immediately entered the British political vocabulary. Tebbit was one of the most virulently right-wing figures in Mrs. Thatcher’s government, and his question was asked in no well-meaning spirit. (The Observer described it at the time as “neat, jocular and infinitely depressing.”) Nonetheless, it remains an interesting question, most of all to the British blacks and Asians whom Tebbit was seemingly trying to stigmatize and provoke. Zadie Smith is a young writer—impossibly young: born in 1975—with an English father and Jamaican mother, and her brilliant first novel, White Teeth, uses part of Tebbit’s speech as one of its epigraphs. But as Northrop Frye once pointed out, “To answer a question is to consolidate the mental level on which a question is asked.” White Teeth is not so much an attempt to answer “the cricket test” as to encompass it, to move beyond it, and to show why things are more complicated and more multivalent than it implies.
The novel revolves around a central friendship, that of Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal. We learn in an extended flashback that the two men became close in the Second World War, as the only survivors of a tank crew whose vehicle broke down outside a Bulgarian village in the very last days of the conflict. After the war Samad went home to Bengal, as it then was—the province of India which was to become first East Pakistan and then, after the war of 1971, Bangladesh. The friendship was in suspended animation for almost three decades, until Samad, newly married to “the diminutive, moon-faced Alsana Begum, with her shrewd eyes,” moves to London. “In a fit of nostalgia, and because he was the only man Samad knew on this tiny island, Samad had sought Archie out, moved into the same London borough.” That borough is Willesden, where Smith herself grew up, an unfashionable, uncelebrated, racially mixed, placidly suburban part of northwest London.
The novel opens in nearby Cricklewood (which is Willesden, only more so) on New Year’s Day, 1975, with things looking bleak for Archie. He is sitting in his car with a vacuum cleaner connected to the exhaust, trying to commit suicide by carbon monoxide fumes. Archie is the weaker, more passive and put-upon of the two friends, and life …