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 has not treated him kindly since the war. In the 1948 London Olympics Archie had a brief moment of glory when he came in thirteenth on the cycling track, hampered, or helped, by the fact that “for three years he got precisely 62.8 seconds on every lap. The other cyclists used to take breaks to watch him do it.” He subsequently went to work for a printing firm, “designing the way all kinds of things should be folded—envelopes, direct mail brochures, leaflets.” Archie married an Italian girl, Ophelia, whom he met during the war, and it is the breakup of this marriage, thirty years later, that is the proximate cause of his suicide attempt.
Fortunately, the attempt fails, thanks to the proprietor of the Muslim butcher’s shop outside which he has decided to end it all. (“No one gasses himself on my property…. We are not licensed.”) Reprieved, Archie then drops in on a party, where he meets nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, “magnificently tall, black as ebony and crushed sable, with hair braided in a horseshoe that pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn’t.” Six weeks later, Clara and Archie are married.
Samad is the more intelligent, fiery, and willful of the two friends. Despite only having one functioning arm—a legacy of an old Indian army wound—he works as a waiter in a curry house:
No matter how bad a Muslim he might be, no one could say Samad wasn’t a consummate waiter. He had taken one tedious skill and honed it to perfection. Here at least he could show others the right path: how to disguise a stale onion bhaji, how to make fewer prawns look like more, how to explain to an Australian that he doesn’t want the amount of chili he thinks he wants.
Samad’s job is a nice touch from Smith, since the curry restaurant is perhaps the most ubiquitous point of encounter—mutually uncomprehending, mutually patronizing—between contemporary Britain and its imperial past. That past is a sore point for Samad. His great-grandfather, Mangal Pande, was executed by the British in the early stages of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, earning himself a place in the Oxford English Dictionary in the process, as a synonym for “any mutineer or traitor…any fool or coward in a military situation.” Samad is obsessed with proving that his ancestor was in fact a hero, and loses no opportunity to harangue bystanders on the sub-ject. It’s one of many irritations about life in Britain—which is also a place of terrible temptation for Samad, a would-be devout Muslim. The temptation takes the particular form of Poppy Burt-Jones, his twin sons’ red-haired music teacher, whom fifty-seven-year-old Samad finds he cannot get out of his mind. In his confusion, he asks the advice of his younger and more sexually experienced colleague Shiva Bhagwati:
“You’ve got to learn this stuff, mate,” said Shiva, speaking slowly, patiently. “Female organism, gee-spot, testicle cancer, the menstropause—midlife crisis is one of them. Information the modern man needs at his fingertips.”
“But I don’t wish for such information!” cried Samad, standing up and pacing the kitchen. “That is precisely the point! I don’t wish to be a modern man! I wish to live as I was always meant to! I wish to return to the East!”
“Ah well…we all do, don’t we?” murmured Shiva, pushing the peppers and onion around the pan. “I left when I was three. Fuck knows I haven’t made anything of this country. But who’s got the money for the air fare? And who wants to live in a shack with fourteen servants on the payroll? Who knows what Shiva Bhagwati would have turned out like back in Calcutta? Prince or pauper? And who,” said Shiva, some of his old beauty returning to his face, “can pull the West out of ’em once it’s in?”
Samad continued to pace. “I should never have come here—that’s where every problem has come from. Never should have had my sons here, so far from God. Willesden Green! Visiting cards in sweetshop windows, Judy Blume in the school, condom on the pavement, Harvest Festival, teacher-temptress!” roared Samad, picking items at random. “Shiva—I tell you, in confidence: my dearest friend, Archibald Jones, is an unbeliever! Now: what kind of model am I for my children?”
That question is not rhetorical for Samad, and it leads him to do something rash. He remortgages his house, raises £3,245, and sends Magid, the brighter and quicker of his twins, back to Bangladesh on a 3 AM flight—and does so without letting his wife Alsana in on the plan. The idea is to insulate Magid from the dangers of the West, but the reader feels a disaster is in store, since we are told that in the last fourteen years, 1971 to 1985, “more people died in Bangladesh, more people perished in the winds and the rain, than in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden put together. A million people lost lives they had learned to hold lightly in the first place.” But the half-expected tragedy fails to materialize. Instead, the serious-minded and intelligent Magid grows up in Bangladesh to be an atheist and a lawyer, while it is Millat back in Willesden who gets into trouble. At first it is nothing more than farting in mosque and smelling of tobacco, but then the trouble begins to take more concrete form:
All women, of every shade, from midnight-black to albino, were Millat’s. They slipped him phone numbers, they gave him blow jobs in public places, they crossed crowded bars to buy him a drink, they pulled him into taxis, they followed him home. Whatever it was—the Roman nose, the eyes like a dark sea, the skin like chocolate, the hair like curtains of black silk, or maybe just his pure, simple stink—it sure as hell worked. Now, don’t be jealous. There’s no point. There have always been and always will be people who simply exude sex (who breathe it, who sweat it). A few examples from thin air: the young Brando, Madonna, Cleopatra, Pam Grier, Valentino, a girl called Tamara who lives opposite the London Hippodrome, right slap in the middle of town; Imran Khan, Michelangelo’s David. You can’t fight that kind of marvelous indiscriminate power, for it is not always symmetry or beauty per se that does it (Tamara’s nose is ever so slightly bent), and there are no means by which you can gain it. Surely the oldest American sentence is relevant here, pertinent to matters economic, politic, and romantic: you either got it or you don’t. And Millat had it. In spades. He had the choice of the known world, of every luscious female from a size 8 to a 28, Thai or Tongan, from Zanzibar to Zurich, his vistas of available and willing pussy extending in every direction as far as the eye could see. One might reasonably expect a man with such a natural gift to dip into the tundishes of a great many women, to experiment far and wide. And yet Millat Iqbal’s main squeezes were almost all exclusively size 10 white Protestant women aged fifteen to twenty-eight, living in and around the immediate vicinity of West Hampstead.
Millat and Magid are not the only representatives of the younger generation: there is also Irie, Clara and Archie’s daughter, born in 1975. (Irie is a much-used Jamaican patois term which, Clara explains, “means everything OK, cool, peaceful.” Alsana objects that this is like calling a child “Wouldsirlikeanypoppadumswiththat?” or “Niceweatherwearehaving.”) Irie is preoccupied with her own looks, her crinkly hair and ample figure, and she is nursing a serious crush on Millat, who is at the same school. One day they are caught smoking marijuana with another boy, Joshua Chalfen, who is desperate to seem cool, and are sent for after-hours supervision with his middle-class, intellectual parents. The household is a revelation for Irie: “It seemed to Irie that here nobody prayed or hid their feelings in a toolbox or silently stroked fading photographs wondering what might have been. Conversation was the stuff of life.” By now, however, confused young Millat is lurching toward Islamic fundamentalism, impelled partly by the Rushdie affair, which in White Teeth (as in real life) was an important event in creating a militant sense of self-consciousness in British Muslims. Not that Zadie Smith takes this too seriously:
“I am from the Kilburn branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,” said Hifan proudly.
“Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation,” repeated Millat, impressed. “That’s a wicked name. It’s got a wicked kung-fu kick-arse sound to it.”
Irie frowned. “KEVIN?”
“We are aware,” said Hifan solemnly, pointing to the spot underneath the cupped flame where the initials were minutely embroidered, “that we have an acronym problem.”
The main focus of the novel’s attention shifts to the world of the younger characters, Archie and Samad’s children—a shift Smith handles with immense assuredness. A key figure is Joshua Chalfen’s father, Marcus. He is involved in the early stages of genetic engineering, and has a program to create what he calls FutureMouse™. This creature is designed to come down with specifically engineered diseases at specific stages of its life, to live for seven years—double normal mouse life expectancy—and then to die at some point in the year 2000.
By now Magid has come back to London, and he is working for Marcus Chalfen. His experiences in Bangladesh have led him to be in love with the vision of order the FutureMouse represents: “No potluck. No random factors. No you have your father’s snout and your mother’s love of cheese. No mysteries lying in wait…. No other roads, no missed opportunities, no parallel possibilities. No second-guessing, no what-ifs, no might-have-beens.” (Samad is depressed by how things have turned out. “The one I send home comes out a pukka Englishman, white-suited, silly-wig lawyer,” he complains to Irie, toward the end of the book. “The one I keep here is fully paid-up green-bow-tie-wearing fundamentalist terrorist.”)
The FutureMouse is due to be unveiled to the public on New Year’s Eve 1992, and it is on this occasion that the novel’s characters climactically converge: Magid passionately pro, Millat and Joshua Chalfen passionately anti (for Islamic and animal-rights reasons, respectively), Irie keen to attend because of her closeness to the Chalfens. All the respective parents are in tow, and the plot has a final surprise to spring: Dr. Perret, the French godfather of FutureMouse, is a former Nazi whose life Archie spared at the end of the war—and is about to save once again.
The narrative voice of White Teeth is wonderfully unafraid, whether it is heard in character sketch (“Denzel and Clarence were two uniquely rude, foul-mouthed octogenarian Jamaicans”), or satire (“according to the PTA booklet, ‘post-class aberration consideration period’ was a suitable replacement for the word detention“) or omniscient commentary (“it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears—dissolution, disappearance“). And Smith has an ear as well as a voice. Her novel has a thrilling range of impersonations, from Alsana’s view of À Bout de Souffle (“Two young people running around France talking nonsense, killing policemen, stealing vehicles, never wearing bras”) to Millat abusing Irie’s picnic preparations (“‘We got apples, you chief,’ cut in Millat, ‘chief’ for some inexplicable reason hidden in the etymology of North London slang, meaning fool, arse, wanker, a loser of the most colossal proportions”) to a Jehovah’s Witness imagining the end-of-the-world weather report:
And tomorrow, coming in from the coast, we can expect a great furnace to rise up and envelop the area with flames that give no light, but rather darkness visible… while I’m afraid the northern regions are advised to wrap up warm against thick-ribbed ice, and there’s a fair likelihood that the coast will be beaten with perpetual storms of whirlwind and dire hail, which on firm land thaws not….
It will be clear from all this that White Teeth is not a realistic novel. The events of the book overlay contemporary British history, at times closely and at other times more flexibly and loosely. (For the reader old enough to remember the times described there are small distractions, usually at the level of popular culture references and the like. One example: no NHS hospital performed ultrasound scans in 1976. But nothing turns on these little anachronisms.) The version of race relations it describes is utopian, a vision of how things might be rather than how they are. O’Connell’s Poolroom, for instance, where Archie and Samad spend too much of their time, and which has no pool tables, is, notwithstanding its Irish name, run by a family of Arab brothers. “I was saying to my brother Abdul,” begins one of them, when Samad interrupts:
It was a tradition, in both Mickey’s wider and nuclear family, to name all sons Abdul to teach them the vanity of assuming higher status than any other man, which was all very well and good but tended to cause confusion in the formative years. However, children are creative, and all the many Abduls added an English name as a kind of buffer to the first.
This is knockabout, but it has a serious point. Part of the great and deserved success White Teeth has enjoyed is to do with this optimistic vision of racial easiness. It is easy to make a dark story out of race, a story of disasters; it is harder to make an account which celebrates differences as well as acknowledging them. Smith does so, in what amounts to a utopian historical novel about the recent past. Her novel features Norman Tebbit’s clashes of history, religion, race, as well as the violence he lovingly predicted, but it does so in a determinedly optimistic spirit. Samad takes a negative view of what the novel sees as a positive process.
“And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems like some long, dirty lie…and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter?”
As Samad described this utopia with a look of horror, Irie was ashamed to find that the land of accidents sounded like paradise to her. Sounded like freedom.
“The land of accidents” is a good name for this optimistically reimagined contemporary London. Perhaps the real city will increasingly come to resemble it.
In White Teeth, a deeply stoned Millat approaches the Trafalgar Square statue of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, the man who ordered the execution of his great-great-great-grandfather Mangal Pande, before going on to put down the great mutiny of 1857. “It means you’re nothing and he’s something,” Millat muses. “And that’s it. That’s why Pande hangs from a tree while Havelock the executioner sat on a chaise longue in Delhi. Pande was no one and Havelock was someone.” On October 19, in a comic real-life sequel to the events of White Teeth, the left-wing politician Ken Livingstone, who in May became the first elected mayor in the history of London, made a speech about that very same statue of Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, suggesting that it be removed. “The people on the plinths in the main square of our capital should be identifiable to the generality of the population,” Livingstone said. “I haven’t a clue who two of the generals are or what they did. I imagine that not one person in 10,000 going through Trafalgar Square knows any details about the lives of those two generals.” The Tory press exploded with rage; passers-by cheerfully agreed that they had no idea who the generals were.
Samad, who often thinks bitterly of the general “on his plinth of pigeon-shat stone,” would be entertained by Livingstone’s proposal, and even more so by the fact that, so far, the only place to offer the statue a new plinth is the eponymous town of Havelock North, 12,000 miles away in New Zealand.
February 8, 2001