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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch


In this issue:


by Eileen Frost

At age 21, Zadie Smith wrote "White Teeth," a novel that sweeps across cultures and continents, bringing alive the contemporary multi-cultural London scene. Now it is in paperback.

And Consider This

Summer is usually associated with swimming holes, Fourth of July parades and lemonade stands but literary fans can find events that center around their favorite authors such as Faulkner, Hemingway and Twain.


White Teeth, by Zadie Smith.

Random House, c2000, $24.95; Knopf , $14.95, paperback, 2001.

How pleasant it is to have long summer days ahead of us, promising opportunities for restorative reading, amusement, and reflection. Even better to find that just in time, a perfectly wonderful, often funny novel appears in paperback June 12. That novel is "White Teeth," by Zadie Smith. winner of this year's Whitbread Award, winner of the Guardian First Book Award, and on and on.

If, as I think probable, you are captivated by this novel, you will be glad to know that Zadie Smith, now 24, wrote this book at the age of 21, when she was in her senior year at Cambridge University. This suggests that we may look forward to even more fine reading from her. (Her second novel should be finished this year.) Rather than the typical semi-autobiographical first novel, "White Teeth" sweeps across cultures and continents, bringing alive the contemporary multi-cultural London scene.

First imagine, if you will, the penultimate days of World War II. Two members of a British tank squad are inadvertently spared from death, which cements an improbable friendship. Amiable, somewhat dim Archie Jones from a down-at-the-heels section of north London, meets Samad Iqbal, a well educated Bengali Muslim, serving in His Majesty's forces. Twenty-five years later, when Archie, a paper-folding specialist in a print shop, having just bollixed a suicide attempt, has begun life anew, Iqbal, now head waiter in a neighborhood Indian restaurant, looks him up. They recommence one of the more interesting and humorous friendships in contemporary literature.

The author smiles benevolently at every attempt they make at understanding one another. Archie and Samad fix a radio together during the war, despite the awkwardness Samad feels at "an Indian telling an Englishman what to do." From this experience, Archie infers "the true power of do-it-yourself, how it uses a hammer and nails to replace nouns and adjectives, how it allows men to communicate. A lesson he kept with him all his life."

Each marries. Archie Jones is transformed thereby, "not due to any particular effort on his part, but by means of the entirely random, adventitious collision of one person with another." Seizing the day, he impulsively marries nineteen-year-old Clara Bowden, "from Lambeth, via Jamaica beautiful in all senses except, maybe, by virtue of being black magnificently tall with hair braided in a horseshoe that pointed up when she felt lucky, down when she didn'tthe most comforting woman he had ever met. Her beauty was not a sharp, cold commodity."

Samad Iqbal, by contrast, has made a traditional, arranged marriage with bossy, belligerent Alsana from "the very best people" in Bengal. His friend Archie is often mystified by this phenomenon. During the war, when Archie had asked Samad what his future wife looked like. Samad confessed, "I still have some time to wait Unfortunately, the Begum family do not yet have a female child of my generation." Archie, astounded: "You mean your wife's not bloody born yet?"

A polyglot section of north London, in which native-born Brits have become a distinct minority, serves as backdrop for the entertaining dynamics of immigrants settling in. In O'Connell's Pub, reopened under Bangladeshi management, Archie and Iqbal try to understand and support one another, with varying degrees of success. Iqbal sometimes feels depressed by "blank pancake English faces." Once he excitedly grabs Archie's hand, and Archie tries to remember that "Indians were emotional weren't they all that spicy food "

Easygoing Jamaican Clara Jones becomes friends with feisty, traditional Alsana Iqbal. Clara and Archie have a daughter, Irie, Jamaican for "no problem." Alsana, on the other hand, gives birth to twin sons named Millat and Magid, who drive their parents crazy. One eventually develops into a pot-smoking punk/militant Muslim. The other is sent "home" to Bangladesh to grow up untainted by the vices of postwar Britain. He becomes instead an atheistic attorney specializing in genetic engineering cases, what his dad calls "more English than the English."

When the children were young, Samad had embraced the role of active parent participant in his children's education. Minutes of PTA meetings reveal the sometimes jarring clash of culture. For example, debating the value of adding playground equipment, "Mr. Iqbal wishes to know why the Western education system privileges activity of the body over activity of the mind and soul" and advocates "a headstand regimen." His well-meaning efforts at responsible parent prove futile.

Enter a third family. Things come unglued when young Irie and delinquent Millat are befriended by a well-meaning white couple, a liberal geneticist and his horticulturist wife. Aiming to do good by tutoring underachieving kids, Malcolm and Joyce Chalfen are intellectuals who view themselves as above the common fray ("We really don't do small talk here.") Joyce is convinced that Millat's misbehavior can only be explained by ADHD. The author's comic voice shines through when Irie protests: "Joyce, he hasn't got a disorder, he's just a Muslim. There are one billion of them. They can't all have ADHD."

The woes of raising teenagers are compounded by the disinterest of the second generation in the values of the old. The Iqbals become convinced that their son Millat, who drinks, smokes, and is a magnet for girls, is himself being seduced, away from his family. They are further outraged when Mr. Chalfen even leaps continents and invades traditional Bangladesh. He starts writing letters to Magib, who becomes his soul-mate: "Within two months they had filled a volume at least as thick as Keats's and by four were fast approaching the length and quantity of the true epistophiles, St. Paul, Clarissa, Disgruntled from Tunbridge Wells."

Meanwhile, Mr. Chalfen has succeeded in breeding an experimental mouse that promises to revolutionize cancer treatment. Animal rights activists, militant Muslims opposed to tampering with God's creation, Jehovah's Witnesses convinced that the end is nigh, the Jones family and the Iqbals-all converge on Chalfen's press conference to unveil his mouse. It is controversy over this mouse that spins the novel to its inevitable conclusion.

Zadie Smith has been described as a combination of Dickens and Salman Rushdie, with a little of My Beautiful Laundrette thrown in. Her wisdom belies her years. She is a proud addition to contemporary fiction .

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© Eileen Frost for SeniorWomenWeb

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