Wednesday, April 18, 2012

155. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith's White Teeth (Penguin Books, 2000; 542) is a somewhat historical novel set in the not too distant past of two families, whose friendship was developed on the battlefield but fully fledged in London. It traces the life of Samad Miah Iqbal as an immigrant in Britain and his English friend Alfred Archibald Jones. Later on, the Chalfens - a middle class British family of Jewish descent - were introduced. Using a mix of humour, and a certain penchant (Smith's) for caricaturing, Zadie Smith portrayed the general issues of miscegenation, assimilation, acculturation, isolation and identity and their effects on the social, physical, mental, emotional and religious development of a migrants. And the extent to which one family went to in order to maintain the sanctity of their religious beliefs and traditional life, to preserve it from the invading army of bacteria. But what is the strength of a single man in the face of globalisation (spread through the television), precocity and willingness?

The story opened with Archie Jones on a suicide mission. Archie was a man who had never ever made a decision in his life. The mere act of thinking and making a decision was so difficult that he refrained from it whenever he could; but if he were hard-pressed to do so or the questioner pressed hard, he would toss a coin. Archie was the embodiment of failure; he had failed in all fronts of his life: his marriage which began on a beautiful note had failed irremediably after thirty years, the authorities had failed to recognise him as a WWII veteran (together with Samad) though he saw less of the war, and the Olympic committee failed to record his name for coming in 13th in cycling during the 1948 London Olympic games. But it was the major failure of his first life that offered him the chance to live a second. This was his failure to commit suicide when Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a halal butcher on whose property Archie had driven to gas himself, asked him not to kill himself there on his property. With this new lease of life, Archie was bent on living a kind of youngish lifestyle. He therefore descended into debauchery and hedonism together with some hemp-smoking, alcohol-imbuing teenagers. These young ones have gathered because the world did not end as was predicted and preached by the Jehovah Witnesses. It was during one of his visits to this house full of hedonists that Archie met the young Jamaican, with two missing front teeth, Clara Bowden. The two were soon married, against the warnings of Clara's mother, Hortense Bowden, and her boyfriend Ryan Topps. Clara had gone through a circuitous life that had seen her transformed from the shy, witnessing, Jehovah Witness she was to a hedonist, a change that had infuriated her spirit-filled mother.

Samad, Archie's closest and only friend had migrated to Britain, after the war, from Bangladesh with his wife Alsana. Alsana and Clara became friends after Archie's marriage and the two women conceived at approximately the same period. As the Iqbals tried to adjust to life in their new country and neighbourhood, the Joneses tried to come to terms of their 'accidental' marriage for Clara was nineteen when she married and Archie was forty-seven. Samad, a past scientist with a withered hand, had to suffer the humiliation of working as a chef under a family relative to whom he was much older and to whom he must obey, and Alsana must sew every day, every hour to keep the family going. At delivery time, Clara had a girl whom she named Irie Ambrosia Jones and Alsana had a set of twins, boys, whom Samad named Millat and Magid Iqbal.

Samad and Archie had now become fathers and must as well bring up their children the way they deemed best. And this was when the problems began, especially for Samad who, seeing his wife caught in that in-between most migrants find themselves - to let go of their traditions or the cling onto them, became afraid for Millat and Magid. But what could Samad, that archetypal patriarch, do to protect his roots and traditions from foreign infiltration, even if the foreign had become home to his children. Not even the separation or the sending home to Bengali of Magid, the precocious of the two who had shown excellent display of intellect, would solve the problem. Magid, through a series of incidences both at home in Bangladesh and in London, continued to seek education, defeating his father's quest for him to serve Allah and shun Western education. This failure in Samad's life weakened and saddened him, just as the refusal of both India and Britain to recognise or concede his great-grandfather's (Pande) demonstration of valour against the British soldiers. That his son was learning to become a lawyer was the greatest failure he could ever have in his life and for that he was almost always in a penance mood to Allah and irascible to Alsana, as if it was the latter who had brought up the idea rather than him colluding with Archie to kidnap the boy. Millat on the other hand was going through his own crises and confusions: morality, religious and identity (belonging). Moving from one hemp-smoking, women-chasing, alcohol-slurping gang to the other he finally joined KEVIN - Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation. This was after he had joined the Chalfen household through their son Joshua Chalfen. The three - Millat, Irie and Joshua - were part of the students caught when parents ambushed the school and arrested children smoking hemp. Their punishment was to attend biology studies at the Chalfen household. The Chalfens were Jewish and well-educated, opinionated and socially stupid: Marcus Chalfen was a famous geneticist (who through Irie had contacted Magid and, surprised by his intelligence, had gone on corresponding with him to the annoyance of Samad); Joyce Chalfen was a horticulturist (who doted over Millat, believing she understood him and could change him, which became detrimental to her own family); Joshua was the eldest of the Chalfen family.

As the Chalfens made all the fuss about the two: Irie and Millat - Millat because Joyce always wanted him to be around regardless of the cost she was incurring from all his delinquent behaviours and Irie because Marcus employed her to do his filing for him - Joshua was slipping away into a clique of friends who would shift his focus. Finally, when KEVIN took Millat and indoctrinated him about his religion and the need to defend it and informed him of Marcus' lifetime project, the FutureMouse project, which was not of Allah and that no one had the right to interfere with creation, a special domain for God, FATE had taken Joshua, who was initially attracted by his lasciviousness of Joely. FATE (Fighting Animal Torture and Exploitation) was a radical animal right group that would stop at nothing to release an incarcerated animal or to punish the offender.

Now as a new millennium was about to unfold, Marcus Chalfen was about to unveil his new creation, the FutureMouse, which he had programmed to live for seven-years and to die at a given time. This research, as communicated to the public through Magid's (he had returned to Britain through Marcus Chalfen) expert writing skill, was supposed to help cure so many diseases including cancer and skin pigmentation. However, there were a lot of people with special interests in this creation: KEVIN - led by Millat - would stop at nothing to disrupt the programme and show Marcus that he was not Allah and should therefore not play one; FATE - led by Crispin and Joely and helped by Joshua would want to break the glass and release the mouse or if it failed injure the perpetrator; Hortense Bowden and Ryan Topps - Clara's mother (and Irie's grandmother) and her first boyfriend respectively - being Jehovah Witnesses and having found a new date when the world would end - have organised a singing and drumming ceremony in front of the hall where the exhibition would take place, to register their displeasure against Marcus for playing Jehovah. But Samad, Archie, Irie and some of their relatives were there to support, albeit grudgingly, Irie and Magid. These groups with different opinions converged at the same destination.

Regarding identity, Irie - to look beautiful for Millat - had to undergo chemical treatment to straighten her hair and when it failed had to fix the hair of an Indian onto hers. This is an issue that had raged forever and it is rare to see an African woman - both at home and abroad - who still cherishes her kinky hair. The statistics provided by Smith, regarding the amount of money blacks spend on their hair, was amazing and the saddest part was the poorer emigres would have to spend so much money to change their look. And there were those Indians who are also forced to shave and sell their hair for money. Aside all these, the most significant theme was that between religion and science. There were several overt derisions against religious zealots. For instance, Samad was bent on making his son Magid serve Allah rather than becoming a lawyer. Smith's themes were varied and, though most were germane to the migrant experience, transcended beyond it. It pitted religious fundamentalism and the blind fanaticism against science. Here some of the poor arguments espoused by these right groups and religious bodies were seen in all of its stupidity. Regardless of this, her argument against that self-conceited idea that we should be loved or that each person should be loved equally was brilliant:
What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll - then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greetings cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time. 
There were also several flagpoles to mark the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demonstrations and agitations that marked Salman Rushdie's publication of Satanic Verses. The story is filled with humour and satirical presentations; it philosophises a lot of the current debate between religion and science, the gradual homogenisation of cultures within an environment and miscegenation. The language was very smart for each of the characters. There was the Jamaican dialect, the street jargon, and academic and religious languages. Smith showed that she understands her subjects and have a comparable knowledge to carry out their emotions and fears, unadulterated, to the reader. At 542 pages, White Teeth has a lot to offer the reader and every émigré would find something in the book to relate to.

This book was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge and the Chunkster Challenge

13 comments:

  1. This is a book that I have been wanting to read for a very long time, and your review just confirms that for me. I had no idea that it was so dense and thought provoking, but I think that only heightens my desire to read it all the more!

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    1. I hope to read your review. It's dense but not tiring. I read a 77-page drama in three days. That was tiring.

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  2. Wonderful review! My husband bought me this book as a gift many years ago, and you've made me question why I still haven't read it.

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    1. Just pull it down from the shelf and make justice to the words. You'll never regret spending time with this book.

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  3. I just came across this book at a bookstore a few days ago and bought it. Now I can't wait to read it.

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  4. I absolutely loved this book when I read it (about ten years ago) except for the final pages; I didn't want such a quick wrap-up after having felt so happily immersed in the world she'd created over so many chapters and pages. I wonder if I would still feel the same way, but maybe if I knew it was coming I could adjust my expectations. And maybe I just missed the point somehow. However, I still intend to read some of her other works, and I've heard that her essays are especially rewarding.

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    1. I also thought so. In fact when it was converging to the end I was wondering what was going to happen. She could have stretched it a bit but that would also have belaboured other readers. This is a book I'd love to read again.

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  5. Absolutey fantastic book. Smith has a way with words that creates humour in the end. Great review.

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    1. Thanks Geosi. The book is interesting and thanks for giving it to me.

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  6. This book has been just off my radar for a few years now. I see it around, on people's bookshelves, in bookstores etc... and almost pick it up but don't. Now I will.

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  7. Nice book!!i hope my husband will buy for me soon!

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