White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Penguin, 2017, 552 p. First published 2000.

I almost certainly would not have read this if the good lady had not borrowed it from the nearest public library. (We feel we have to patronise it as otherwise it may suffer the same fate of closure as our local one did a few years ago now.) She is on a project to read as many James Tait Black Memorial Prize winners as she can. White Teeth won it for 2000. I’m glad I did read it though as it’s very well written.

If you were unkind you could describe it as a family saga but at the same time it is more specific and broader than that. In addition it is peppered with living, breathing characters who appear overwhelmingly real to the reader, even in their contradictoriness.

The main relationship in the book is that between Englishman Archie Jones and Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal, who met in the latter stages of World War 2, when they manned a tank in the Balkans. After his immigration to Britain and arranged marriage to Alsana, Samad met up again with Archie and their friendship ensued. The novel starts with Archie, depressed on his divorce, flipping a coin to decide his fate and subsequently meeting Clara Bowden, daughter of the half-Jamaican and very religious Hortense. Archie and Clara soon marry and have a daughter, Irie. Samad and Alsana have twin boys, Magid and Millat, of around the same age as Irie, who in adolescence moons after Millat.

Samad claims descent from Mangal Pande, the man who fired the first shot in the Indian Mutiny (and was hanged for his pains.) Samad says Pande wasn’t the fool that he has been portrayed as, that Pande couldn’t have been drugged up, but instead sacrificed his life in the name of justice for India. Archie remains much more sceptical about the circumstances surrounding Pande’s actions.

Samad berates himself for failing to live up to his Muslim beliefs – in particular for an affair with his children’s music teacher Poppy Burt-Jones – and as a result packs Magid off to Bangladesh to ensure he is brought up in true Muslim correctness. Alsana doesn’t forgive him for this removal of one of her children and thereafter no longer speaks directly to him. This gives the narrative a touch of comedy as does her description of a near relative as Niece-of-Shame.

Samad’s stratagem fails, Millat has an attractive persona, women seem to find him irresistible, yet despite his many conquests, joins a fundamentalist Islam movement called Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation (they are aware of the “unfortunate” acronym, KEVIN,) while in Bangladesh Magid becomes a rationalist and scientist.

The lives of Irie and Millat become entwined with the middle-class Chalfen family, who have a philosophy of questioning everything. Marcus is a genetics engineer and his wife Joyce is one of those people who is convinced she knows better than the people she is talking to what is happening to them and how they feel.

Teeth are mentioned infrequently. A (minor) character says, “When I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth, if you see what I mean. Horrid business. Dark as buggery it was. And they died because of it, you see?” Irie is ‘bitten’ by her mother’s false teeth one night when she knocks over her glass in the darkness.

The novel of course interrogates the immigrant experience. “‘Who would want to stay?” Samad says to Irie. “Cold, wet, miserable food, dreadful newspapers – who would want to stay? In a place where you are never welcomed, only tolerated. Like you are an animal finally house-trained. Who would want to stay? But you have made a devil’s pact … it drags you in and suddenly you are unsuitable to return, your children are unrecognizable, you belong nowhere.’”

Elsewhere he adds, “There is no one more English than the Indian, no one more Indian than the English. There are still young white men who are angry about that.” However, “The fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation,” are “small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance ….. In Jamaica it is even in the grammar: there is no choice of personal pronoun, no splits between me or you or they, there is only the pure homogenous I.” (Often spoken as ‘I and I.’)

There are also warnings, “When an Englishman wants to be generous, the first thing you ask is why, because there is always a reason,” and explanations, “It is not that he ….. doesn’t love her (oh, he loves her: just as the English loved India and Africa and Ireland; it is the love that is the problem, people treat their lovers badly.)”

The final scene in the book echoes back to the reason why Archie is forever flipping coins to make a decision and brought to my mind Sophie’s Choice, though Archie’s critical one had no potential devastating consequences for his immediate family.

Pedant’s corner:- curb (kerb.) “Wrapped around the room in a panoramic” (a panoramic what? Panoramic is an adjective it requires a noun to describe. ‘A panorama’ would have been okay,) “someone who, to put it simply, fucks their sisters” (either ‘someone who fucks his sisters’ or, ‘people/men who fuck their sisters’.) “‘Show’s how much you know’” (‘Shows how much,) collander (colander.) “’O’Connell’s’ said Samad” (missing comma; ‘O’Connell’s,’ said Samad,) dypsomaniac (dipsomaniac,) bannister (banister,) “the largest community of Earth, the animal kingdom, were oppressed, imprisoned and murdered on a daily basis” (the largest community … was oppressed… .) “Didn’t use to be” (Didn’t used to be.)

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