Originally written and published in the Times Union in August 2001.
“Clean white teeth are not always wise,” says an elderly British veteran in Zadie Smith’s stunning debut novel, “White Teeth,” setting up one of the major ideas of her book, which has been recently released in paperback (Vintage; 464 pages; $14). “When I was in the Congo, the only way I could identify the nigger was by the whiteness of his teeth … See a flash of white and bang!”
This brief passage contains everything Smith is writing against: stereotypical depictions of people with dark skins, most often natives of lands colonized by whites who are reduced to nothing more than targets of violence.
What makes this novel great, though, is that Smith uses a sharp wit, sensitive insights, humorous and sometimes uncomfortable situations and a rich cast of quirky, believable characters who struggle with their hopes and disappointments in North London. As opposed to the plot, which turns overly melodramatic at the end, Smith’s characters are where her true talents shine.
She gives us full histories that allow each character’s own logic to unfold. For example, an extended scene during World War II shows an unlikely bond being formed between a bland, white Londoner named Archie Jones, a man whose indecision leaves him making important life decisions with the flip of a coin, and Samad Iqbal, a proud, Bengali Muslim who feels himself destined for greater things because his great-grandfather had led a failed mutiny in 1857 against the British.
This friendship and the relationship between the Jones and Iqbal families are the heart of the novel. As the men grow older and struggle with the circumstances of the lives: failed marriages, new wives, children and unrewarding careers (Archie designs ways of folding things like brochures; Samad waits tables at an Indian restaurant in the West End), and often seek comfort in an immigrant watering hole, an Irish poolroom run by Arabs with no pool tables.
The real pleasure of “White Teeth” is the length Smith goes to give us more than “white teeth” descriptions of her characters. As Smith says about Archie’s second wife, Clara Bowden: “And it’s about time people told the truth about beautiful women. … They do not descend, as was once supposed, from on high, attached to nothing other than wings. Clara was from somewhere. She had roots.”
Thus, we get taken on a journey through Clara’s family’s past, which includes scenes from Jamaica in the early part of the century such as the white, British officer who seduces and abandons her black grandmother and her mother’s birth during the great Kingston earthquake of 1907.
Not only are the characters’ histories interesting, but so are their quirks and prejudices, which add a freshness to the writing.
Archie, for example, is limited to racial terms when he thinks of Samad and his wife, Alsana, as “not those kind of Indians” and of Clara as “not that kind of black.” Samad, though a devout Muslim, finds solace in the Anglican-inspired rationalizations for his indiscretions in the statements: “To the pure all things are pure” and “Can’t say fairer than that.” Alsana thinks of Clara as “that black girl” and keeps a running tally in her head of qualities she likes and dislikes about her. She also stems her prejudices by singling out “one specimen” from every minority she disliked “for spiritual forgiveness.” And Clara, who tries to fit into the norms of London, can’t stop herself from blushing when she gets excited and speaks in a Jamaican vernacular, for example when she says to Alsana, “You’re pregnant? Pickney, you so small me kyant even see it.”
All these quirky ways of thinking show the humanity of characters trying to work against long histories of intolerance by finding ways to get along with the people around them, people from vastly different backgrounds. In some ways, all the struggles of Archie, Clara, Samad and Alsana are a prelude to the struggles of their children, Irie Jones and the twins, Magrid and Millat Iqbal. Or, as Samad says, “Our children will be born of our actions. Our accidents will become their destinies.”
Smith brings her same humorous viewpoint to the lives of the children. Irie, for example, has a painful crush on Millat, and that pain is manifested as she undergoes a treatment to straighten her kinky black hair to make herself look beautiful for him. Magid, at age 9, feels so ashamed by his parents that he takes to being called Mark Smith. And in a knowing wink to a writer who is also well-known for using quirky characters in humorous situations caught up in a larger historical context, Zadie Smith has Millat, a beautiful, pot-smoking hooligan, burn Salmon Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” even though he hadn’t read the book. Millay also joins a militant Muslim group for the thrill of it instead of any true belief. And to keep the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation in check, Smith refers to the militants by the group’s less-than-threatening acronym: KEVIN.
Smith’s letting us see this conflict makes “White Teeth” an important work of literature, a must-read the serious reader or any reader who can enjoy characters who aren’t the great mover and shakers of history, but people held sway by the forces of history, people whose mundane problems dramatize the humanity and humor of lives that had been hidden behind the violence of cliches.