White Teeth, by Zadie Smith: fundamental interrogations on the fundamentals

I think it is a secret for no one here that I love Zadie Smith. I admire her wit, her style, her sense of humour, her cleverness and sagacity. I’m in awe at the fact that she began her career as a writer in her early twenties, and that her first novel, White Teeth,  was none other than a densely packed story of two families over two generations that can be read as a portrait of Britain’s complicated multiculturalism at the beginning of this century. I mean, how is that for a debut?!

One distinctly hear echoes of Salman Rushdie or Sam Selvon in the narrative voice or in those of some characters (I personally notice similarities between Smith’s Hortense and Selvon’s Tanty in The Lonely Londoners), which makes the reading, as you can imagine, an utter delight. Zadie Smith has this talent to literally make you hear voices with written words and I often found myself bursting out laughing and re-reading some phrases, comparisons or dialogues that are like nothing else I’ve read in contemporary literature.

White Teeth is an ambitious novel that tackles many aspects of living in Britain as an immigrant of first or second generation and regularly questions notions of belonging (Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal is tortured all his life as to whether or not he should go back home and, as a concession to his inner interrogations, sends back one of his twins); notions of roots or rootlessness (Clara’s toothlessness is a significant symbol of her being able to detach herself from her Jamaican, Jehovah’s Witness of a mother); questions of faith, be it in God, Science or the unpredictable power of a Flipping Coin – the underlying questions of all these tormented characters being: what force drives life? What are the fundamental principles at work in one’s life trajectories? Who can we make accountable for our own mistakes? Does history really matter? Is our history inscribed in our genes or in our decisions? Are our decisions random or guided by a supernatural force or yet again inscribed in our genes?

White Teeth, Zadie Smith

One has to take distance to read White Teeth. One has to read it on a symbolical level. Otherwise, the odds are high that Zadie Smith’s characters are going to try your patience to an extent that 541 pages might be too much to bear. Most of them are terribly stereotypical. Some of them are downright absurd. The twins, that are so adorable as kids, become two very different ass-holes and even their stunning beauty does not redeem their insufferable tendencies at the end (one the ever-forgiving, over-polite smart head, the other, the bad boy gone terribly, terribly bad in the hands of a fundamentalist group). But there’s also Archibald Jones, with whom the story opens as he’s decided to commit suicide, Archibald Jones who is surely not the cleverest man on earth but who cannot harm a fly, who doesn’t like to take sides, who doesn’t want to have ennemies, who always relies on his flipping coin, Archibald Jones whom I found so very endearing, from the beginning to the very last page.

That being said, in the middle of all this questioning, wondering, regretting, bargaining, hoping, when Irie, the daughter of Archibald Jones and Clara Bowden explodes and cries that for some families, “every single fucking day is not this huge battle between who they are and who they should be, what they were and what they will be. Go on, ask them. And they’ll tell you. (…) They just get on with it.  Lucky bastards. Lucky motherfuckers.”, one cannot help but, maybe cowardly, à la Archibald, sigh a sigh of relief that at last someone is putting some sense into this mess of a book – that I’d recommend only if you enjoy reading from a safe distance, probably the same that the corrosive irony of the narrative voice so eagerly provides you with.

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