This tragicomic account of coming-of-age in seventies South London (or Kent, depending on your point of view) is famous for its iconic opening line, "My name is Karim Amir, and I am an Englishman born and bred, almost." The story of that 'almost' is, of course, the narrative's major preoccupation, but the novel has numerous other themes as well: suburban claustrophobia versus the promise of the big city, contemporary political and economic chaos, and class dynamics.
Karim's voice sometimes reminds the reader of Absolute Beginners' narrator, but he is more aware, and somehow more authentic. Whereas MacInnes wrote about teenage culture from the outside, Kureishi's autobiographical impulses give Karim reality. What an unforgettable creation he is: effortlessly hip (for suburbia, that is), ambitious and clever, with a shifting bicultural identity, Karim can be devious and manipulative on occasion but is also capable of profound and self-denying love. Of necessity, he is continually alert to hostility and insincerity--his mental radar takes no prisoners--yet the person he scrutinises most unforgivingly is himself.
Kith and kin are warmly and perceptively drawn. Karim's aristocratic Indian father, bored with life as a Civil Service clerk, deliberately cultivates an exotic Otherness as a suburban guru, a move that Karim sees as fraught with ethical problems. Dull but devoted lower-middle-class Mum experiences heartbreak when Dad's new angle attracts the artistic, narcissistic middle-class Eva, whose equally selfish son Charlie fades in and out of Karim's life. Powerful, feminist Jamila, Karim's best friend, reads James Baldwin, listens to Billie and Aretha records, and eventually moves to a commune, taking with her Changez, her hapless but adoring spouse whose love might (one day) be requited. The gnawing emptiness and hidden demons of suburbia are captured in Kureishi's portrayal of Uncle Ted and Auntie Jean: Buddhism's liberation of Uncle Ted is one of the most delightful parts of the book.
The novel received tremendous acclaim for its pop-cultural nous when it first appeared, adorned with a groovy cover collage by Peter Blake, but to a modern reader the pop-culture references no longer seem that impressive, since they have become a cliché of subsequent novels. The insouciance and drifter ethic of seventies youth culture are depicted, and self-consciously mystical bourgeois hippies are ruthlessly satirised ("There are two sorts of people in the world --those who have been to India and those who haven't"), as are the more way-out methods of experimental theatre. Most interestingly, the novel does not worship at the alter of punk, which is portrayed as a sinister and destructive development, a harbinger of societal self-combustion. Particularly towards the end of the book there is a terrifying, vertiginous sense of a culture descending into the abyss, paralysed by strikes and social divisions.
In all of English literature there is no more queasily accurate taxonomy of the various degrees and forms of class and racial prejudice, from sheer hatred to the intrusive, proprietorial insensitivity displayed by Eva's friend Shadwell in his conversations with Karim. The experimental theatre director Pyke is especially horrifying; first winning Karim's trust with his apparent empathy, he eventually betrays him more cruelly than anyone. The development of Karim's identity in response to his experience of racism is interesting: at the outset identifying variously as English and Indian, by the end of the book he mainly sees himself as Asian.
The comparison with the more recent White Teeth is interesting. The comedy in Buddha is altogether darker and more misanthropic, the view of life in England more negative, only at the very end sounding a tentative note of hope. Karim's frustration at being labelled an immigrant (despite being born in England) or belittled because of his suburban, lower-middle-class origins suggests that Buddha's main theme is society's insistence on shoving people into pigeon-holes that stifle their full humanity.
Part acidic, biting satire on prejudice, part tender meditation on relationships (particularly the familial love that triumphs over selfishness and conflict), Buddha is an unstable, fizzy masterpiece that somehow holds together through sheer stylistic brilliance. If it were an animal, it would be a tightly-rolled-up hedgehog with prickles sticking out in all directions to hide a soft underbelly. Those who want to ponder how things have changed since the seventies can do no better than to read this brave, hilarious, wise and brutally honest novel by one of our most gifted writers; it has deservedly achieved the status of a modern classic.--Isabel Taylor
It is difficult to know where to begin in discussing this staggering novel, published when the Jamaican-English author was only twenty-four. A whole thesis on it would not bring out all its themes and clever patterns. It can truly be said of White Teeth, as of very few recent novels, that when it appeared it was epoch-defining.
Focussed on two generations of North Londoners and three interconnected families --the Joneses, the Iqbals and the Chalfens—the book makes recent history resonate in an extraordinarily immediate way. The bedrock of the novel is the friendship between Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal, formed when both served in World War II. They are a deeply attached but unlikely pair: tentative Archie, fearful of decisions and the unknown, copes by tossing a coin at difficult junctures ("can't say fairer than that") while Samad, in his own way equally afraid, tries to take decision-making on the chin. The contrast between the two men is shown by an exchange that takes place early on in their relationship, Samad explaining to Archie that:
"It is a simple matter of what you will do when the chips are down, my friend. When the fat lady is singing....." "Do you know," said Archie, after a pause, "just before I left from Felixstowe I saw this new drill they have now which breaks in two and you can put different things on the end."
The deep understanding in this relationship is belied by superficial mutual bafflement and (particularly on Samad's part) irritation, yet Samad will discover, to both his pain and joy, that "there is far, far more to Archibald Jones than he had ever imagined." All the characters struggle at various points with the feeling of being boxed-in by life, and Archie, who rarely expresses this, feels it profoundly: his secret dreams of escape are brilliantly evoked by the novel's poignant ending.
The authorial voice is a major presence in the novel. To begin with, Smith's philosophising intrusions are annoyingly reminiscent of Thackeray, but after the reader adjusts to them they become the glue that holds the story together: spiky, wry, often acerbic, but also deeply empathetic, interpreting the characters' bewilderment and inner conflicts to the reader. Smith has a great talent for comedy, and a constant ripple of mischievous wit lightens her narrative. There are some brilliant (if perhaps slightly self-indulgent) comic set-pieces. Continually, however, sadness and humour wash into each other: the comic scenes are also tragic.
'Roots' are a dominant theme. After Clara Bowden glides down a staircase at a New Year's party, entrancing Archie, that sharp narrative voice reminds us that "Clara was from somewhere. She had roots. More specifically, she was from Lambeth, via Jamaica..." Samad's inner conflict over faithfulness to his roots plays out in his relationship with his twin boys Millat and Magid, which reaches an unhappy compromise: the one is sent 'home' to Bangladesh and the other remains, in a violation of twinship that, Smith suggests, stores up much of the later trouble.
The younger generation are particularly fascinating. Irie, daughter of Archie Jones and Clara Bowden, is bright, independent but needy, and in constant search of her family's roots. In school she timidly moots the idea that the subject of a Shakespeare sonnet was black, only to be insensitively rebuffed by the teacher, who asserts (wrongly, as it happens) that there were no "Afro-Carri-bee-yans" in Shakespeare's England. Irie's reaction is described poignantly: "She had thought, just then, that she had seen something like a reflection, but it was receding." While Irie quietly copes with such snubs, building up a secret inner pain that ensures that, when she finally rebels, it will take extraordinary form, Millat continually reacts to "the feeling of belonging nowhere that comes to people who belong everywhere." There is deep irony in the case of Magid, who returns from Bangladesh a worshipper of Western scientific rationalism. Figuring out how to negotiate the relationship between imperial past and post-colonial present, family heritage and the wider culture, causes the younger generation considerable stress, expressed in Irie's outburst on top of a London bus on the way to Marcus Chalfen's FutureMouse exhibition: "Did you know this is how other families are? They're quiet....This is how some families are all the time." However, the smugly academic, Establishment Chalfens' problems with their son Josh demonstrate that Irie might overestimate the peace enjoyed by 'other families' (cue Larkin's "This Be the Verse").
There is some doubt whether White Teeth can really be considered a post-colonial novel. It is certainly true that imperial history forms the backdrop to the characters' lives (Samad's great-grandfather started the Indian Rebellion of 1857), that they sometimes express resentment of it, and that the eeriness of historical coincidence is a persistent leitmotiv. The dark side of the imperial past is viewed unflinchingly, especially in the harrowing scene from which the title derives: the children's Harvest Festival visit to a retired army officer. Despite these aspects of the book, it cannot be said, on balance, that post-colonialism is the major theme; the novel is more about how human relationships transcend the troubled past. By dealing even-handedly with all its characters, White Teeth becomes a meditation on the oddity of human beings in general, a theme broader than the 'post-colonial' label would suggest.
While Smith's opening quote from The Tempest warns that "What's past is prologue," the book's final pages demonstrate that the past is simply that: a prologue, but not necessarily determinative of what comes after. What Smith shows us, most movingly, is imperfect human beings finding common ground despite their differences—in other words, a community: "we have finally slipped into each other's lives with reasonable comfort." --Isabel Taylor