"White Teeth" by Zadie Smith

Molti romanzi di debutto conquistano la critica e ricevono le lodi del pubblico, ma pochi come questo, pubblicato nel 1999 quando l'autrice aveva solo venticinque anni, diventano un classico moderno.

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Zadie Smith White Teeth
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White Teeth is a saga played out1 on the run-down2, suburban streets of North London. Unlikely3 relationships emerge between the main characters: a Bengali Muslim family, a Jamaican ex-Jehovah’s witness4, a white British atheist, and a middle class academic family. Zadie Smith, whose mother is Jamaican and father is white British, explores issues5 of race and class and draws on6 her own experience of growing up in North London. 

Class and colour

As a seventeen-year-old, working-class Londoner Archie meets Samad, an educated7 Bengali Muslim. They are serving together during the Second World War and become friends.

- “It was precisely the kind of friendship an Englishman makes on holiday, that he can only make on holiday. A friendship that crosses class and colour, a friendship that takes as its basis physical proximity and survives because the Englishman assumes the physical proximity will not continue.”

“Era esattamente il tipo d’amicizia che un inglese stringe durante una vacanza, che può stringere solo durante una vacanza. Un’amicizia che supera le classi e il colore della pelle, un’amicizia che ha come base la vicinanza fisica e sopravvive perché l’inglese presume che quella vicinanza fisica non durerà”. 

But the unlikely friendship does resume8 nearly thirty years later when Samad comes to London. 

Voices

By this time, Archie has married Clara, a young Jamaican woman. Clara is escaping her Jehovah’s Witness mother, who tries to convert everyone, even Clara’s boyfriend (an Irish, marijuana-smoking, motorbike enthusiast) to the faith. 

- "You tink [think] you can hide your friends from me for ever? De bwoy [The boy] was cold, I let ‘im [him] in, we been havin’ a nice chat, haven’t we young man?”

“Credevi che potevi nascondere in eterno i tuoi amici? Il ragazzo aveva freddo, gli ho detto di entrare e abbiamo fatto una bella chiacchierata, non è vero, giovanotto?” 

The evocative use of non-standard English to capture the voices of different characters brings colour and humour to the book.

Roots

Archie is nostalgic about his roots as he tries to explain to Samad what he thinks the Second World War has been about:

- “’It’s England’s future we’ve been fighting for. For England. You know,’ said Archie, searching his brain, ‘democracy and Sunday dinners, and … and … promenades and piers, and bangers and mash – and the things that are ours. Not yours.’”

- “«È per il futuro dell’Inghilterra che abbiamo combattuto. Sai» disse Archie, frugandosi nella memoria «per la democrazia e per le cene domenicali e.. e… per le passeggiate e i moli, le macchine e la birra… tutte cose nostre, non vostre.»“

Samad, too, holds tightly9 to his Muslim roots, even while he is a having an affair with the attractive red-haired10 music teacher at his children’s primary school. He still believed that, “roots were roots and roots were good.”

It’s the teenagers of the next generation – Archie and Clara’s daughter and Samad’s twin sons11 – who really have to wrestle12 with their roots and decide who they want to be. 

Cultural mix

The three teenagers get to know Joshua at school and, through him, his high-achieving13, middle-class family. Class differences are added14 to the already complex cultural and racial mix of their London lives.

- “When Irie stepped over the threshold of the Chalfen house, she felt an illicit thrill, like a Jew munching a sausage or a Hindu grabbing a Big Mac. She was crossing borders, sneaking into England; it felt like some terribly mutinous act, wearing somebody else’s uniform or somebody else’s skin.”

“Per Irie, i Chalfen erano più inglesi degli inglesi. Quando superava la soglia della loro casa, provava un brivido proibito, come un ebreo che mangi una salsiccia o un indù che si conceda un Big Mac. Stava oltrepassando i confini, sgaiattolava in Inghilterra; le sembrava un’azione terribilmente ribelle, come indossare la divisa di qualcun altro, o la pelle di qualcun altro”.

Crazy climax

In the final chapter Joshua Chalfen’s geneticist father holds a meeting in central London to present his genetically modified mouse to the world, and all the main characters are there to see it. Ideologies collide15 and the novel reaches its larger-than-life16 conclusion. 

Since publishing White Teeth, which was adapted for TV in 2002, Zadie Smith has gone on17 to write four more prize-winning novels, as well as short stories and essays. She often appears on the radio and in publications such as the New York Review of Books. But despite these successes, Smith is probably still best known for this remarkable debut novel.   

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