White Teeth by Zadie Smith

  “Tell me about Ambrosia,” said Irie, spotting a chink in Hortense’s armor that one might squeeze through. “Please.”

  But Hortense remained solid. “You know enough already. De past is done wid. Nobody learn nuttin’ from it. Top of page five please—I tink dat’s where we were.”

  At that moment Ryan returned to the room, face redder than ever.

  “What, Mr. Topps? Is it? Do you know?”

  “God help the heathen, Mrs. B., for the day is indeed at hand! It is as the Lord laid out clearly in his book of Revelation. He never intended a third millennium. Now I’ll need that article typed up, and then another one that I’ll dictate to you off the cuff—you’ll need to telephone all the Lambeth members, and leaflet the—”

  “Oh, yes, Mr. Topps—but jus’ let me tyake it in jus’ a minute . . . It couldn’t be any udder date, could it, Mr. Topps? I tol’ you I felt it in my bones.”

  “I’m not sure as to how much your bones had to do wiv it, Mrs. B. Surely more credit is due to the thorough scriptural study done by myself and my colleagues—”

  “And God, presumably,” said Irie, cutting him a sharp glare, going over to hold Hortense, who was shaking with sobs. Hortense kissed Irie on both cheeks and Irie smiled at the hot wetness.

  “Oh, Irie Ambrosia. I’m so glad you’re here to share dis. I live dis century—I came into dis world in an eart-quake at de very beginning and I shall see the hevil and sinful pollution be herased in a mighty rumbling eart-quake once more. Praise de Lord! It is as He promised after all. I knew I’d make it. I got jus’ seven years to wait. Ninety-two!” Hortense sucked her teeth contemptuously. “Cho! My grandmudder live to see one hundred-and-tree an de woman could skip rope till de day she keel over and drop col’. Me gwan make it. I make it dis far. My mudder suffer to get me here—but she knew de true church and she make heffort to push me out in de mos’ difficult circumstances so I could live to see that glory day.”


  “Oh, hamen, Mr. Topps. Put on de complete suit of armor of God! Now, Irie Ambrosia, witness me as I say it: I’m gwan be dere. An’ I’m gwan to be in Jamaica to see it. I’m going home that year of our Lord. An’ you can come dere too if you learn from me and listen. You wan come Jamaica in de year two thousand?”

  Irie let out a little scream and rushed to give her grandmother another hug.

  Hortense wiped her tears with her apron. “Lord Jesus, I live dis century! Well and truly I live dis terrible century wid all its troubles and vexations. And tanks to you, Lord, I’m gwan a feel a rumble at both ends.”

  Magid, Millat, and Marcus

  1992, 1999

  fundamental/a. & n. lME. adj. 1 Of or pertaining to the basis or groundwork; going to the root of the matter. 2 Serving as the base or foundation; essential or indispensable. Also, primary, original; from which others are derived. 3 Of or pertaining to the foundation(s) of a building. 4 Of a stratum: lowest, lying at the bottom.

  Fundamentalism n. E20 [f. prec. + -ism.] The strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs or doctrines; esp. belief in the inerrancy of religious texts.

  —The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

  You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss,

  A sigh is just a sigh;

  The fundamental things apply,

  As time goes by.

  —Herman Hupfeld, “As Time Goes By” (1931 song)


  The Return of Magid Mahfooz Murshed Mubtasim Iqbal

  “Excuse me, you’re not going to smoke that, are you?”

  Marcus closed his eyes. He hated the construction. He always wanted to reply with equal grammatical perversity: Yes, I’m not going to smoke that. No, I am going to smoke that.

  “Excuse me, I said you’re—”

  “Yes, I heard you the first time,” said Marcus softly, turning to his right to see the speaker with whom he shared a single armrest, each two chairs being assigned only one between them in the long line of molded plastic. “Is there a reason why I shouldn’t?”

  Irritation vanished at the sight of his interlocutor: a slim, pretty Asian girl, with an alluring gap between her front teeth, army trousers, and a high ponytail, who was holding in her lap (of all things!) a copy of his collaborative pop science book of last spring (with the novelist Surrey T. Banks), Time Bombs and Body Clocks: Adventures In Our Genetic Future.

  “Yes, there’s a reason, arsehole. You can’t smoke in Heathrow. Not in this bit of it. And you certainly can’t smoke a fucking pipe. And these chairs are welded to each other and I’ve got asthma. Enough reasons?”

  Marcus shrugged amiably. “Yes, more than. Good book?”

  This was a new experience for Marcus. Meeting one of his readers. Meeting one of his readers in the waiting lounge of an airport. He had been a writer of academic texts all his life, texts whose audience was tiny and select, whose members he more often than not knew personally. He had never sent his work off into the world like a party-popper, unsure where the different strands would land.


  “Don’t worry, I won’t smoke if you don’t want me to. I was just wondering, is it a good book?”

  The girl screwed up her face, which was not as pretty as Marcus had first thought, the jawline a tad too severe. She closed the book (she was halfway through) and looked at its cover as if she had forgotten which book it was.

  “Oh, it’s all right, I suppose. Bit bloody weird. Bit of a headfuck.”

  Marcus frowned. The book had been his agent’s idea: a split-level high/low culture book, whereby Marcus wrote a “hard science” chapter on one particular development in genetics and then the novelist wrote a twin chapter exploring these ideas from a futuristic, fictional, what-if-this-led-to-this point of view, and so on for eight chapters each. Marcus had university-bound sons plus Magid’s law schooling to think about, and he had agreed to the project for pecuniary reasons. To that end, the book had not been the hit that was hoped for or required, and Marcus, when he thought of it at all, thought it was a failure. But weird? A headfuck?

  “Umm, in what way weird?”

  The girl looked suddenly suspicious. “What is this? An interrogation?”

  Marcus shrank back a little. His Chalfenist confidence was always less evident when he strayed abroad, away from the bosom of his family. He was a direct man who saw no point in asking anything other than direct questions, but in recent years he had become aware that this directness did not always garner direct answers from strangers, as it did in his own small circle. In the outside world, outside of his college and home, one had to add things to speech. Particularly if one was somewhat strange-looking, as Marcus gathered he was; if one was a little old, with eccentric curly hair and spectacles missing their lower rims. You had to add things to your speech to make it more palatable. Niceties, throwaway phrases, pleases and thank yous.

  “No, not an interrogation. I was just thinking of reading it myself, you see. I heard it was quite good, you know. And I was wondering why you thought it was weird.”

  The girl, deciding at that moment that Marcus was neither mass murderer nor rapist, let her muscles relax and slid back in her chair. “Oh, I don’t know. Not so much weird, I guess, more scary.”

  “Scary how?”

  “Well, it’s scary, isn’t it, all this genetic engineering.”

  “Is it?”

  “Yeah, you know, messing about with the body. They reckon there’s a gene for intelligence, sexuality—practically everything, you know? Recombinant DNA technology,” said the girl, using the term cautiously, as if testing the water to see how much Marcus knew. Seeing no recognition in his face, she continued with more confidence. “Once you know the restriction enzyme for a particular, like, bit of DNA, you can switch anything on or off, like a bloody stereo. That’s what they’re doing to those poor mice. It’s pretty fucking scary. Not to mention, like, the pathogenic, i.e., disease-producing, organisms they’ve got sitting in pet
ri dishes all over the place. I mean, I’m a politics student, yeah, and I’m like: what are they creating? And who do they want to wipe out? You’ve got to be seriously naive if you don’t think the West intend to use this shit in the East, on the Arabs. Quick way to deal with the fundamentalist Muslims—no, seriously, man,” said the girl in response to a raised eyebrow from Marcus, “things are getting scary. I mean, reading this shit you just realize how close science is to science fiction.”

  As far as Marcus could see, science and science fiction were like ships in the night, passing each other in the fog. A science fiction robot, for example—even his son Oscar’s expectation of a robot—was a thousand years ahead of anything either robotics or artificial intelligence could yet achieve. While the robots in Oscar’s mind were singing, dancing, and empathizing with his every joy and fear, over at MIT some poor bastard was slowly and painstakingly trying to get a machine to re-create the movements of a single human thumb. On the flip side of the coin, the simplest biological facts, the structure of animal cells for instance, were a mystery to all but fourteen-year-old children and scientists like himself; the former spending their time drawing them in class, the latter injecting them with foreign DNA. In between, or so it appeared to Marcus, flowed a great ocean of idiots, conspiracists, religious lunatics, presumptuous novelists, animal-rights activists, students of politics, and all the other breeds of fundamentalists who professed strange objections to his life’s work. In the past few months, since his FutureMouse had gained some public attention, he had been forced to believe in these people, believe they actually existed en masse, and this was as hard for him as being taken to the bottom of the garden and told that here lived fairies.

  “I mean, they talk about progress,” said the girl shrilly, becoming somewhat excited. “They talk about leaps and bounds in the field of medicine yada yada yada, but bottom line, if somebody knows how to eliminate ‘undesirable’ qualities in people, do you think some government’s not going to do it? I mean, what’s undesirable? There’s just something a little fascist about the whole deal . . . I guess it’s a good book, but at points you do think: where are we going here? Millions of blonds with blue eyes? Mail-order babies? I mean, if you’re Indian like me you’ve got something to worry about, yeah? And then they’re planting cancers in poor creatures; like, who are you to mess with the make-up of a mouse? Actually creating an animal just so it can die—it’s like being God! I mean personally I’m a Hindu, yeah? I’m not religious or nothing, but you know, I believe in the sanctity of life, yeah? And these people, like, program the mouse, plot its every move, yeah, when it’s going to have kids, when it’s going to die. It’s just unnatural.”

  Marcus nodded and tried to disguise his exhaustion. It was exhausting just to listen to her. Nowhere in the book did Marcus even touch upon human eugenics—it wasn’t his field, and he had no particular interest in it. And yet this girl had managed to read a book almost entirely concerned with the more prosaic developments in recombinant DNA—gene therapy, proteins to dissolve blood clots, the cloning of insulin—and emerge from it full of the usual neofascist tabloid fantasies: mindless human clones, genetic policing of sexual and racial characteristics, mutated diseases, etc. Only the chapter on his mouse could have prompted such a hysterical reaction. It was to his mouse that the title of the book referred (again, the agent’s idea), and it was his mouse upon which media attention had landed. Marcus saw clearly now what he had previously only suspected, that if it were not for the mouse there would have been little interest in the book at all. No other work he had been involved with seemed to catch the public imagination like his mice. To determine a mouse’s future stirred people up. Precisely because people saw it that way: it wasn’t determining the future of a cancer, or a reproductive cycle, or the capacity to age. It was determining the future of the mouse. People focused on the mouse in a manner that never failed to surprise him. They seemed unable to think of the animal as a site, a biological site for experimentation into heredity, into disease, into mortality. The mouseness of the mouse seemed inescapable. A picture from Marcus’s laboratory of one of his transgenic mice, along with an article about the struggle for a patent, had appeared in The Times. Both he and the paper received a ton of hate-mail from factions as disparate as the Conservative Ladies Association, the Anti-Vivisection lobby, the Nation of Islam, the rector of St. Agnes’s Church, Berkshire, and the editorial board of the far-left Schnews. Neena Begum phoned to inform him that he would be reincarnated as a cockroach. Glenard Oak, always acute to a turning media tide, retracted its invitation for Marcus to come to school during National Science Week. His own son, his Joshua, still refused to speak to him. The insanity of all of it genuinely shook him. The fear he had unwittingly provoked. And all because the public were three steps ahead of him like Oscar’s robot, they had already played out their endgames, already concluded what the result of his research would be—something he did not presume to imagine!—full of their clones, zombies, designer children, gay genes. Of course, he understood the work he did involved some element of moral luck; so it is for all men of science. You work partly in the dark, uncertain of future ramifications, unsure what blackness your name might yet carry, what bodies will be laid at your door. No one working in a new field, doing truly visionary work, can be certain of getting through his century or the next without blood on his palms. But stop the work? Gag Einstein? Tie Heisenberg’s hands? What can you hope to achieve?

  “But surely,” Marcus began, more rattled than he expected himself to be, “surely that’s rather the point. All animals are in a sense programmed to die. It’s perfectly natural. If it appears random, that’s only because we don’t clearly understand it, you see. We don’t properly understand why some people seem predisposed to cancer. We don’t properly understand why some people die of natural causes at sixty-three and some at ninety-seven. Surely it would be interesting to know a little more about these things. Surely the point of something like an oncomouse is that we’re given the opportunity to see a life and a death stage by stage under the micro—”

  “Yeah, well,” said the girl, putting the book in her bag. “Whatever. I’ve got to get to gate 52. It was nice talking to you. But yeah, you should definitely give it a read. I’m a big fan of Surrey T. Banks . . . he writes some freaky shit.”

  Marcus watched the girl and her bouncing ponytail progress down the wide walkway until she merged with other dark-haired girls and was lost. Instantly, he felt relieved and remembered with pleasure his own appointment with gate 32 and Magid Iqbal, who was a different kettle of fish, or a blacker kettle, or whatever the phrase was. With fifteen minutes to spare, he abandoned his coffee, which had gone rapidly from scalding to lukewarm, and began to walk in the direction of the lower 50s. The phrase “a meeting of minds” was running through his head. He knew this was an absurd thing to think of a seventeen-year-old boy, but still he thought it, felt it: a certain elation, maybe equal to the feeling his own mentor experienced when the seventeen-year-old Marcus Chalfen first walked into his poky college office. A certain satisfaction. Marcus was familiar with the mutually beneficial smugness that runs from mentor to protégé and back again (ah, but you are brilliant and deign to spend your time with me! Ah, but I am brilliant and catch your attention above all others!). Still, he indulged himself. And he was glad to be meeting Magid for the first time, alone, though he hoped he was not guilty of planning it that way. It was more a series of fortunate accidents. The Iqbals’s car had broken down, and Marcus’s hatchback was not large. He had persuaded Samad and Alsana that there would not be enough room for Magid’s luggage if they came with him. Millat was in Chester with KEVIN and had been quoted as saying (in language reminiscent of his Mafia video days), “I have no brother.” Irie had an exam in the morning. Joshua refused to get in any car if Marcus was in it; in fact, he generally eschewed cars at present, opting for the environmentally ethical option of two wheels. As far as Josh’s decision went, Marcus felt as he did about all
human decisions of this kind. One could neither agree nor disagree with them as ideas. There was no rhyme nor reason for so much of what people did. And in his present estrangement from Joshua he felt more powerless than ever. It hurt him that even his own son was not as Chalfenist as he’d hoped. And over the past few months he had built up great expectations of Magid (and this would explain why his pace quickened, gate 28, gate 29, gate 30); maybe he had begun to hope, begun to believe, that Magid would be a beacon for right-thinking Chalfenism even as it died a death here in the wilderness. They would save each other. This couldn’t be faith, could it, Marcus? He questioned himself directly on this point as he scurried along. For a gate and a half the question unnerved him. Then it passed and the answer was reassuring. Not faith, no, Marcus, not the kind with no eyes. Something stronger, something firmer. Intellectual faith.

  So. Gate 32. It would be just the two of them, then, meeting at last, having conquered the gap between continents; the teacher, the willing pupil, and then that first, historic handshake. Marcus did not think for a second it could or would go badly. He was no student of history (and science had taught him that the past was where we did things through a glass, darkly, whereas the future was always brighter, a place where we did things right or at least right-er), he had no stories to scare him concerning a dark man meeting a white man, both with heavy expectations, but only one with the power. He had brought no piece of white cardboard either, some large banner with a name upon it, like the rest of his fellow waiters, and as he looked around gate 32, that concerned him. How would they know each other? Then he remembered he was meeting a twin, and remembering that made him laugh out loud. It was incredible and sublime, even to him, that a boy should walk out of that tunnel with precisely the same genetic code as a boy he already knew, and yet in every conceivable way be different. He would see him and yet not see him. He would recognize him and yet that recognition would be false. Before he had a chance to think what this meant, whether it meant anything, they were coming toward him, the passengers of BA flight 261; a talkative but exhausted brown mob who rushed toward him like a river, turning off at the last minute as if he were the edge of a waterfall. Nomosk¯ar . . . sa¯la¯m a¯ lekum . . . kamon a¯cho¯? This is what they said to each other and their friends on the other side of the barrier; some women in full purdah, some in saris, men in strange mixtures of fabrics, leather, tweed, wool, and nylon, with little boat-hats that reminded Marcus of Nehru; children in sweaters made by the Taiwanese and rucksacks of bright reds and yellows; pushing through the doors to the concourse of gate 32; meeting aunts, meeting drivers, meeting children, meeting officials, meeting suntanned white-toothed airline representatives . . .

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