White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “Archie’s right leg,” says Clara quietly, pointing to a place in her own thigh. “A piece of metal, I tink. But he don’ really tell me nuttin’.”

  “Oh, who cares!” Alsana bursts out. “I’d trust Vishnu the many-handed pickpocket before I believed a word those men say.”

  But Clara holds dear the image of the young soldier Archie, particularly when the old, flabby Direct Mail Archie is on top of her. “Oh, come now . . . we don’ know what—”

  Alsana spits quite frankly on the grass. “Shitty lies! If they are heroes, where are their hero things? Where are the hero bits and pieces? Heroes—they have things. They have hero stuff. You can spot them ten miles away. I’ve never seen a medal . . . and not so much as a photograph.” Alsana makes an unpleasant noise at the back of her throat, her signal for disbelief. “So look at it—no, dearie, it must be done—look at it close up. Look at what is left. Samad has one hand; says he wants to find God but the fact is God’s given him the slip; and he has been in that curry house for two years already, serving up stringy goat to the whiteys who don’t know any better, and Archibald—well, look at the thing close up . . .”

  Alsana stops to check with Clara if she could speak her mind further without causing offense or unnecessary pain, but Clara’s eyes are closed and she is already looking at the thing close up; a young girl looking at an old man close up; finishing Alsana’s sentence with the beginning of a smile spreading across her face,

  “. . . folds paper for a living, dear Jesus.”

  CHAPTER FIVE

  The Root Canals of Alfred Archibald Jones and Samad Miah Iqbal

  Apropos: it’s all very well, this instruction of Alsana’s to look at the thing close up; to look at it dead straight between the eyes; an unflinching and honest stare, a meticulous inspection that would go beyond the heart of the matter to its marrow, beyond the marrow to the root—but the question is how far back do you want? How far will do? The old American question: what do you want—blood? Most probably more than blood is required: whispered asides; lost conversations; medals and photographs; lists and certificates, yellowing paper bearing the faint imprint of brown dates. Back, back, back. Well, all right, then. Back to Archie spit-clean, pink-faced and polished, looking just old enough at seventeen to fool the men from the medical board with their pencils and their measuring tape. Back to Samad, two years older and the warm color of baked bread. Back to the day when they were first assigned to each other, Samad Miah Iqbal (row 2, over here now, soldier!) and Alfred Archibald Jones (move it, move it, move it), the day Archie involuntarily forgot that most fundamental principle of English manners. He stared. They were standing side by side on a stretch of black dirt-track Russian ground, dressed identically in little triangular caps perched on their heads like paper sailboats, wearing the same itchy standard uniform, their ice-pinched toes resting in the same black boots scattered with the same dust. But Archie couldn’t help but stare. And Samad put up with it, waited and waited for it to pass, until after a week of being cramped in their tank, hot and suffocated by the airless machine and subjected to Archie’s relentless gaze, he had putted-up-with as much as his hot-head ever could put up with anything.

  “My friend, what is it you find so darned mysterious about me that it has you in such constant reveries?”

  “You what?” said Archie, flustered, for he was not one to have private conversations on army time. “Nobody, I mean, nothing—I mean, well, what do you mean?”

  They both spoke under their breath, for the conversation was not private in the other sense, there being two other privates and a captain in their five-man Churchill rolling through Athens on its way to Thessaloníki. It was April 1, 1945. Archie Jones was the driver of the tank, Samad was the radio operator, Roy Mackintosh was the co-driver, Will Johnson was crunched on a bin as the gunner, and Thomas Dickinson-Smith was sitting on the slightly elevated chair, which, even though it squashed his head against the ceiling, his newly granted captaincy would not permit his pride to relinquish. None of them had seen anyone else but each other for three weeks.

  “I mean merely that it is likely we have another two years stuck in this thing.”

  A voice crackled through the radio, and Samad, not wishing to be seen neglecting his duties, answered it speedily and efficiently.

  “And?” asked Archie, after Samad had given their coordinates.

  “And there is only so much of that eyeballing that a man can countenance. Is it that you are doing some research into radio operators or are you just in a passion over my arse?”

  Their captain, Dickinson-Smith, who was in a passion over Samad’s arse (but not only that; also his mind; also two slender muscular arms that could only make sense wrapped around a lover; also those luscious light green/brown eyes), silenced the conversation immediately.

  “Ick-Ball! Jones! Get on with it. Do you see anyone else here chewing the fat?”

  “I was just making an objection, sir. It is hard, sir, for a man to concentrate on his Foxtrot F’s and his Zebra Z’s and then his dots and his dashes when he has a pug-dog fellow who follows his every move with his pug-dog eyes, sir. In Bengal one would assume such eyes belonged to a man filled with—”

  “Shut it, Sultan, you poof,” said Roy, who hated Samad and his poncey-radio-operator-ways.

  “Mackintosh,” said Dickinson-Smith, “come now, let’s not stop the Sultan. Continue, Sultan.”

  To avoid the possible suggestion that he was partial to Samad, Captain Dickinson-Smith made a practice of picking on him and encouraging his hateful Sultan nickname, but he never did it in the right way; it was always too soft, too similar to Samad’s own luxurious language and only resulted in Roy and the other eighty Roys under his direct command hating Dickinson-Smith, ridiculing him, openly displaying their disrespect; by April 1945 they were utterly filled with contempt for him and sickened by his poncey-captain-queer-boy ways. Archie, new to the First Assault Regiment R. E., was just learning this.

  “I just told him to shut it, and he’ll shut it if he knows what’s good for him, the Indian Sultan bastard. No disrespect to you, sir, ’course,” added Roy, as a polite gesture.

  Dickinson-Smith knew in other regiments, in other tanks, it simply was not the case that people spoke back to their superiors or even spoke at all. Even Roy’s Polite Gesture was a sign of Dickinson-Smith’s failure. In those other tanks, in the Shermans, Churchills, and Matildas dotted over the waste of Europe like resilient cockroaches, there was no question of respect or disrespect. Only Obey, Disobey, Punish.

  “Sultan . . . Sultan . . .” Samad mused. “Do you know, I wouldn’t mind the epithet, Mr. Mackintosh, if it were at least accurate. It’s not historically accurate, you know. It is not, even geographically speaking, accurate. I am sure I have explained to you that I am from Bengal. The word Sultan refers to certain men of the Arab lands—many hundreds of miles west of Bengal. To call me Sultan is about as accurate, in terms of the mileage, you understand, as if I referred to you as a Jerry-Hun fat bastard.”

  “I called you Sultan and I’m calling you it again, all right?”

  “Oh, Mr. Mackintosh. Is it so complex, is it so impossible, that you and I, stuck in this British machine, could find it in ourselves to fight together as British subjects?”

  Will Johnson, who was a bit simple, took off his cap as he always did when someone said “British.”

  “What’s the poof on about?” asked Mackintosh, adjusting his beer gut.

  “Nothing,” said Samad. “I’m afraid I was not ‘on’ about anything; I was just talking, talking, just trying the shooting of the breeze as they say, and trying to get Sapper Jones here to stop his staring business, his goggly eyes, just this and only this . . . and I have failed on both counts, it seems.”

  He seemed genuinely wounded, and Archie felt the sudden unsoldierlike desire to remove pain. But it was not the place and not the time.

  “All right. Enough, all of you. Jones, check the map,” said Dickinson-Smith
.

  Archie checked the map.

  Their journey was a long, tiresome one, rarely punctuated by any action. Archie’s tank was a bridge-builder, one of the specialist divisions not tied to English county allegiances or to a type of weaponry, but providing service across the army and from country to country, recovering damaged equipment, laying bridges, creating passages for battle, creating routes where routes had been destroyed. Their job was not so much to fight the war as to make sure it ran smoothly. By the time Archie joined the conflict, it was clear that the cruel, bloody decisions would be made by air, not in the 30-centimeter difference between the width of a German armor-piercing shell and an English one. The real war, the one where cities were brought to their knees, the war with the deathly calculations of size, detonation, population, went on many miles above Archie’s head. Meanwhile, on the ground, their heavy, armor-plated scout-tank had a simpler task: to avoid the civil war in the mountains—a war within a war—between the EAM and the ELAS; to pick their way through the glazed eyes of dead statistics and the “wasted youth”; to make sure the roads of communication stretching from one end of hell to the other were fully communicable.

  “The bombed ammunition factory is twenty miles south-west, sir. We are to collect what we can, sir. Private Ick-Ball has passed to me at 1647 hours a radio message that informs me that the area, as far as can be seen from the air, sir, is unoccupied, sir,” said Archie.

  “This is not war,” Samad had said quietly.

  Two weeks later, as Archie checked their route to Sofia, to no one in particular Samad said, “I should not be here.”

  As usual he was ignored; most fiercely and resolutely by Archie, who wanted somehow to listen.

  “I mean, I am educated. I am trained. I should be soaring with the Royal Airborne Force, shelling from on high! I am an officer! Not some mullah, some sepoy, wearing out my chappals in hard service. My great-grandfather Mangal Pande”—he looked around for the recognition the name deserved but, being met only with blank pancake English faces, continued—“was the great hero of the Indian Mutiny!”

  Silence.

  “Of 1857! It was he who shot the first hateful pigfat-smeared bullet and sent it spinning off into oblivion!”

  A longer, denser silence.

  “If it wasn’t for this buggery hand”—Samad, inwardly cursing the English goldfish-memory for history, lifted five dead, tightly curled fingers from their usual resting place on his chest—“this shitty hand that the useless Indian army gave me for my troubles, I would have matched his achievements. And why am I crippled? Because the Indian army knows more about the kissing of arses than it does about the heat and sweat of battle! Never go to India, Sapper Jones, my dear friend, it is a place for fools and worse than fools. Fools, Hindus, Sikhs, and Punjabis. And now there is all this murmuring about independence—give Bengal independence, Archie, is what I say—leave India in bed with the British, if that’s what she likes.”

  His arm crashed to his side with the dead weight and rested itself like an old man after an angry fit. Samad always addressed Archie as if they were in league together against the rest of the tank. No matter how much Archie shunned him, those four days of eyeballing had created a kind of silk-thread bond between the two men that Samad tugged whenever he got the opportunity.

  “You see, Jones,” said Samad, “the real mistake the viceroy made was to give the Sikhs any position of power, you see? Just because they have some limited success with the kaffir in Africa, he says Yes, Mr. Man, with your sweaty fat face and your silly fake English mustache and your pagri balanced like a large shit on the top of your head, you can be an officer, we will Indianize the army; go, go and fight in Italy, Rissaldar Major Pugri, Daffadar Pugri, with my grand old English troops! Mistake! And then they take me, hero of the 9th North Bengal Mounted Rifles, hero of the Bengal flying corps, and say, ‘Samad Miah Iqbal, Samad, we are going to confer on you a great honor. You will fight in mainland Europe—not starve and drink your own piss in Egypt or Malaya, no—you will fight the Hun where you find him.’ On his very doorstep, Sapper Jones, on his very doorstep. So! I went. Italy, I thought, well, this is where I will show the English army that the Muslim men of Bengal can fight like any Sikh. Better! Stronger! And are the best educated and are those with the good blood, we who are truly of Officer Material.”

  “Indian officers? That’ll be the bloody day,” said Roy.

  “On my first day there,” continued Samad, “I destroyed a Nazi hideout from the air. Like a swooping eagle.”

  “Bollocks,” said Roy.

  “On my second day, I shot from the air the enemy as he approached the Gothic Line, breaking the Argenta Gap and pushing the Allies through to the Po Valley. Lord Mountbatten himself was to have congratulated me himself in his own person. He would have shaken this hand. But this was all prevented. Do you know what occurred on my third day, Sapper Jones? Do you know how I was crippled? A young man in his prime?”

  “No,” said Archie quietly.

  “A bastard Sikh, Sapper Jones, a bastard fool. As we stood in a trench, his gun went off and shot me through the wrist. But I wouldn’t have it amputated. Every bit of my body comes from Allah. Every bit will return to him.”

  So Samad had ended up in the unfeted bridge-laying division of His Majesty’s Army with the rest of the losers; with men like Archie, with men like Dickinson-Smith (whose government file included the phrase “Risk: Homosexual”), with frontal lobotomy cases like Mackintosh and Johnson. The rejects of war. As Roy affectionately called it: the Buggered Battalion. Much of the problem with the outfit lay with the captain of the First Assault Regiment: Dickinson-Smith was no soldier. And certainly no commander, though commanding was in his genes. Against his will he had been dragged out of his father’s college, shaken free of his father’s gown, and made to Fight a War, as his father had. And his father before him, and his father before him, ad infinitum. Young Thomas had resigned himself to his fate and was engaged in a concerted and prolonged effort (four years now) to get his name on the ever-extending list of Dickinson-Smiths carved on a long slab of death-stone in the village of Little Marlow, to be buried on top of them all in the family’s sardine-can tomb that proudly dominated the historic churchyard.

  Killed by the Hun, the Wogs, the Chinks, the Kaffirs, the Frogs, the Scots, the Spics, the Zulus, the Indians (South, East, and Red), and accidentally mistaken for a darting okapi by a Swede on a big-game hunt in Nairobi, traditionally the Dickinson-Smiths were insatiable in their desire to see Dickinson-Smith blood spilled on foreign soil. And on the occasions when there wasn’t a war the Dickinson-Smiths busied themselves with the Irish Situation, a kind of Dickinson-Smith holiday resort of death, which had been going since 1600 and showed no sign of letting up. But dying’s no easy trick. And though the chance to hurl themselves in front of any sort of lethal weaponry had held a magnetic attraction for the family throughout the ages, this Dickinson-Smith couldn’t seem to manage it. Poor Thomas had a different kind of lust for exotic ground. He wanted to know it, to nurture it, to learn from it, to love it. He was a simple nonstarter at the war game.

  The long story of how Samad went from the pinnacle of military achievement in the Bengal corps to the Buggered Battalion was told and retold to Archie, in different versions and with elaborations upon it, once a day for another two weeks, whether he listened or not. Tedious as it was, it was a highlight next to the other tales of failure that filled those long nights, and kept the men of the Buggered Battalion in their preferred state of demotivation and despair. Among the well-worn canon was the Tragic Death of Roy’s Fiancée, a hairdresser who slipped on a set of rollers and broke her neck on the sink; Archie’s Failure to Go to Grammar School because his mother couldn’t afford to buy the uniform; Dickinson-Smith’s many murdered relatives; as for Will Johnson, he did not speak during the day but whimpered as he slept, and his face spoke eloquently of more miserable miseries than anyone dared inquire into. The Buggered Battalion continued li
ke this for some time, a traveling circus of discontents roaming aimlessly through Eastern Europe; freaks and fools with no audience but each other. Who performed and stared in turns. Until finally the tank rolled into a day that History has not remembered. That Memory has made no effort to retain. A sudden stone submerged. False teeth floating silently to the bottom of a glass. May 6, 1945.

  At about 1800 hours on May 6, 1945, something in the tank blew up. It wasn’t a bomb noise but an engineering disaster noise, and the tank slowly ground to a halt. They were in a tiny Bulgarian village bordering Greece and Turkey, which the war had got bored with and left, returning the people to almost normal routine.

  “Right,” said Roy, having had a look at the problem. “The engine’s buggered and one of the tracks has broken. We’re gonna have to radio for help, and then sit tight till it arrives. Nothing we can do.”

  “We’re going to make no effort at all to repair it?” asked Samad.

  “No,” said Dickinson-Smith. “Private Mackintosh is right. There’s no way we could deal with this kind of damage with the equipment we have at hand. We’ll just have to wait here until help arrives.”

  “How long will this be?”

  “A day,” piped up Johnson. “We’re way off from the rest.”

  “Are we required, Captain Smith, to remain in the vehicle for these twenty-four hours?” asked Samad, who despaired of Roy’s personal hygiene and was loath to spend a stationary, sultry evening with him.

  “Bloody right we are—what d’ya think this is, a day off?” growled Roy.

  “No, no . . . I don’t see why you shouldn’t wander a bit—there’s no point in us all being holed up here. You and Jones go, report back, and then Privates Mackintosh, Johnson, and I will go when you come back.”

  So Samad and Archie went into the village and spent three hours drinking Sambuca and listening to the café owner tell of the miniature invasion of two Nazis, who turned up in the town, ate all his supplies, had sex with two loose village girls, and shot a man in the head for failing to give them directions to the next town swiftly enough.

 
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