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October 06, 2006

Hic fo toma modernska tipiker, da? Rates of Exchange and Why Come to Slaka? - Malcolm Bradbury

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Rates of Exchange and Why Come to Slaka?
by Malcolm Bradbury
Rates of Exchange first published 1983
Why Come to Slaka first published 1986
London: Picador, 2003
Paperback, 7.99

I don't normally read modern novels, believing them to be greatly overrated as a forum of ideas. It is not a principled opposition, merely a calculation that the opportunity cost is too high. But here is a (relatively) modern novel with so many themes close to my interests and experiences that I was persuaded. Language, communism, lecture tours: been there, done that.

What is more, the novelist in question, Malcolm Bradbury, has a special kind of importance, having been a Professor of Creative Writing whose pupils included other well-regarded novelists such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. He also has a funny little role in my life: in the 1980s, when The History Man was televised, there was at least one respectable lady acquaintance in our town who would cross the road to avoid having to speak to me because of the sort of things that go on in universities. And this she knew from The History Man.

Rates of Exchange was published in 1983 and is set in 1981. It concerns the two week visit of Dr Angus Petworth of Bradford to the East European country of Slaka, whose capital city has the same name as the country.

Apart from Petworth, whose name is pronounced differently by every Slakan he meets, the principal characters are his bossy guide, Marisja Lubijova (with whom he has to pretend to have sex for the benefit of the HOGPo secret police), a magic realist novelist called Katya Princip (with whom he does have sex and am I supposed to read anything into the unmentioned fact that she has the same name as the assassin of the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand?) and a chap called Dr Plitplov who turns up everywhere (and who may have had sex with Petworth's wife at a Cambridge summer school). There is also a British diplomat who stammers and his predictably potty upper-class nymphomaniac wife, who is called Budgie.

In the end, not that much happens, despite the background of ruptions within the party, the army and the universities which lead to Comrade-General Wanko being replaced as head of state by a man called Vulcani. Why Come to Slaka?, the mock guide- and phrase-book appended at the end forms a postscript suggestive of a happy ending because it is a co-operative effort produced by all the main characters.

Both the publisher and the Observer described the book as "satire". Insofar as it is satire on its overt subject-matter it is fairly redundant. The tacky-sexy, backward, paranoid, crudely ideological world of Slavic Communism was self-parodying. It's all very well to invent an English-language menu which begins (p. 95):

Mutton soap
Chop-lover's chops
Folded pate
But you can't beat "Penis of deer twice cooked" which I actually saw on a Communist menu. (I am prepared to offer a small prize to any reader who can guess which city this was in.) And there isn't much point in writing a mock-guide to a communist country for a reader such as myself who had the classic Motoring through the USSR in his loo for many years. Though I did laugh out loud at the claim that "Slakan roads are often ashphlat and many are free of boulders" which brought back many hairy experiences on Caucasian highways.

Occasionally, Bradbury concocts a scene which is exactly reminiscent of my experiences. The moment of panic, for example, when you don't know where your luggage is and the person who was supposed to meet you doesn't seem to be there; whereas in the West in those circumstances people would have habitually ignored you in the East they positively ignored you. And just when I thought Bradbury had failed to capture the air of incipient anarchy which had begun to pervade all things communist at least by the 1980s he has a scene in which an internal flight turns into a party, with drinkers popping in and out of the pilot's cabin, plying him with drink, sitting on his knee (if they are girls) and having a go at flying the plane. I was part of such a flight down to the details: so much more relaxed than the uptight West!

There are lots of bad and old jokes, including the classic misunderstanding with the stewardess who insists on "No smirking" - though I apologise to the late Malcolm Bradbury (he died in 2000) if he actually invented this joke. The stammering British embassy official can't get long words out so he introduces Petworth as "my fellow cunt . . . . cunt . . . . countryman . .".

The invented language is not carefully worked out, as with some invented languages, but is an opportunity for fairly crude humour. In the phrasebook, for example, "Pardon my mistake" is pardi mi petti'pilloki. As satire or humour this does not get up to the level of Monty Python's communist travelogue ("Who would have thought that these contented peasants were dedicated to the overthrowing of Western capitalism?") and stays more at the level of The Fast Show's "Chanel 9" where, you will remember, Caroline Aherne's weather girl was always predicting "scorchio".

But, of course, this is not really the level at which Bradbury should be judged or would want to be judged. He is a professor of English and he is constantly playing with ideas about language and reality. Petworth is a linguist and lectures on "The Englishi Languagi as Mediumi of Internationali Communicationi" as he is introduced (p. 209). The riots which take place and lead to changes in Slakan government are about linguistic reform. In this context it is disappointing that the language invention business is treated so crudely: Slakan is a sort of pidgin-latin thing with a few Slavic words thrown in (both the Latin and the Cyrillic scripts are used in Slaka) - my title is an example of it and means "This is a typical modern novel, is it?". Why bother inventing a funny language when Dutch is already there?

The title, Rates of Exchange, refers to the analogy between language and money, but the complication is that analogy becomes homology. A word can get you into the building you want to enter, so can a number; the latter in some forms (credit card in a theatre, for example) might be a form of money, but what does that matter? This is an insight, but not so profound nor interesting an insight as many seem to think. As with Language and Currency, so with Life and Art - they become so intertwined, so influential upon each other as to be indistinguishable. We have no reality save that which we conceive in terms of the metaphors and constructs which have been created for us. Thus an outlook which has absorbed lots of structuralism and semiotics comes close to recreating ancient anthropomorphic discourses about God and destiny, even in jest (p. 181):

And so there, in foreign parts, in distant Slaka, under another ideology, where the big maid is omnipresent and the walls undoubtedly have ears, the far-flung British exiles start their party. Wind and rain blow outside, and a big , almost green moon has been pasted, by whomever is responsible for providing such detail, over the dark roofs of Slaka . . . .
Thus the novelist constantly reminds the reader that he makes the rules and that he isn't going to make an old-fashioned suspension of disbelief too easy.

We are imprisoned by language. When Petworth has made love to the novelist, Katya Princip, she says (p. 239):
Oh, we made the bad world go away for a minute, that really is what love is for, but when it comes back, we have of course to live in it. Make all the loves you like and you still do not escape. Most lives are like a prison, here in my country of course, but I know also in yours. Do not forget, I have been there. If yours is not, you are very lucky. And all these lovings in the world, they do not make these things go away. The sad wife in your bed at home. The black cat that awaits outside, did you see it? . . . Oh yes, my dear, we have made our nice secret, all so natural. But of course it is not so natural. As my grey father Marx tells, it is also cultural and ideological, economical and sexual. It is part of all the systems, and each time you choose or you do, you enter one of them.
The minor technical problem of this passage is that it gives the big speech to a character whose English we are elsewhere invited to laugh at. The major objection, which must be lodged, however predictably, is that this kind of structuralism (and a much broader tradition of the explanation of human action which came to fruition in the nineteenth century) doesn't merely undermine moral and political judgement so much as actively seek to prevent it. Imprisoned by language. Imprisoned in the Gulag. Same thing, really. Bradbury may satirise this outlook - as all its participants can talk of it satirically - but he is also part of it.

And it is an outlook which seems to encourage melancholy. When Petworth realises that he is happy for a moment we are offered the following reflection (p. 225):
. . for Dr Petworth, sitting there in the foreign taxi in the foreign city, is not a man much used to feeling that he exists. Over the years he has grown older, seen some greying of the hair, watched his teeth deteriorate and be on occasion extracted, lost his youthful humour, grown more anxious and solitary, felt some centre in him, some ground of being where value ought to be, grow fragile and dissipate.
For some reason I am reminded, not merely of former academic colleagues, but also of recent Russian research which suggests that a sound thrashing is one of the best antidotes to depression.

No, I am not converted to the modern novel as a way of passing the time and certainly not to the self-conscious, self-referential, EngLitCrit sort of novel.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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"recent Russian research which suggests that a sound thrashing is one of the best antidotes to depression."

Any source for that?

Posted by: duderino neutrino palomino at October 6, 2006 03:44 PM

I think the "Deer Penis" must come from Vietnam, from one of those restaurants that offers a nostalgia trip for the Viet Cong struggle. So my guess is Hanoi.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at October 6, 2006 09:21 PM

The Deer Penis (twice cooked) sounds Romanian to me - so Bucharest.

Posted by: Julian at October 7, 2006 12:37 PM

I feel compelled to add my favourite Soviet bloc English menu item, from a hotel in Kosice, announcing, as dish of the day, 'Burnt Sick'. (Enquiry revealed this to be a flaming kebab, or, I suppose, 'stick').

Posted by: David Conway at October 9, 2006 01:53 PM
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