Read Rates of Exchange Online

Authors: Malcolm Bradbury

Rates of Exchange

Introduction by Giles Foden

In 1983, Angela Carter found herself writing in the
New Statesman
the now traditional confessions of a Booker Prize judge. She dubbed
Rates of Exchange
, which was
shortlisted for the prize in that year and written by her colleague at the University of East Anglia, Malcolm Bradbury, ‘an exercise in imaginary linguistics’. The other books included
The Life and Times of Michael K
by J. M. Coetzee,
Shame
by Salman Rushdie,
Waterland
by Graham Swift,
The Illusionist
by Anita Mason, and
Flying to Nowhere
by
John Fuller. Coetzee won.

Imaginary linguistics. A good description of all novels perhaps, but particularly of this one. Its plot turns on a politically dictated change in the language of Slaka, the totalitarian east or
central European country which is the book’s principal fiction. In this command economy, a vowel-shift is commanded: ‘i’ is exchanged for ‘u’. The party newspaper
P’rtyii Populatiii
becomes
P’rtyuu Populatuuu
and the Slakan word for thankyou,
slibob
, becomes
slubob
.

Into this distorted world, an amalgam maybe of the former Yugoslavia, Romania, Albania, and one or other of the Baltic states, is pitched Dr Angus Petworth, university lecturer and ‘a
practised cultural traveller, a man who has had diarrhoea for the British council in almost all parts of the civilized or partcivilized world’. Practised as he may be, in Slaka Petworth will
meet with personalities and eventualities which challenge all his preconceptions. Even his very name (Petwurt, Petwit, Pervert) becomes subject to comic transformation; subject to, in fact, the
mechanism of exchange within and between systems that is both this novel’s theme and the operating principle behind its narrative situations.

Rates of Exchange
presents a classic fictional scenario: the adventures of an Englishman abroad, away from home, translated. He responds to rather than shapes events; he is subject to
circumstance rather than destiny; he is laughable but still sympathetic; he is, in this book’s customary grammatical parlance, ‘object rather than subject’. This narrative type
goes back to the dawn of the English novel in Fielding’s
Tom Jones
and other seminal eighteenth-century titles. What is, in fact, most remarkable about Bradbury’s novel is the
way it’s in dialogue with so many other novels across British, European and American literary history, as well as with many of the critical theories that seek to explicate the novel form
across all languages, chief among them Mikhail Bakhtin’s
The Dialogic Imagination
(first published as a whole in 1975). An introduction can only pay heed to a few of the titles and
theories to which this book calls out across time; readers will spot many other echoes and allusions.

Petworth, him being so practised and all, one might expect to be a man of the world. But continually throughout the book we are alerted to his expertise only being in teaching and in travelling
between places where he teaches. In sexual, emotional and political intrigue he is an
ingénu
. Like Jones, he is interestingly pitched between innocence and experience.

This is what locates
Rates of Exchange
generically within a very particular tradition of comic adventure overseas. In modern times, primarily determined by a colonial and postcolonial
context, it stretches from Evelyn Waugh’s
Scoop
(1938) to William Boyd’s
A Good Man in Africa
(1981), with an American wing comprising another Boyd novel,
Stars and
Bars
(1984), and David Lodge’s
Changing Places
(1975). This last is actually mentioned in passing in
Rates of Exchange
, comically conflated by a Slakan academic with another
Bradbury novel,
Stepping Westwards
(1968):

‘Do you know also a campus writer Brodge?’ asks a lady to his left. ‘Who writes
Changing Westward
? I think he is very funny but sometimes his
ideological position is not clear.’

The campus novel is the most obvious generic template for
Rates of Exchange
, though in this case the campus moves from place to place across Slaka, as if acting out the exchange principle
itself; in this respect the book is a direct response to
Changing Places
(where two academics, Maurice Zapp and Philip Swallow, swap campuses). Lodge’s own
Small World
(1984)
takes the exchange principle still further, as the characters process through an international series of academic literary conferences. This spatialization of culture is the English campus
novel’s response to postmodernism, and
Rates of Exchange
is clearly a part of that. But it marches over the territory of many other genres, and that polyvalence is in itself also part
of its response to postmodernism.

One of the generic territories
Rates of Exchange
covers is the encyclopaedic account of an imaginary place, another tradition that leads us back to the start of the European novel, with
Gulliver’s Travels
(1726/1735) and its roots in late medieval and early modern travel writing. More recent incarnations of this genre include
The Island of the Articoles
by
André Maurois (1928), Gabriel Garcìa Márquez’s
One Hundred Years of Solitude
(1967), and Jan Morris’s
Hav
(2006), the latter owing something to
Bradbury’s book as well as to a cod guidebook which followed,
Why Come to Slaka?
(1986).

A related generic territory is that of the folk or fairy tale, such as Katya Princip draws on for her own novels, and relates to Petworth during her seduction of him. This genre is concerned
with the transformations that the various characters undergo in the book, and with the shifting set of masks underneath which Petworth must learn to recognize true motivation. One of the
novel’s key locations is the Restaurant Propp, a reference to Vladimir Propp, author of
The Morphology of the Folktale
(1928). Propp broke down folk and fairy tales into thirty-one
narrative functions (interdiction; complicity; trickery; exposure; recognition; victory and so on). Some of these phases contribute to the structure of
Rates of Exchange
.

Less obviously, or lying like a shadow over the obvious, is the espionage novel. There are comparisons to be made between
Rates of Exchange
and John Le Carré’s Smiley novels:
although he is deadly capable and does shape events, Smiley suffers similar existential challenges around sex and identity to those that Petworth undergoes. In
Rates of Exchange
, the
submerged spy narrative revolves around the briefcase full of lectures and academic books which detains the attention of Slakan customs as he enters the country and into which another text is
secreted on his departure. But what, in his small and unwilling guise as spy, has Petworth gone to Slaka to find out or do? The lady at the British Council asks for a brief report on academic
matters, ‘the state of the universities and so on’; as he has access to areas of Slaka usually forbidden to foreigners, the British ambassador asks him to report on military matters;
slippery Plitplov wants him to transport something in his briefcase. All these are red herrings. In fact, like the novelist who created him, Petworth is investigating the nature of reality itself.
If he is to have a victory, it will involve better understanding of the world and himself; in that sense, like Voltaire’s
Candide
and Johnson’s
Rasselas
(both published in
1759), it’s a cautionary tale: ‘these days one has to be very cautious’, a clerk at Heathrow tells him on the last page of the novel, as he tries to track down his briefcase.

Another generic influence on
Rates of Exchange
is that of the postmodern novel itself, which questions its own fictionality by drawing attention to or undermining its status as a novel.
Often this is done through an ironic interruption of the fictional by the real; such as, in this book, trying but failing to buy its predecessor
The History Man
at a bookshop at Heathrow.
The relevant intertexts here are two novels by American authors featuring Western observers of eastern Europe, John Updike’s
Bech: A Book
(1970) and Saul Bellow’s
The
Dean’s December
(1982).

By the early 1980s, the postmodern novel was becoming Bradbury’s main area of expertise as a critic, so when the narrator of
Rates of Exchange
writes ‘I am a writer not a
critic; I like my fictions to remain fictions’, there is a double joke.

And more than a joke, too: for Bradbury’s attempt to show how the factitious and fictitious interpenetrate is also entirely in earnest. Comic as it is,
Rates of Exchange
is an
attempt to depict, more or less realistically, two systems in conflict or dialogue. Here the specific generic context is that of a historical novel set in 1981 at the height of the Cold War, a time
when the West is suffering inflation and unemployment (the deregulatory effects of the ‘Big Bang’ of 1986 have yet to be felt) and cracks are beginning to show in the Eastern Bloc.
England itself is ‘strikebound’ and in ‘fits of Royal Wedding’ after a summer of ‘stylistic pluralism’.

Bradbury’s own novel
Doctor Criminale
(1992) is another postmodern historical novel in this vein, picking up on the intercultural action following the fall of the Berlin Wall;
Professor Ron Rum, whom the reader shall encounter in these pages, reappears in that book. It is Rum who in
Rates of Exchange
makes the crucial critical point that, if solved, would resolve
the many contradictions thrown up by such a variety of generic influences: ‘He asks me to explain you that the problem of realismus [literary realism] is to combinate the reality inherent in
the historical process with the sufficient subjective perception, do you agree?’ ‘Well, yes,’ says Petworth.

In many ways
Rates of Exchange
is a lighthearted attempt to resolve this very problem: how can a novel can be true to the life of the world, to history, and to the life of the subjective
mind and the emotions, particularly as experienced in language? It is a problem to which he applied himself as a critic, most notably in his introduction to the collection of essays
The Novel
Today: Contemporary Writers on Modern Fiction
(1977). There Bradbury postulates two critical histories of fiction: ‘polar distinctions that have long been made – between, on the one
hand, the novel’s propensity toward realism, social documentation and interrelation with historical events and movements, and on the other with its propensity toward form, fictionality, and
reflexive self-examination . . .’

‘White and male, forty and married, bourgeois and British’, Petworth has an eye for the ladies. But he is ill at ease in the three principal sexual encounters in the book, with
glamorous Slakan novelist Katya Princip, with Budgie Steadiman, the nymphomaniac wife of the British ambassador, and with Marisja Lubijova, his long-suffering official guide. In fact, he only
sleeps with Princip, narrowly escaping rape by Budgie and sitting side by side in the darkness with Mari, making love ‘not in the usual way’ but through a mental connection that evades
surveillance.

The eyes of the state are a constant theme in this book, for Slaka is a place where the secret police are the largest employer and everyone is watching everybody else. Petworth’s mistake
(and all comic heroes must make a large miscalculation) is to take Katya at face value and not to see that her protestations of passion are all part of a game of survival, the rules of which he is
unaware. Master of that game is the shape-shifting character of Plitpov, who may or may not have slept with Petworth’s wife on a trip to Cambridge many years before. All these factors
contribute to the mounting sense of unease that, despite the farcical elements of the story, makes
Rates of Exchange
a serious book as well as a comic one.

An uncertain dynamic between the farcical and the serious is central to Petworth’s status as a character. An apparent lightweight, he does not seem to be, as people keep telling him,
‘a character in the world historical sense’; that is, he does not express the major currents of history which are themselves a function of the economic base and political dialectic. Yet
as readers we perceive that he is indeed significant in this way, as an emblem of modernist anomie.

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