Monday, September 13, 2021


This novel set in a fictitious Eastern European country was published in 1983, that is, the year after the death of Leonid Brezhnev, but superficially at least it's very much a book of the "Brezhnev era" and also of the Margaret Thatcher years. The Iron Curtain and the Iron Lady are both long gone, of course, so I was curious to revisit the book now, having liked it so much when it first appeared.

The central character of Rates of Exchange is a British academic named Petworth who is dispatched on a two-week lecture tour sponsored by the British Council. He arrives in a country that has been "pummelled, fought over, raped, pillaged, conquered and oppressed by the endless invaders who, from every direction, have swept and jostled through this all too accessible landscape." The official language spoken in Slaka is a farrago of Slavic and Romance elements as well as loan words from English and other tongues, and it's prone to overnight shifts in dialect as different political factions in the country vie for influence. Much deft comedy is had from all this and from the inevitable misunderstandings that go along with travel and with translation, and Malcolm Bradbury is nothing if not fluent and witty about all that. But there's more here than simply mocking foreign ways. Petworth never knows whom he can trust among the officials and cultural figures who wine and dine him and usher him around the country, but he himself is an unsettled figure, a middle-aged man of middling accomplishments, with a muddled marriage, in short, he can scarcely be regarded as "a character in the world-historical sense" as one of his interlocutors puts it. He is no more in control of his life than are the people he meets, all of whom are either working for or looking over their shoulders at (generally both) the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The book is suffused with an uneasy melancholy that doesn't go out of date with geopolitical changes. If it's true that one can't really imagine this novel being written today, it nevertheless hasn't lost one bit of relevance.

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