Have just finished reading UK writer Zadie Smith’s fifth book, Swing Time. I found it interesting but unmoving. A myriad themes are left flapping about in a circular and aimless wind. The novel is (amongst many other things a love letter to dance), written like a memoir on the part of an (annoyingly) unnamed narrator. There’s a flatness to the storytelling plus an earnest tone to the whole thing, creating a sense that everything should mean more than it does. The social and political detail is interesting but I didn’t care about any of the personalities in the book. Too many parts and not enough whole.
I don’t intend to review Swing Time here; I mention it only because there is a glaring and quite astonishing mistake in her portrayal of one of the minor characters.
The themes Smith touches on this book include racial and socio-geo-political inequality. Despite writing in so much complex detail when it comes to ethnic subcultures, Smith’s characterisation of Bahram, the Iranian owner of a pizza parlour, is right out of whack. He’s an unpleasant character, this Bahram. He’s bad tempered and racist. But that isn’t the issue. My problem is that he identifies as an Arab. At one point Smith even has Bahram waxing lyrical about Arabic culture.
Smith, who you’d think would surely know better, has conflated Persians with Arabs, a remarkable mistake. Persians are not Arabic: they are different ethnically, culturally and linguistically, although they share a religion and an alphabet. All the Iranians I’ve ever known (I’ve taught English to many Iranians and was married to one) spend half their days explaining to people how they are NOT Arabs, in the same way Belgians spend their lives pointing out to everybody else how they’re neither French nor Dutch, or Portuguese that they aren’t Spanish.
There’s a complex tangle in the small segment of Swing Time featuring Bahram, around some convoluted, racially inspired loyalties on the part of the ethnically diverse staff members at the pizza joint while they’re watching Wimbledon. There’s something I missed at the point where the narrator takes umbrage and walks out of her job, but who cares?
Smith has another, African, character, later on in the book, chasten her narrator for casually implying in a conversation that small African countries are inter-changeable, which makes Bahram’s identifying as an Arab even more anomalous. I also don’t understand how this inaccurate characterisation got past all the readers, editors, proofers and so on in the book’s final stages.
I have a fantasy that Smith herself once worked for an awful Iranian boss and that writing him up like this, profiling him in the most offensive way possible, is her revenge.
It’s the sort of thing I’d do.