Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury
When I first picked this one up I was a bit bored by the vaguely humorous, tongue-in-cheek , but way out-of-date travelog about a thinly disguised Eastern European Communist capital named Slaka (probably
The sources of humor are many:
- The linguistic battles and in-jokes of the 70ies and 80ies that surround Petworth’s professional life: “a rich international sub-language—he would call it an idiolect—composed of many fascinating terms, like idiolect, and sociolect, langue and parole, signifier and signified, Chomsky and Saussure, Barthes and Derrida, not the sort of words you say to everybody, but which put [Petworth] immediately in touch with the vast community of those of his own sub-group…”
- The stereotypical “types” in Slaka: the heavies, dissidents, the professors trying to walk a thin line and those trying to convert the visitor to Marxism. Those extolling the virtues of the socialist state and those trying to impress with their experience of the West.
- The language itself. Much of the text is monologue (or comic dialogue with Petworth supplying the straight lines) in what most will recognize as the typically mangled syntax associated with Eastern Europeans. In addition, the country itself is having a language crisis and the spelling of words changes overnight, causing the name of the official newspaper as well as words on prominent signs to change overnight. In fact, the changing words signal changes in regime, which of course the politically innocent Petworth (dubbed as is “not a character in the world historical sense”) doesn’t recognize.
- A certain reflexiveness, an awareness on the part of the narrator and of Petworth that the characters in the story are characters in a story.
- The recognizable appurtenances of Communist countries: the listeners (no unemployment because so many are employed spying on others), the bureaucracy, the abbreviated and capitalized names of offices and programs (COSMOPLOT, HOGPo) to say nothing of "The Park of Brotherhood and Friendship with the Russian Peoples" and the portraits of Lenin and Marx and Breshnov alongside the local leaders.
- Petworth’s name: he is called Petwit, Petwurt, Pitvit (perilously close to nitwit), Petwet, and even Pervert.
- Other names: Professor Rom Rom, Mr. Plitplov, Steadiman (the husband and wife together are called Steadimen). The hard currency store is Wicwok.
- The woman who chase Petworth: the magical realist novelist named Katya Princip for whom he falls, the wife of the English Cultural attaché named Budgie Steadiman, his official guide Marisja Lubijova. Petworth as "lover" and especially as "loved and desired" is hilarious.
- Petworth’s lectures: One is on the difference between “I haven’t got” and “I don’t have” in English….
- A certain “Homeric ring” when epithets are applied to repeated themes, like “the dark wife” for Petworth’s wife back home in
. Recurring minor themes like the whispers of “do you want to change money” all travelers are warned against. England
- Echoes of Western literary favorites: “in the room professors come and go talking of TS Eliot”, “But that was in another country and the wench now has tenure”, ”A line of short stout lady professors sit in the front row, thinking Marxist thoughts and knitting”.
Those who get the academic humor and those who remember the rigmarole of visiting a Communist country will probably enjoy this book more than others. As well those who appreciate writing that sacrifices anything for wit.