WHITE TEETH (2000), a novel by Zadie Smith about two wartime friends, won numerous ‘first book’ awards.
12/01/09 | Novel

White Teeth

by Crispin Best

The president does not clear his throat. He stands in front of the microphone and asks for the first question.

Q: Mr. President, you look well, have you done something different with your hair this evening?

A: No, I haven’t. Actually, I did wash it yesterday. I hear that one’s hair often looks better the day after washing it, or sometimes even on the third day. Next question.

The president is the son of a blacksmith. He grew up in a suburb. As a child, the president watched his father at work. His father would use his tools to make gates and railings. When he was low on work, he would use his tools to make more tools. The president would sit on an anvil. Day after day, with his hands over his ears, he would watch.

Q: Do you have any comments about recent assertions in the press that the current proliferation of humus may, in fact, be a terrorist attack?

A: I found the articles fascinating. The idea that humus is actually an explosive material, with a brisance comparable to that of TNT, really, it’s remarkable. I had these visions of vegans suddenly combusting, you know? Of whole cooler cabinets being blown off supermarket walls, of pine nuts flying through the air, taking some hippy’s eye out, that sort of thing. Marvelous story. Nice going, you guys. Next question.

The president speaks slowly. Often, he licks his lips between words. The president speaks quietly. He does not lean in to the microphone. There is no water for him to sip. The reporters suck their pencils and take notes.

In his previous role as Governor, the President placed a large emphasis on providing food for the poor. He was regularly photographed in underprivileged areas. He often arranged for soup to be distributed to those unable to afford it. He never provided any bread. The people sucked their teeth.

Q: On your recent trip to Monaco, you were pictured leaving a casino. Joe Public picked up the tab. Do you think this was an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money?
A: To be frank, I was terribly careful. In the main, I was at the roulette tables. My tactics were as such: every time I lost, I would double my bet. I learnt that one from Dostoevsky. It’s practically impossible to lose. By the time the press got wind of it and showed up, I was actually up the equivalent of $70,000. Of course you didn’t report that part, you bastards. Let’s go. Next.

As Governor, the president had suggested that the war dead be buried beneath the town squares. It would be, the president said, a permanent and fitting memorial to those who had died protecting their country in the recent conflict. The president had not fought in the conflict. He was, at the time, studying for a PhD in civil engineering. The city’s people did not take kindly to the president’s idea. What is left of the war dead continues to be buried in cemeteries.

When the president eats, he finds hairs in his food: long, Elvis-black hairs that don’t seem to belong to him. He cannot understand why this continues to happen. He has asked his chef to make sure that his food is prepared carefully, that hairnets are worn, long sleeves and gloves. His chef assures him that the utmost care is taken. His chef has short, grey hair. Still the president finds the hairs.

Q: Mr. President, do you think it might be appropriate to take your sunglasses off?

A: Out of the question. Next.

During his election campaign, the president’s motto was, “It’s doable and we can do it.” The motto was written on banners handed to supporters. It was printed on the lecterns behind which he stood, on the front of podiums from which he spoke. He was a populist. At fundraisers and public events, he would be photographed smiling, giving a thumbs up. His smile was camera-flash perfect, shining bright like the color of nothing. Whilst boarding airplanes, with one hand directly in the air, the president would smile and wave off-camera to crowds of people who were not there. He won the election by a landslide.

Q: There have been some recent suggestions in the press that the country’s flag may be redesigned. Do you have any comment?

A: Well, you guys are right in that we are looking into a possible redesign of the flag. There’ll of course be a referendum on such a decision. My personal preference would be to use more than twelve different colors, which would surpass Belize’s record, and perhaps to use some sort of thumb-war motif. I’ve been told it’s to have no sharp edges or corners. Health and safety. Also, I think the flag should look really terrific with jeans. OK.

The president is afraid of things. He is afraid in the same way that other people are afraid. He is afraid when a nearby flock of pigeons takes off or someone enters his line of sight unexpectedly. He is afraid of cancer. When a car backfires, he is afraid. Leaning on a high banister, he is afraid. He is afraid that his stomach is full of hair, and that he is going bald, or insane. He wriggles during the night and kicks the covers, sits up suddenly, smashes the mattress with a fist. He is still here, smiling.