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Book Review: Rates of Exchange by Malcolm Bradbury (1983)

Imagine a place sandwiched somewhere 'twixt the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, not as far south as Turkey, nor as far north as Moscow, the kind of place where they address you as comrade, where the dollar is the currency of both heaven and hell and where even the flower pots have ears and eyes.


Imagine also a place where women, as beautiful as they are exotic, and with names such as Marisa Ljubova and Katya Princip, cannot wait to engage in sexual congress with just about any male who has even the merest whiff of western decadence emanating from his attache case.


Welcome then to the republic of Slaka, Malcolm Bradbury's weird and wonderful country of the imagination, and the unlikely location for a lecture tour by Linguistics expert Dr Angus Petworth, an undistinguished academic for whom the term unremarkable might well have been coined.


Bradbury's archetypal communist republic draws upon the author's fascination for all things soviet and all things subversive. The result is a rather amusing clash of east and west sensibilities chiefly realised in the experiences of Dr Petwoth, the original innocent abroad.


From the moment he arrives in this mysterious land of quotas and comrades, where the national drink is a pungent peach liquour and where the national pastime seems to be spying on one's neighbours, Dr Petworth is a fish out of water, relying on his guide, the beautiful Marisa Ljubova, to interpret and translate a culture that both alienates and fascinates.


Into the mix emerges the omniscient Dr Plitplov, a shadowy academic with a nasty habit of overhearing confidences and of popping up when Petworth least expects him to. The relationship between these two characters is one of the book's many highlights veering as it does from frosty civility through to suspicion and outright paranoia.


Indeed the humour in Rates of Exchange is always subtle, always understated, never more obvious than during the dinner party hosted by British Consul couple, the Steadimans. What follows is a quite hilarious evening of faux pas and misconception at the centre of which, as ever, sits the unassuming Dr Petworth.


In many ways Petworth is an enigmatic character, one whom the reader never truly manages to unravel. Things happen to him; he's never the agent of his own actions. His words are few and far between, and when he does speak it is in a curiously detached manner. How then do so many women find this man so alluring, so irresistible?


Well this novel is all about exchange. Petworth may be a little man in England, but on Slakan soil, as an emissary of the west, he's suddenly a big fish in a small pond - and one now with cultural capital, which goes some way to explaining his sudden and inexplicable sexual magnetism.


The female propensity to commodify sexual relations means that Petworth, rightly or wrongly, now possesses something that is deemed desirable. Improbably, the staid academic morphs into an object of sexual magnetism. With its nod to Lilliputian themes, Petworth's transformation from non-entity to man of status is a strand of the novel which is as funny as it is thought-provoking.


Rates of Exchange is then not just a rather amusing juxtaposition of western and eastern political and cultural norms, it's also an examination of social values and in particular sexual assumptions.


Ironically though Petworth's journey is (in the smallest sense of the idea) a way to help in the dissemination of western liberal ideology, arguably it is Petworth himself who ends up finding liberation. His doomed affair with Princip, magic realist novelist and self-styled witch, is yet another very enjoyable strand to this novel. Indeed, some of the lady's monologues cast a spell not only Petworth, but the reader too.


Characterised by its engaging vernacular, including Bradbury's audacious attempt to invent and refine his own version of a Slakan language, Rates of Exchange is a novel unlike any other. It's full of surprises. A political allegory, a personal journey of discovery, a love story, a spy story, a comedy of manners. It's all things to all people.


Bradbury's novel not only crosses continents and ideologies it crosses genres too. This is the kind of novel that just begs to be read again, in the future, when perhaps its power and artistry can be fully appreciated. Going back to a book is not to be taken lightly, but Rates of Exchange is one I'll certainly be revisiting.