In Rates of Exchange, British novelist and critic Malcolm Bradbury chronicles the experiences of Angus Petworth, a Cambridge University professor of linguistics, as he embarks on a government-sponsored tour of Slaka, an Eastern European country in the Soviet Bloc. As Petworth strives to understand the country he has recently entered, a series of misadventures befalls him, disturbing his generally reserved demeanor. While his adventures are often comic, the novel suggests a far from comic truth: that life is nothing more meaningful than a series of material and emotional barters, different rates of exchange.
The novel opens with a kind of prefatory chapter, preceding chapter 1, entitled “Visiting Slaka: A Few Brief Hints.” This section, as its title suggests, does not introduce Petworth at all but rather gives a brief account of the history of Slaka. First, the reader learns that Slaka is a remarkably protean country: Indeed, its history is so varied that it has become a “mystery,” and for almost every historical event, “Perplexities abound, accounts contradict, and accurate details are wanting.” This confusion results from the many invasions the country has endured, so that, at one time or another, its people have tried almost every imaginable language, religion, and cuisine. Even the country’s currency has been “stamped or embossed with the ever-fleeting heads of the uncountable emperors and princelings, thains and margraves, bishop-krakators and mamelukes who have mysteriously appeared, ruled for a time, and then as mysteriously disappeared again, into the obscure and contorted passages of history.” What seems to emerge from this description is that Slaka is to countries what Everyman is to humanity, and while Bradbury gives a distinctly Eastern European feel to the country, Slaka seems to represent both an individual place and the world at large.
The first mention of the rates of exchange on which the title is based also appears in this chapter in the absurd story of Saint Valdopin, who Christianized Slaka. After performing this task, he went to convert the heathen in a nearby tribe (“to the north, or the west, or just possibly the east,” because history in Slaka is always unclear) but was killed and his body cut to bits. Messengers from Slaka were sent to reclaim the body, and scales were used to buy back the corpse: “the mincemeat saint was to be placed on one pan, to be traded for an equal weight of gold.” The gold does not move the scale, however, until an old woman drops in her last coin, whereupon a miracle occurs and the scale finally registers the gold. Commenting on this story, the narrator notes that “Like all good stories, it can be read in many fashions” and proceeds to give the interpretations that would be made by “romantic nationalist historians,” “Christian theologians,” “Marxist aestheticians,” “folklorists,” and “more fashionable thinkers of the Structuralist persuasion.” He himself would call it “a typical Slakan fable about rates of exchange,” and the reader then learns that the inhabitants of Slaka are obsessed with bartering. The moral of the fable, however, extends far beyond Slaka, according to the sardonic narrator, forSo you, cher lecteur, with your customized Volvo and your Seiko quartz digital, your remote control telephone and your high opinion, so loudly expressed over the Campari soda, of Woody Allen up to but not including Interiors; or you, chère ms., with your Gucci shoes, the tales of ego your analyst told you, and the buttons of your designer dress left strategically undone, to display the Seychelles tan and that tempting mammary interface, so raising the interest without lowering the price; or even you, cher enfant, with your Kids-In-Gear boilersuit and your endless new scram on Emerson, Lake and Palmer—what are you doing but putting what you like to think of as your self in the pan, bartering your mind and body, your youth and opinions, on the economic frontier, in an attempt to find a meaning, invent a value, find your highest price, trade at the best possible rate of exchange?
Reality and human identity are as unstable as the country of Slaka itself.
Petworth’s position as a linguist contributes to this theme because, according to the narrator, “The linguists, whom one meets everywhere these days, explain that every transaction in our culture—our money and mathematics, our games and gardens,...
(The entire section is 1832 words.)