Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Swallow in Turkey

Ankara, circa 1980

Last weekend I discovered the funniest (not R-rated) passage yet in the work of David Lodge, this from his comic novel Small World: An Academic Romance. In Ankara to deliver two papers on a British Council tour, Philip Swallow's host is Akbil Borak, who was educated in England. The evening of the day of Philip's arrival, Akbil's wife tells her husband not to go to sleep yet:
"I want to hear about your day. Did Professor Swallow arrive safely?"
      "Yes, the plane was only a little late. I went with Mr Custer in the British Council car to meet him....Then we went to Anitkabir to lay a wreath on Ataturk's tomb."
      "Whatever for?"
      "Mr Custer thought it would be a nice gesture. And a funny thing happened. I will tell you." Akbil suddenly shed his drowsiness at the memory, and propped himself up on one elbow to tell Oya the story. "You know it is quite an awe-inspiring experience, the first time you go to Anitkabir. To walk down that long, long concourse, with the Hittite lions and the other statues, and the soldiers standing guard on the parapets, so still and silent they look like statues themselves, but all armed. Perhaps I should not have told Professor Swallow that it was a capital offence to show disrespect to the memory of Ataturk."
      "Well, so it is."
      "I said it as a kind of joke. However, he seemed to be very worried by the information. He kept saying, 'Is it all right if I blow my nose?' and 'Will the soldiers be suspicious of my limp?'"
      "Does he have a limp?"
      "Since he fell down at the airport he has a slight limp, yes." [Turkey was then in a sorry state, roads in disrepair, service workers on strike, power shortages....] "Anyway, Mr Custer told him, 'Don't worry, just do exactly as I do.' So we march down the concourse, Mr Custer in front carrying the wreath, and Professor Swallow and I following in step, under the eyes of the soldiers. We swung left into the Great Meeting Place, very smartly, just like soldiers ourselves, and approached the Hall of Honour. And then Mr Custer had the misfortune to trip over a paving stone that was sticking up and, being impeded by the wreath, fell onto his hands and knees. Before I could stop him, Professor Swallow flung himself to the ground and lay prostrate like a Muslim at prayer."
      Oya gasped and giggled. "And what happened next?"
      "We picked him up and dusted him down again." [They'd "dusted him down" at the airport, after he stepped into a deep rut and fell down.] "Then we laid the wreath and visited the museum. Then we went back to the British Council office to discuss Professor Swallow's programme. He must be a man of immense learning."
      "Why do you say that?"
      "Well, you know that he has come here to lecture on Hazlitt because it was the centenary last year. The other lecture he offered was on Jane Austen, and only our fourth-year students have read her books. So we asked the British Council if he could possibly offer a lecture on some broader topic, such as Literature and History, or Literature and Society, or Literature and Philosophy..." Akbil Borak yawned and closed his eyes. He seemed to have lost the thread of his story.
      "Well?" said Oya, poking him impatiently in the ribs with her elbow.
      "Well, apparently the message was somewhat garbled in the telex transmission. It said, please would he give a lecture on Literature and History and Society and Philosophy and Psychology. And, do you know, he agreed. He has prepared a lecture on Literature and Everything. We had a good laugh about it."
      "Professor Swallow laughed?"
      "Well, Mr Custer laughed the most," Akbil conceded.
      "Poor Professor Swallow," Oya sighed. "I do not think he had a very nice day."
      "In the evening it was better," said Akbil. "I took him to a kebab restaurant and we had a good meal and some raki. We talked about Hull."
      "He knows Hull?"
      "Strangely, he has never been there," said Akbil. "So I was able to tell him all about it."
      He turned onto his side, with his back to Oya, and pulled the quilt over his shoulders. Accepting that he would not talk any more, Oya settled herself to sleep. She stretched out a hand to switch off the bedside lamp, but, an instant before her fingers reached the switch, the light went out of its own accord.
      "Another power cut," she remarked to her husband. But he was already breathing deeply in sleep.
      ...Philip Swallow woke suddenly in his hotel room in Ankara with all the symptoms of incipient diarrhoea. It was pitch dark. He groped for the lightswitch on the wall about his head and pressed it, with no result. Bulb gone, or power cut? Sweating, feverish, he tried to recall the geography of the room. His briefcase was on a dressing-table facing the end of the bed. About three yards to the right of that was the door to the bathroom. Carefully he got out of bed and, tightening his sphincter muscle, felt his way along the edge of the bed until he reached the foot of it. With his arms extended in front of him like a blind man, he searched for the dressing-table, but it was his big toe that located this piece of furniture first. Whimpering with pain, he delved in his briefcase for his makeshift toilet paper, and shuffled along the wall like a rock-climber until he came to the bathroom door. [Warned to bring toilet paper from home but forgetting until the last minute and discovering there was none at home, he'd packed some scratch paper.] He tried the lightswitch inside without effect. A power cut, then. Sink to the left, toilet beyond it. Ah, there, thank God. He lowered himself on to the toilet seat and voided his liquefied bowels. A foul smell filled the darkness. It must have been the kebab, or, more likely, the salad that accompanied it. Still, at least he had managed to get to the loo in time, in spite of the power cut.
      Philip began to wipe himself. When the lights came on of their own accord he found he was up to page five of his lecture on "The Legacy of Hazlitt." [pp. 180-181, 190]
Listening to this on tape in bed early Sunday morning, I tried to suppress my laughter so as not to disturb my wife. At breakfast, I summarized the whole passage for her, and she and I both nearly choked laughing.

3 comments:

  1. And peace to you, too, Maliha!

    Thinking again of the unfortunate Swallow's experience brings a smile to my lips....

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  2. Not to sound vulgar, but the lecture probably wasn't worth a s**t.

    ReplyDelete