Wealth and loathing in London

Reflections of the capital: Londoners walk in the Canary Wharf business district. (Luke MacGregor, Reuters)

Reflections of the capital: Londoners walk in the Canary Wharf business district. (Luke MacGregor, Reuters)

CAPITAL by John Lanchester (Faber and Faber)

John Lanchester is one of those clever people who can write about complex financial instruments and make it seem like fodder for first-year university students.

He alternates between writing ­fiction (The Debt to Pleasure; Mr Phillips; Fragrant Harbour), ­journalism (New Yorker, London Review of Books) and nonfiction (Whoops!, a book about the recession).

Lanchester also predicted the financial crisis of 2008.

Capital, a panoramic view of London through one of its streets, is his latest work of fiction. The title plays on the idea of capital both as a place and as money.

Pepys Street is the thoroughfare  in which a number of people who star in this novel live.

There are the Kamals, an immigrant family from Pakistan; Petunia Howe, an 82-year-old woman and her artist grandson Smitty, who might or might not be modelled on British graffiti artist Banksy; Quentina Mkfesi, an exiled Zimbabwean woman whose job involves enforcing the city’s traffic bylaws; banker Roger Yount and his wife Arabella; and Freddy Kamo, a football prodigy from Senegal.

I have not mentioned other people with connections to this street because, frankly, the novel is not poorer without them. The street’s fortunes have risen with those of the city; a century ago it was the abode of working-class people, but its fate has changed so much that now its properties fetch as much £3-million.
Yount earns enough in a year to expect a bonus of £1-million.

This 600-page, somewhat dreary novel, could easily have been a brilliant 120-page novella, focusing only on Yount. Yount works for a bank, Pinker Lloyd, where he heads a division. He got into the old system well before the “city became infatuated by the mathematically gifted” (elsewhere, Lanchester has written of derivatives as the financial world’s postmodernist moment).

In the new system, Yount is a perfect fit; after all, what the new system requires of him and everyone else is to make their employers as much money as possible. On his desk he has three computer screens: one to monitor “departmental activity in real time, another being Roger’s own PC … and another tracking trades in the foreign exchange department over the year”. There are small benefits that come his way: he does not have to fly “scum class” (economy); his Pepys Street home is adorned with a Damien Hirst painting (for which he shelled out about £50 000); and oh, he and Arabella also have a £1-million Georgian country retreat.

It is fair to declare that Yount is the novel’s most complete character; that is to say, the parts about him genuinely stand out from the morass of lifeless characters that crawl through it. You really feel that the book gets into its stride when it is the lives of moneyed people the narrator is discussing. Lanchester’s derivatives folk have a swagger about them; “because every trade involved a winner and a loser; making a great deal of money through trading involved being proved repeatedly right, time after time”.

The narrator also ponders why recently moneyed people copy those with old money, as “if there was a rule book”. Why is it that they are unable to do “the nicer versions of the things [they] used to do before [they] had money”? There is a character in Capital who “go[es] shooting and own[s] yachts”. (I have heard of a Soweto-born millionaire who, on weekends, hitches up his yacht to his big car and drives from his home in the north of Johannesburg to Soweto to show off his good fortune.)

Failure to fact-check

Most of the characters in the novel do not work. Let us look, for instance, at the Zimbabwean traffic warden, a character that most people in this part of the world would be able to recognise. Let us begin with the improbable name Mkfesi. That does not sound Zimbabwean at all. What is the point of Google (about which the author has written a beautiful piece) if we cannot get basic things like this right? As you would expect, the rest of Mkfesi’s character is implausible. She does not exhibit any Zimbabwean mannerisms or the idiosyncrasies of old Harareans. Her story is not particularly Zimbabwean; she might as well be Congolese or Ivorian, even Barbadian. Without a credible character, and with no discernible personality, the sections about her make difficult reading that one has to endure rather than enjoy.

What about the Kamals? The family has three brothers: Usman (whose “stupid unkempt beard” points to his deepening piety) and Shahid, the free-spirited one, who in his young days had gone to Chechnya to “save the umma”. And there is Ahmed, husband, father and corner-shop owner. Occasionally the pious Usman has to work in the shop and whenever he has to give change to a customer who has bought wine “he looked like a rottweiler chewing a wasp”.

The grey-haired octogenarian, Petunia, seems to represent an idea of Britain that is vanishing. One day, while at the doctor’s, she looks around her: there are eastern Europeans, a woman wearing a hijab and others wearing head scarves, making her feel “alien, such an exotic”. Enough of drab characters.

On page 192 the narrator, tired of the mediocrity (middle class, suburban) around him, exclaims that Britain is a “society which allows the idea of the elite to exist only in relation to sport”. That statement holds only until you realise that Rio Ferdinand, perhaps England’s best central defender, has been left out of the England squad for the current Euro 2012 championship, in bizarre and murky circumstances. (Rio’s brother, Anton, was allegedly racially abused by England captain John Terry and it seems that Rio has been omitted to ensure “peace” in the squad).

Lanchester writes that the “city of London is one of the few places in which the tyranny of the mediocre, the mean, the average, the banal, the ordinary, the complacent, is challenged”. If the middle class excels at anything, it is at paying tax. Someone in the novel wryly notes that Britain’s upper middle class were, as a group, “horrible to deal with, not least because they could never get two sentences into any exchange without mentioning how much tax they paid”. This idea of coupling citizenship and tax-paying in a country where the majority does not pay tax, not out of choice but because they fall below the tax threshold, is one that is eerily familiar in South Africa.

There is something journalistic about this novel, in the way you are able to identify barely disguised characters (if you follow English football closely enough); there are even a few passages that eerily resemble match reports. In these days of social media, who still reads football match reports? And do you really want a match report in a novel?

If anything redeems Capital, it is how the author manages to capture the marginal status of migrants. Writing about Matya, a Hungarian nanny, Lanchester notes: “If the city was one huge shop window, she was outside on the pavement, looking in.” But having drawn our attention to their outsider status, he does not do enough to create complete characters in the way he trumps with Roger Yount. Most of the characters are insipid, as if they are excerpts from some bureaucrat’s report.

Yount stands out, showing that the maxim “write about what you know” is perhaps correct.

Percy Zvomuya