Rates of Exchange & Why Come to Slaka? - Malcolm Bradbury
The hero (I use the word ironically) of this story, Angus Petworth, goes to Slaka and comes home again. (He is a linguist who’s asked to give lectures, and this is a very routine trip for him, so he thinks.) While there, he meets the novelist Katya Princip who tells him that he is in a story with her. She means the kind of stories that she writes, ones based on folktales. She has cast him in the role of the young prince who goes into a strange forest, and herself in the role of the witch he meets there—as she points out, it is often hard to tell whether a witch is good or bad at first meeting, but she insists she is a good witch. But it turns out that all expectations that a reader has in this narratively subversive novel are doomed to disappointment (as Petworth is doomed to disappointment). This is not a hero tale: as is well known, a hero is expected to return from his journey having proved himself and bring back something of value. Though Katya Princip tries to encourage Petworth to develop a "sense of existence", in fact he returns home feeling just as empty as when he left (worse, even, since he now knows that he is missing the sense of existence). And he fails to bring back an object of value; it is true, this is not his fault, but then he has never been in control of events for one moment. He has always been completely passive. No wonder it is a failed hero tale.

Another possible narrative model is provided by the legend of St. Valdopin, whose body was bought back by his countryfolk for an equal weight of gold, the scales finally being tipped by the very small contribution of an old woman. This comes close to truth, for commerce is everywhere in Slaka, unsurprisingly (this, in a country that boasts of its rational economy). Yet, if the relationship of Petworth and Princip is transformed into a transaction, it is a deal that ends up bringing no advantage to either party, since Princip, unlike the old woman, cannot buy honor for her country, and she cannot (though she tries) give Petworth what he needs either.

What about the narrative provided by Petworth’s most reliable lecture, "English as a Medium of International Communication"? Although most of the people Petworth meets speak English, international communication most definitely does not go smoothly. In fact, Petworth is left bewildered in Slaka. He is a linguist who completely fails to learn any of the local language and doesn’t even try to; more importantly, there are language-related events going on in the country, apparently of great moment, yet he sees little of them and understands nothing. The ways he knows to talk linguistics, in terms of Derrida and Saussure, are utterly inadequate to give him any insight into the situation. We know from the appendix that Petworth made that lecture into a book after his return, another sign that he learned nothing.

The novel is not a comedy in the classic sense, since it does not end with lovers uniting. Instead it ends with Petworth returning to his wife, from whom he is, and will presumably remain, totally estranged. The possibility of a better, truer love was raised in Slaka, then dissipated, illusory. As if in a comic Bildungsroman, Petworth had various sexual adventures, but he did not learn or grow from them; he’s too old for that genre anyway.

So, not only does all possibility of accomplishment or growth fail for the protagonist, the narratives that might belong to various genres all end in failure too. Subversion of expectations is a form of humor; a bitter humor here. To be sure, there are plenty of other reasons to laugh in this book—for instance, it makes abundant use of sexual farce, and there is the reliable subject of the discomforts of a traveler in a foreign country which is not at all suited to journeying in comfort. But from Petworth’s point of view, the story is nearly a tragedy—just the fact that he has been aware that his life is empty, and returns with that emptiness unrelieved, is enough. So the closest I can come to describing it is as a laughing tragicomedy.