Zadie Smith: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” from TNY, 2/10/14

Aert van der Neer: "Moonlit Landscape with Bridge" (c. 1650)

Aert van der Neer: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” (c. 1650)

Within the hour, efficient young Ari would drive the Minister to the airport, and from there—all being well—he would leave to join his wife and children in Paris. The car would not be a minute out of the driveway, he knew, before the household staff fell on these boxes like wild beasts upon carrion. The Minister of the Interior rubbed the trouser leg of the gray between his fingers. He was at least fortunate that the most significant painting in the house happened also to be the smallest: a van der Neer miniature, which, in its mix of light and water, reminded him oddly of his own ancestral village. It fit easily into his suit bag, wrapped in a pillowcase. Everything else one must resign oneself to losing: pictures, clothes, statues, the piano—even the books.
“So it goes,” the philosophical Minister said out loud, surprising himself—it was a sentence from a previous existence. “So it goes.” Without furniture, without curtains, his voice rose unimpeded to the ceiling, as in a church.

As I read this story (available online), one margin note predominated: “Bullshit.” That isn’t an indictment of the story; it’s character analysis. Then again, the main character is a politician, so what else would you expect?

Smith’s last TNY story “Meet the President” was set in near-future Scotland under siege of rain and regime; this one is also a blend of weather and revolution. Coincidentally, as I read, I was receiving tweets from the UK about floods in Oxfordshire, just a few weeks after similar comments about similar storms. I’m not sure if the UK is unusually stormy this winter (as it has been here), or if it’s just coincidence, but combined with the setting of her last story it set the story for me somewhere in the UK. I had the sense the two stories were connected, perhaps initial parts of a novel-in-stories-in-progress, but Smith’s Page-Turner interview doesn’t indicate any such thing. In fact, it specifies that the country in this story is unnamed; she says it was written shortly after the typhoon in the Philippines last November (isn’t that a remarkably short turnaround?): “I think I always have the same thought when I read about disaster zones. Who are the people on those early flights out?”

And for the second time in three weeks, a TNY story makes heavy use of a painting as a symbol, in this case, “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” by Aert van der Neer. I wonder if that timing was planned, or a coincidence. Vonnegut also features in the story from the very top (“So it goes”) though it enraged me that this character could use Vonnegut for his own purposes: Vonnegut is supposed to be for the rest of us. But as Smith’s interview reminds us, sometimes the bad guys read good books, too.

As our Minister of the Interior attempts to get out of the drowning country, we discover just how little he thinks of the people – his housekeeper, his driver – who were put on this earth to serve him. Yet, this is a man who has better angels in his nature and occasionally indulges them: he has a humane instinct to stop and unload his trunkful of water for a group of bedraggled citizens clamoring along the road. His driver, alarmed at the prospect, turns out to be right: it’s this instinct, that leads to catastrophe. Not of the physical variety, though there is plenty of threat. No, this catastrophe is more like the Ghost of Christmas Past, made flesh.

So it goes. Together the Minister of the Interior and the thoughtful boy who would later give him that title had read a thrilling book by an American with a German name—Vonnegut! A tale of war. It had so electrified them at the time, and yet, forty years later, the Minister found that he retained only one sentence of it and could not even retrieve its title. But he remembered two young men bent over one battered paperback, under a tree in the cleared center of a village. Books had been important back then—they were always quoting from them. Long-haired boys, big ideas. These days, all the Prime Minister read was his bank statements. Yet, in essence, he was the same good and simple man, in the Minister’s view—naïve, almost, doglike in his loyalties and his hatreds. If you were on the right side of the Prime Minister, you stayed there. So, at least, it had been for the Minister. Whatever he had needed had always been granted, up to and including this evening’s flight. He had been lucky, always.

To a consummate politician capable of navigating the path he has, this too is manageable. Even as he’s recognizing his own failure as a human being, the bullshit never stops. I’m reminded of… well, never mind, insert your own favorite political scandal here. If you wait long enough, chances are, no matter how bad the offense, you’ll see a comeback. That’s the up side of cutting yourself off from your past. The down side: you may one day unexpectedly end up in a car on a flooded road, face to face with it.

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3 responses to “Zadie Smith: “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” from TNY, 2/10/14

  1. Thanks for the link to this Karen. I’ve enjoyed reading the story. It chimes in with what is happening here in the UK at the moment. Yes, this winter is abnormal with the wettest January on record. The ground cannot hold any more water, rivers are flooding and more storms are on the way.
    The political reaction is very typical too. A little late in the day politicians here are standing in flood waters making exaggerated promises.
    I love the depths in this story, the way Zadie Smith writes – the threads she develops, the references to suits as “corpses” , the significance of the ancestral picture.
    The picture is very close to the background of a poem I’m writing.
    I haven’t read much Zadie Smith , I’ll definitely be reading more.

  2. Pingback: Zadie Smith–”Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” (New Yorker, February 10, 2014) | I Just Read About That...

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