Zadie Smith: “The Embassy of Cambodia” from TNY 2/11/13

New Yorker art by Zohar Lazar

New Yorker art by Zohar Lazar

In a discarded Metro found on the floor of the Derawal kitchen, Fatou read with interest a story about a Sudanese “slave” living in a rich man’s house in London. It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not. After all, it was her father, and not a kidnapper, who had taken her from Ivory Coast to Ghana, and when they reached Accra they had both found employment in the same hotel. Two years later, when she was eighteen, it was her father again who had organized her difficult passage to Libya and then on to Italy—a not insignificant financial sacrifice on his part. Also, Fatou could read English—and speak a little Italian—and this girl in the paper could not read or speak anything except the language of her tribe. And nobody beat Fatou, although Mrs. Derawal had twice slapped her in the face, and the two older children spoke to her with no respect at all and thanked her for nothing…. On the other hand, just like the girl in the newspaper, she had not seen her passport with her own eyes since she arrived at the Derawals’, and she had been told from the start that her wages were to be retained by the Derawals to pay for the food and water and heat she would require during her stay, as well as to cover the rent for the room she slept in. In the final analysis, however, Fatou was not confined to the house….
No, on balance she did not think she was a slave.

I’ll admit up front that, while I was impressed by the technical composition of this story, I didn’t fully absorb and comprehend it. So, being limited in time and mental concentration, I cheated: I refer you to Betsy of The Mookse and the Gripes who often fills in the spaces in my understanding with her insight, and whose analysis I’ll be drawing on in a moment. And, fortunately, to the story itself, which is available online.

Smith uses some wonderful techniques in this story, and in spite of my weak grasp of the overall point, I enjoyed it and admire it. It’s structured as a badminton game, with numbered sections showing the score going from 0-1 to 0-21, to play off the partially-seen badminton game in the Cambodian Embassy of the story:

Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!
….It is only a four- or five-bedroom North London suburban villa, built at some point in the thirties, surrounded by a red brick wall, about eight feet high. And back and forth, cresting this wall horizontally, flies a shuttlecock. They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.

The other interesting technique is the use of first-person-plural, the “we” voice representing the people of Willesden, alternating with a close-third-person narration of Fatou’s activities and thoughts.

Although there are significant differences, the story called to mind Jess Row’s “The Call of Blood” in that the characters are ethnic minorities who seek each other out to discuss complicated, intense socioeconomic topics of personal import to them. Here, however, those discussions are somewhat dysfactual (in her Page-Turner interview, Smith discusses “imperfect knowledge,” which is how we all face the world every day), and that plays a part in the point of the story. We all see things through our own lenses.

Betsy makes two points that strike me as crucial, but that eluded my first read: insularity, and the invisibility of mass casualties. It seems like there’s always a badminton game going on at the Cambodian Embassy, but because of the eight-foot wall, passers-by can only see the shuttlecock flying back and forth, not the game itself. The town, in the “we” voice, asserts: ” I doubt there is a man or woman among us, for example, who—upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time—did not immediately think: “genocide.” That is the image of Cambodia, the shuttlecock that is seen. Fatou is likewise isolated from the town; we readers are privileged to see what the town does not, the fragility of her everyday life. And yet she and her friend Andrew are also isolated in their own little island of understanding.

This other point Betsy brought to the forefront for me: For all the counting of the dead in holocausts and slaughters that Fatou and Andrew do during their discussions, it is only when she encounters a single death, via an encounter with the personal belongings of one of nine schoolchildren whose bodies washed up on a beach in Accra, that she cries. This makes a stunning dramatic depiction of what charities have long understood: telling you there are thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of starving, sick, poverty-wracked children in the world won’t do much good, so they ask you to sponsor one child, whose name you know, whose photo you receive – much the same as Fatou’s discovery of the belongings of one dead child, that moves her to tears when knowledge of the death of the nine did not.

And it just occurred to me, as I prepared my draft for posting, that point of view is crucial to this story, and everything from the technical structure to the story itself reflects that. The use of the two different pov’s; the view of the embassy that shows only the shuttlecock, not the game; Fatou and Andrew comparing the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Rwanda; Fatou’s debate about whether she is or is not a slave. When I wrote, above, that we see things through our own lenses, I didn’t realize how deeply and profoundly the story incorporated that theme, or how the “we” voice mattered beyond an interesting technical trick.

So while I initially thought the construction just got too complicated, and started distracting me from Fatou, from the ideas she and Andrew talk about, from the story itself, I now realize the technical structure of the story, along with the events depicted, do in fact work together to unite what had seemed disparate images of the shuttlecock, genocide, and a young girl trying to figure out whether or not she is a slave. This is why I blog these stories: my understanding evolves as I try to come up with a cohesive post, even when I don’t start with a cohesive grasp. Even if I do sometimes need Betsy’s help along the way.

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