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Zadie Smith: The Embassy Of Cambodia

 ‘The fact is, if we followed the history of every little country in the world — in its dramatic as well as its quiet times — we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming . . . ‘

In this short story, first published in the New Yorker in 2013, Zadie Smith returns to the London setting of her smash hit novel N/W. Smith is certainly millennial novel queen, having won almost every literary accolade under the sun… but what did our writers make of this bite size story?

Zadie Smith poses in front of some book shelves, in what looks like a library. She is wearing a bright striped t shirt, and black glasses, her arms crossed and a slight smile on her face.
Not impressed with that empty bookshelf. (image credit: Kilburn Times)

Isaac

‘The Embassy of Cambodia’ captivated me; I’ve read it through three times now, but I still don’t really know what to say.

 Like many short stories it is more of a vignette, a portrait of a moment, than a story working towards an end. And I know there will be lots of people who will read this and think “What was all that about? Nothing happened?”.

 Yes, nothing really happens. While aspects of Fatou’s life change the circumstances of her personhood do not. The strength of this story is not in the events it portrays, but the complex, overlapping feelings it evokes. I felt sympathy for the protagonist Fatou, who was always pushed to the side lines, vulnerable, constantly having her agency taken away from her. But at the same time I couldn’t pity her who was so curious, insightful, and resilient. There was joy in the pleasures she claimed, and despair for a life that would always be marginalised. With each sentence there were conflicting images and irreconcilable emotions, that have kept the story bouncing around in my mind.

 Zadie Smith has written a fantastic piece that focuses intently on an experience that is often overlooked, if not invisible, in mainstream fiction. When servants and immigrants are acknowledged in stories at all they are often on the outside of things; at best adornments to the protagonist. I love stories like this that are able to put the experiences of these outsiders at the center of the narrative, conveying their lives with compassion and emotional complexity.

 Smith does a brilliant job of capturing this feeling of being on the edge of things, without being ham-fisted or artificially stating how Fatou feels. Instead the reader is forceful to observe a game of badminton they cannot see, men who condescend Fatou, employer’s who will not look at her when they speak, and we are made to understand what it means to be diminished in this way, and infer the complex and conflicting emotions of Fatou without them ever being stated. It is a story smart enough to know when things should be left unsaid.

 This story is heavy; leaving things unsaid means conflict and horrific violence is always just out of sight. Tension is embedded into the structure of the story through the unseen badminton game where one person scores all the points, and the split narrator who is simultaneously Fatou’s perspective and a care home resident observing her that both can and cannot speak for the entire neighbourhood. The result is an uneasy, swaying feeling in the narrative, like it might collapse under you. And it’s only exacerbated by the contrasts within the narrative itself: Sunday coffee and cake masks conversations of the Holocaust, Horoshima, Rwandan genocide, The Great Leap Forward, slave trading, and the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Acts of violence implied by hotel doors and blood-stained money tins. 2012 Olympic euphoria overshadows global exploitation. And an affluent London suburb is home to slavery. Fatou’s story bubbles under the surface with decades of global violence and injustice, glossed over with a quiet and uneventful life, imagining a badminton behind the walls of the Embassy of Cambodia.

 It is no wonder I felt so much that I can’t really articulate when reading this. It evokes a landslide of stories while saying so little.

The Embassy of Cambodia book cover. A blue and red striped background, with three shuttlecocks in the centre.
Anyone for badders? (image credit: Amazon)

Amy

Zadie Smith is an author who I have loved for some time now. Ever since the epic saga ‘White Teeth’ emerged on the scene (which for the record, she wrote in her last year at university, so let’s just take a moment to appreciate that mad talent) it’s fair to say that she’s pretty much a literary sensation whose work I’ve been consuming on and off over the past ten years. Yet somehow, ‘The embassy of Cambodia’ had totally slipped my Smith radar. Until it stumbled into my inbox (courtesy of rrramble), I had never heard of its existence, much less added it to my ever growing ‘to read’ list. 

Now, some of you may have had secret preconceptions of the short story (I’ll admit, I had them too). Perhaps we’ve felt they lack substance, especially when compared to the all-mighty novel. Why eat just a snack when you could enjoy the delights of a full-course meal, right? Well, yes and no. What’s so clever about Smith’s craft is that she condenses the world and scope of a novel into just 70 pages. To keep to the metaphor, this is a delicious snack that leaves you utterly satisfied. Beauty is found in her sparing prose; the intricacies of relationships unfold not only through what is said, but what is left unsaid; readers are given agency to imagine. 

Set in Willesden, the story ventures into a classic Smith choice of London location, and feels like it could even be a baby sister of previous works (think N/W). What is particularly reminiscent of these works are her sense of playfulness and experimentation with form. Here, the twenty-one chapters each reflect the different scores of a game of badminton. the recurring image of “Pock, Smash” provides a pulse and synergy, weaving through the shift’s in time, place and narrative voice. And on another level, serving as a metaphor for the to-and-fro life that has been led by our central character, Fatuo. 

Fatuo is a character whose story is one of real importance. As a domestic worker in the UK, she finds herself working for a rich family who’s disdainful and often abusive treatment of her touches upon issues of modern day slavery. In a particularly poignant moment, she compares her situation to that of a Sudanese woman she reads about in a discarded metro, coming to the conclusion that surely she can’t be a slave like this woman. Yet rather puzzlingly, why do her employers still have a hold over her passport?  

Her moments of independence are found in the in-between moments of the day; the precious hour she finds to go swimming in her local pool using her employer’s card, the meetings with an educated friend from her church and their enlightened discussions, and the glimpses of the precision of a shuttlecock falling in the garden of the embassy. 


Touching on wider themes of human suffering, inequality and the dynamics of structural power, the use of the narrative voice “We” seems to directly invite us as readers to be a part of the people of Willesden, commenting on the seemingly peculiar arrival of the embassy of Cambodia. Although as to who the “We” really refers to, you’ll have to read it to find out. 

The Cambodian flag. A blue background with a red horizontal strip, and a white temple in the centre.
Uh oh, red (and blue) flag alert… (image credit: Koryo Tours)

Georgia

Not to go full pretentious English grad within the first sentence of my review, but I’m not really a fan of reading from a screen. Or, maybe it’s just because I send so much time squinting at my laptop (with a posture of which le hunchback of notre dam would be proud) that I don’t exactly associate reading – usually my way of relaxing after work – with computers.  So when I came to review ‘The Embassy Of Cambodia’, I was a little apprehensive. Was I going to be able to appreciate Zadie Smith’s words, or would I find my eyes wondering towards my email inbox? 

And here I have to confess, dear reader, I didn’t quite stick to the brief. I implemented everyone’s best friend, the Audible free trial, and downloaded the audiobook version to listen along as I read. For the purpose of this review, I won’t delve too much into the details of the audio version, and stick mainly to the content of the story itself. But I will say this: Zadie Smith herself is the narrator, and I’m pleased to report she does all the voices, and very well. Would recommend. 

But back to the story itself, because boy does it deserve some attention. I thought the format was really clever. Despite being the form that everyone seems to write the most of at school, I think short stories are actually deceptively hard to nail. It can be easy for them to feel rushed and devoid of detail, or too far the other way, a little flat and without a gripping narrative. But by cutting the story into bite size chunks (which I have to confess took me far too long to realise were each titled as points in a game of badminton, 0-1, 0-2 and so on…) Smith creates a really clever structure, almost like a series of diary entries or activity logs, following the character of Fatou and allowing us to jump along through time with her as the narrative progresses. 

I won’t go into the details of the story, because I would wholeheartedly recommend that you read it (or read/listen to it) for yourself. But I will say, there’s so much to unpick within ‘The Embassy…’, that it’s definitely one to return to a few times. I’ve been thinking about it pretty much constantly since I finished it, which is always a true compliment to a writer. Like the one-sided game of badminton that weaves its way throughout the piece, the story is one of uneven power dynamics. The oppositions of rich and poor (early in the story Fatou wonders, seemingly without much emotional attachment, whether or not she is a slave), of male and female (“I never met a man who didn’t want to tell everyone what to think and what to do” she later muses) and between those inside and outside (the story is narrated by a mysterious ‘we’ of the people of Willesden, in turn presented as removed from the ‘they’ of the badminton players within the walls of the embassy). Interestingly, I’ve sometimes found Smith’s longer novels such as White Teeth to be a little overdone. But The Embassy is most definitely not. It’s a subtle, complex story, and I loved it from start to finish. Plus, it really made me want to play badminton. 

You can read The Embassy Of Cambodia on the New Yorker website.

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