Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” was originally published in the February 11 & 18, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve seen on Twitter that this story is getting a lot of interest. This is good, because I’m going to need some help putting it all together. In essence, this is a story about the dynamics of power between people, but I feel I’m missing some pieces that will help it all come together.
“The Embassy of Cambodia” is divided into twenty-one sections: 0-1, 0-2, 0-3, 0-4, and so on up to 21, when, presumably, the game is over, one player trouncing the other. It’s a badminton game, one going on within the walls of the Cambodian Embassy located in Willesden, a neighborhood in northwestern London (or, NW, naturally). From outside, over the wall, each day you can see the shuttlecock briefly arching before being smashed in return: “Pock, smash. Pock, smash.” The story ends this way:
Pock, smash. As if one player could imagine only a violent conclusion and the other only a hopeful return.
Our narrator is a member of this suburb who has assumed the authority to speak for the entire neighborhood in the first-person plural, though the narrator even steps out of this to voice the others’ concern: “We are not one people and no one can speak for us.” The narrator concedes to assuming the voice of all, limiting the range of responses to the other story going on here.
This other story focuses on Fatou, a nanny from the Ivory Coast. Every Monday she slips out from the home and uses the family’s guest passes to get into the swimming pool at a nice club. She feels relatively free when she reads about a Sudanese “slave” in another rich London home.
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 this state of servitude, Fatou doesn’t leave the house often, but she does spend Sunday mornings with one of her friends from church, Andrew Okonkwo, from Nigeria. They talk about such things as whether Africans are born to suffer. He’s a doctoral student, smart, yet he’s friendly. Still, there’s more than a bit of patronizing in his voice as he discusses things with Fatou, showing a power game even among friends. He’s helping, but she’ll be getting her perspectives as filtered through him. He says:
I told you before, anything you want to know about, ask me — I’ll look it up, I’ll do the research. I have access. Then I’ll bring it to you.
This imbalance of power is everywhere in “The Embassy of Cambodia,” and Fatou is usually on the short side, something she recognizes. Here’s another bit of a conversation with Andrew:
Fatou sighed. “I never met a man who didn’t want to tell everybody how to think and what to do,” she said.
Andrew laughed. “Fatou, you include me? Are you a feminist now, too?”
Fatou brought her mug up to her lips and looked penetratingly at Andrew. There were good and bad kinds of weakness in men, and she had come to the conclusion that the key was to know which kind you were dealing with.
As the story progresses, Fatou sees those who lord over her in weakened and vulnerable states, and some of them simply cannot abide this, using the power they do possess to push Fatou out, with no explanations.
There’s a lot to consider here, not the least of which is the connection between Fatou and the Cambodian Embassy, though naturally the Kmer Rouge comes first to mind (as it does for the inhabitants of Willesden). Obviously, up to now Fatou has been the individual who hopes only to return the shuttlecock, never quite in the position to slam it on her opponent, though in the process she merely serves up another lob, in an ongoing struggle.
But, again, the story ends at 0-21, and that may be the end of just this first game. It also ends with a type of baptism, and perhaps in some way Fatou will gain the upper hand. This isn’t likely.
Zadie Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” is another candidate for read-aloud, Trevor, given that it is as complex as a poem. Being able to talk it over and question it as one proceeds would be a rich experience.
Following as it does Nicole Krauss’s “Zuzya on the Roof,” Smith’s story makes a vivid case for the way each of us is provincial and insular, walled off, almost by necessity, in order to survive, and yet how this insularity is disastrous. “The fact is,” says Smith’s narrator, “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.”
But Smith makes clear that we need to be aware of more than just our own “circle of attention.” She uses the story, among other things, to wonder about how an artist goes about bringing a faraway place within that circle of attention.
Fatou and Okonkwo sit in a café in England and consider human suffering; in particular, they consider genocide: Cambodia, Rwanda, Hiroshima, the Holocaust. But in this conversation they are using what Okonkwo calls “numerology,” and in so doing, even they, who are sympathetic to the necessity of such a discussion, get their numbers wrong, thus making their discussion too casual, and almost suspect by its casualness. Okonkwo, putting four sugars in his coffee, says more people died in Rwanda than in the Holocaust — “millions and millions.” This number appears to be off and too high, as do his numbers for Hiroshima, by far.
It is as if Smith is exploring how in dealing with these huge numbers, we get it all wrong — the numbers themselves, the genocide itself, the victims, and the survivors as well. She makes it clear in the story in this way:
Turning aside from the impersonal millions of dead competing for her attention, Fatou remembers a group of nine children who died in the sea at Accra. They didn’t know how to swim. She devotes what amounts to a very short paragraph to the nine, concluding, “Everyone carried on like before. I went back to work.” What matters to me here is Fatou has given us no information about the nine children; we have no idea of who any of them were, only that “they had washed up dead on the beach.” It was as if as a memory, it was nothing Fatou could grasp, and as art, the anecdote is as much as “washed up.”
Even a group of nine were too many to mourn adequately, meaning that millions, be they Cambodians, Rwandans, Jews, or Japanese, cannot be experienced in any real way.
Only when Fatou encounters the “little sad pile of belongings” of Rajib Devanga is Fatou able to cry. These belongings include a costume, a shoe, his identity card — his name. Perhaps it is knowing his name, or perhaps it is “a little stain of what looked like blood on [his empty money] tub” that causes Fatou to cry.
So perhaps Smith is requiring that what matters in imagining the world is whether or not we encounter its reality — the empty wallet, the lost shoe, the stain of blood. But to what effect? Fatou is touched, and she cries. But even she admits that she is not sure whether she is crying for the boy or for herself. Feeling in need, she continues to turn to religion, although she feels doubt as to whether “her new relationship with Jesus” had changed everything.
All this time, a badminton game, so mechanical as to feel as if it is being played by a machine, goes on behind the high brick walls of the Cambodian Embassy. One shot is soft, one is a killer, “As if one player could imagine only a violent conclusion and the other only a hopeful return.” What speaks to me here is the word “only,” which is repeated for rhythm and effect: implying, as it does, the way we, behind our own brick walls, imagine only one way of being, not multiple, possible, alternate ways of living.
Smith’s story is not simple. The way the narration works, the way the story is structured around a twenty-one to zero Badminton game, the way embassy seems to be a fortress, the way Okonkwo doesn’t know how to swim, the way genocide, servitude, and casual inhumanity play out together, the pull of religion, as well as the role of art — there’s a lot going on.
Fatou’s boyfriend is Okonkwo — a namesake of Chinua Achebe’s Okonkwo in “Things Fall Apart.” It seems as if the choice must be very deliberate — as if Smith is saying, “there’s a new game in town,” as if she is arguing that the new issue is not colonialism but insularity, but insularity involving billions of people, ready to misunderstand each other at the drop of a hat.
Read together with Krauss’s “Zuzya on the Roof,” I hear both women calling out for us to attend to the present, to come out of our delirium, so to speak, or, at the very least, try to think about what’s on the other side of the wall.
Oh, and did I say this story really interested me? The puzzle of it? Not to mention the privilege of meeting Fatou?