“Two Men Arrive in a Village” 
by Zadie Smith
Originally published in the June 6 & 13, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker website.

June 6 & 13, 2016Last year’s fiction issue also featured Zadie Smith (and Jonathan Safran Foer, too — apparently they sell copies?), and I really disliked the story, “Escape from New York.” It was the worst of the many stories Smith has published in the magazine over the years, by my estimation. So let’s hope this gets us back on solid ground.

Looking forward to your thoughts!

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By |2016-06-03T14:58:40-04:00May 30th, 2016|Categories: Ali Smith, New Yorker Fiction|7 Comments


  1. Ken June 6, 2016 at 3:33 am

    I thought this was pretty decent and a cut above her last two efforts. It’s obvious yet also powerful. Like Yu’s piece, from last issue, something of a fairy tale in which the same horrible thing seems to reoccur, with permutations, throughout the developing world. One could also call it ahistorical in that it naturalizes/makes static or predictable actual, specific horrors that affect individual, particular people.

  2. Trevor Berrett June 6, 2016 at 6:18 pm

    I liked this one as well, Ken. And I agree with your statement that “it’s obvious” — we know just what’s going to happen — “yet also powerful.” I like how her point seems to be, even, that “you already know how this will end,” and then she goes on to do just what we’re expecting. How is that still powerful? Because it’s such a terrible truth!

  3. Sean H June 9, 2016 at 7:20 pm

    How exactly does this qualify as a story? It’s too aphoristic and vague. Obvious is bad. If she were playing with the notion of the inexorable, that would be one thing, but this is not powerful because it’s not specific or fully realized. Even if this vagueness and aphoristic quality is intentional, and it certainly seems like it is, stories need characters and plots. This piece has neither. Zadie seems to be experimenting here and has long talked in her nonfiction about how that’s something she likes to do. She likes to reimagine herself and try on different styles. So she’s going to have a high fail rate. And, ironically, the world will see so many more of her weakest efforts due to her fame and recognizability. On one hand I applaud a writer trying new things. On the other hand, it’s a rather privileged form of dilettantism. There’s literally no reason to read this thing and I can’t see any reason why it would make much of an impact on a reader either (it’s not particularly lyrical or sentence-level brilliant). A thumbs down overall but one that comes with complications given the author. She shouldn’t get a pass nor should the New Yorker for publishing it (I do think this is publishable, but in some small journal that publishes experimental fiction/hybrid forms) but I do think it’s a high degree of difficulty attempt and that factors in. Still, it’s an attempt that fails. Just attempting something difficult shouldn’t cut you all that much slack.

  4. Trevor Berrett June 10, 2016 at 11:54 am

    I don’t think stories need characters and plots, and I’m not even sure that what Smith is doing here is particularly new when she does away with such things. In fact, it feels like she’s going back to the origin of the story — a kind of vagueness that removes a narrative from particularities to focus on theme and explore some aspect of human experience — rather than treading new ground.

    I’ve been fairly negative about what Smith has produced for The New Yorker over the last few years, so I hope you’re not talking to me when you say we give her a pass. This one worked better . . . perhaps because she didn’t try to shoe-horn her exploration of the terrible repetition of violence into the particularities of plot and character.

    But! I don’t want to over-defend this story either, and your criticism is so strongly worded it probably deserves a stronger champion on the other side. While I’m not willing to dismiss this I’m also not willing to go to the mat for this piece.

    I mostly don’t agree with your reasoning that because it lacks plot and character it’s by default weak. I also agree that it’s not particularly lyrical or sentence-level brilliant, but that’s also does not make it a de facto flop for me. Despite the lack of those things — and maybe because of them — this piece works as an exploration of a narrative that is far too common, that is almost mythical in its generality and repetition.

  5. Greg June 12, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you Ken, Sean and Trevor for giving us the 360 on this story! You have added immensely to my takeaways.

    (Ken – Your point about this being ahistorical is a great observation!)

  6. William July 30, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    This was a good fable on fiction and reality. Everything happens this way or that (the men come on horseback or foot and so on throughout) driving the point we are in a fiction. Likewise the chief’s wife believes in her fiction the ga haramata and refuses to hear the criminal’s name. She and we (writer & reader) evade reality so as not to be overwhelmed by it.

  7. Dan August 16, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    This is a story of a very particular horror that occurred in a specific way in a village. She says it is a parable for what happens in villages all over the world.

    My understanding of the ending was that the Chief’s wife didn’t need to know e name, the two perpetrators are not even individuals, any more, but merely now part of the metaphorical wind- fa haramata, the were now only odentified with the evil force.

    This to me emphasizes the universality of this particular “two men approaching a village with machetes” scenario. The wise wife is kind of a universal view that just sees the problems caused in unstable countries with coups as a kind of evil and ubiquitous wind.

    I think that’s what she was trying to do, simply make us aware and make us see the horror and reflect on how pervasive it is in some places. On that level, I think she mostly succeeds, but I agree there was no person to really identify with in the story and the plot is not especially interesting.

    I’m curious though, what people made of the short man’s rather moving confession at the end, and what Zadie Smith meant for us to take away from that.

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