Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Zadie Smith’s “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” was originally published in the February 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’ve always felt a bit out-of-step when it comes to Zadie Smith. I like her writing quite a lot, but what I’ve read — and it hasn’t been everything — has never quite added up. Similarly, this piece alludes to a great deal and I read it with true interest, only to feel slightly disappointed in the end: it seemed to be exploring less than it first appeared to be.
The animus to the story is this: the Minister of the Interior is leaving his country for the safety of Paris following a devastating natural disaster. His family has already left. Here is how the story begins:
The Minister of the Interior stood in the middle of the room, assessing a pale morning-sky blue; the next tan, of light material, intended for these terrible summers; the last a heavy worsted English three-piece, gray, for state visits. They were slung across one another every which way, three corpses in a pile.
I think that’s an exceptional opening, particularly with its soft allusion to the Minister — oh, yes, to his country and its citizens as well, but also to himself, his past — as a bunch of corpses. The Minister’s “worries” continue:
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.
We don’t know it yet, but soon the Minister’s assistant Elena comes in and we learn that some kind of typhoon has washed over the country. Elena’s children lived by the sea, and she has not heard from them. Smith does not hesitate to make the Minister even more atrociously preoccupied with himself:
“Difficult days, Lele,” the Minister said, picking up the light blue, trying not to be discouraged by its creases. “Difficult days.”
He continues to be preoccupied by the “lies” he’s tired of from the foreign press. Normally, I think I would be pulled out of the story by such a blatantly atrocious, insensitive human being, but Smith is seductive. She presents this man with these horrible traits all laid out in a row, and yet he feels real. It doesn’t feel like she’s simply setting up the story.
when he realizes his youngest daughter would be having a debutante party in a grand hotel in Paris: “I am further from my village now than I have ever been. Italicized just like that, in his mind.”
He even wants to help people as he travels to the airport. The crux of the story occurs when a man from the Minister’s youth gets into the car, wanting a lift to the airport. I won’t go into much detail here, but the man is rather fascinating, chaotic, and we see just where the Minister came from, how far he’s come from his village indeed — and how closely he resembles the same ruthless villain he apparently was in his youth.
In the end, though it felt like so much more, I’m left with a feeling of “is that it?” I mentioned this above. Though there are a lot of threads woven in that complicate the work, it ultimately felt a bit simple: here’s a man who would leave his country for Paris. He’s awful — even if he feels he may have an ounce of care — and that’s about it.
One touch I admired quite a bit, still, and that may be the key to the story’s opening up for me, is the Marlboro Man, that man from the Minister’s youth. In the end, he’s left smiling like a mad man, wishing the Minister a good trip. Again, this is chaos, and there are plenty more men like the Marlboro Man who are going to be pillaging the place. The Minister, a man like the Marlboro Man himself, makes lip service to order, but he knows what he’s leaving behind.
In her Page-Turner Interview this week, Zadie Smith remarks that if she were to follow the “Minister” of “Moonlit Bridge with Landscape” to Paris, she would be interested in his soul.
In “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge,” Smith tells how a highly placed government official is fleeing his country in the aftermath of a terrific storm that has reduced the countryside to rubble. In the course of the story, we see the roads to be impassable, and the people without water.
This is a man who in his youth had been “up to his knees” in “a river of blood,” according to another revolutionary who’d known him when. The Minister reacts petulantly to this depiction, thinking that it wasn’t exactly a river of blood, it was a river “stained” with blood.
This is a man whose soul is in quite a state of disrepair, given that he can remorselessly quibble over how to describe a bloodbath.
His arrogance is summed up in the way he treats his servant Elena. When he embraces her in parting, he thinks she seems like an old woman, nothing like the lover she had been to him when his wife was pregnant so many years ago. He doesn’t understand how she has gotten so old, when he himself doesn’t feel old. He doesn’t ask after her children, or her feelings, despite the fact her children are at the coast, which has taken the brunt of the terrible storm that has brought down his government. His soul seems not so much small, like himself, but shriveled in the extreme.
In the course of this story, do we get any sense that his soul has been touched or brought back to life by the cataclysm? After all, it had been his job, as Minister of the Interior, to care for the wellbeing of his people. He ineffectually attempts to distribute some water to some desperate peasants, with chaos as the result. He gives little thought to the outcome of what he has done, soothing himself by the thought that he has acted, at least, on the peasants’ behalf. His soul is untroubled by any role he has had in the disaster. He passes a reservoir his administration had built, and notes with discomfort that it has been long useless, having been so poorly built.
He thinks without shock of a girl, so many years ago, whose head had been cleft in two by a revolutionary machete.
His is a soul untroubled by responsibility.
Although he has lost everything, including one of his shoes, he hasn’t really lost anything. He makes it to the plane in time; he isn’t strung up; he hasn’t been spoken truth to power, really. There are plans to live in Paris. How can that be? Oh – with the money he’d stolen from the people, perhaps in skimming from the reservoir project, safe in a bank in Switzerland, no doubt.
There is a banality to his story that is unsettling. He sails through, muddied, silly, and disreputable, but unbowed. Someone remarks that this collapse had come just in time, otherwise maybe the people would have actually strung them up, so to speak, and hauled them off to the Hague – for crimes against humanity.
What this sketch does is introduce the story. If Smith is interested in the Minister’s soul, it makes but the slightest appearance here. The real story of the Minister’s soul is yet to come.
As for the title? Smith says The New Yorker didn’t like her first title. Given that Donna Tartt is having quite a ride with The Goldfinch, using a painting for a title does not feel very fresh. The Minister’s painting appears to play no role in the story at all, except that the Minister says it reminds him of his village. Looking at the painting online, it is hard to see how this painting of a medieval city-scape could remind a person of a village. Smith makes the offhand remark that a Dutch painting is appropriate to this story because the Dutch became rich through war (and the minister became rich through revolution). This doesn’t work for me either, given that the Dutch actually became rich through trade and because theirs is considered to be the first capitalist economy. What does work for me, regarding the painting, is the memory of the Nazis and their vast hoard of stolen art. But that connection is not honored either. The painting is a kind of dead-end that bogs the story down. The devil, on the other hand – the devil, as Trevor pointed out, steals the show, as always.
“Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” is an entertaining sketch of the banality of evil, but it doesn’t really work as a story. I think one of the reasons it doesn’t work is that the storm is offstage, as is the revolution that brought the Minister to power. Even the devil is hustled offstage. There is no acute sense of danger, nor is there an acute sense of catastrophe.
Despite the sense that the Minister has that he is in the presence of the devil, the reader has no sense of a struggle over the Minister’s soul. His soul had already left the building years ago.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Zadie Smith’s “Meet the President!” was originally published in the August 12 & 19, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
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Zadie Smith’s “Meet the President!” is fitted with one visual after another, as if trying to sell its movie rights: boy on a pier; boy approached by old crone and “stunted” little girl, boy seen as having a green light encircling his head like a halo, boy outfitting himself with virtual breasts, and boy living in two simultaneous realities – one, the natural reality where he walks along a beach, and the other, a gaming reality where he kills people.
The story is also casually fitted to the brim with ideas about our future: the effects of global warming (such as “tropical Scotland,” global flooding, and the flight from England by anyone who can), the effects of government gone mad (such as the casual elimination of ordinary citizens), the effects of globalization (such as the boy having no sense of his English heritage or identity), the effects of believing there is only one way to see things (such as being enrolled in a school at six months), and the stunted emotional evolution of the future’s elite (such that while you can “read” a person’s DNA at a glance, you may have never grieved over the dead body of a relative).
The population in this future world is divided into the electronically rich haves and the “stunted” provincial have-nots. The have-nots are the kind of people who still attend funerals, while the haves are the kind that mindlessly murder people by governmental drone. Scotland as the new Pakistan.
The story is imagined in the time it takes a fifteen-year-old boy to guide a child from the beach to the ruins of an old church where a funeral is taking place. All the while he is walking the child to the church, the boy is simultaneously playing a virtual game in which he must murder people in order to “meet the president.”
For all his gadgetry, the boy has an emotional evolution of a bully-boy, a thug. At the funeral, he is annoyed by the primitive nature of the people’s grief:
Then, cutting across it all like a stick through the sand, a child’s voice wailed, an acute, high-pitched sound, such animal makes when, out of sheer boredom, you break its leg.
This sentence perfectly expresses Smith’s fear: that we already live in a world where boys never become men, and where, from afar and without a hearing, governments already kill their own citizens.
But the story doesn’t really ever come alive. It illustrates the difficulty of writing about the dead future: if the story-telling is too freighted with fearsome ideas, the fearsome ideas strangle the story-telling. This feels more like the subject of a novel, and yet if this were a précis for a novel, it’s a novel I would skip.
The problem the story has for me is this: the so-dead boy and the so-dead waste-land he inhabits appear to allow no room for hope. That makes no room for this reader. But perhaps the apocalyptic dystopia is not my particular cup of tea. For me, The New Yorker’s previous Zadie Smith story (“The Embassy of Cambodia”) was a hit; this one is a miss.
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.
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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?
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Zadie Smith’s “Permission to Enter” was originally published in the July 30, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
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I admit I’m excited to read this one by Zadie Smith, though I am disappointed the magazine has again opted to publish an excerpt from a forthcoming novel by a prominent novelist.