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!
Zadie Smith returns to North West London – Willesden, to be precise – in her new story (first published in The New Yorker). As ever, Smith’s London is buzzing, bullying, vibrant, opinionated, and true. Exploitation, privilege, resentment, compromise, and impenetrability are all crammed into a mere 69 pages with Smith’s characteristic guile; and in that respect Embassy shares much with last year’s excellent NW.
They are playing badminton in the Embassy of Cambodia. Pock, smash. Pock, smash.
Above the high walls of the Embassy flies a shuttlecock, alternately smashed and lobbed back; an accommodation of aggression and compliance; a mysterious, opaque transaction in the grounds of a diplomatic building sited well away from the powerful missions of central London. Fatou, the effectively unpaid but defiantly not-slave of an Asian family grown wealthy on mini-market management, walks past and wonders about the regimented racquet play every Monday morning on her surreptitious way to the swimming pool, watched by the begowned occupants of the retirement home across the road.
This central and unexplained routine frames Embassy, which Smith has structured into 21 short chapters, each headed by a badminton score which runs sequentially from 0-0 to 0-21. Each chapter frames a thought, a transaction, or rally between Fatou and her Christian friend Andrew, her ‘employers’, the pool, or the city itself. This aids the concentrated character of Smith’s writing, whose tenor reminds me of the episodic building blocks of the central ‘Host’ section of NW. The strength of ‘Host’ was in the way Smith captured a fugitive sadness and developing sense of unease whilst probing the idea of being the author of one’s own being. Here, too, Smith is once again masterful in sketching the barest outlines of a thought or a place only for those lines to expand into a complete picture in the manner of the best short stories.
Fatou herself is at something of a disadvantage compared to the narrator who presumes to speak for Willesden, whilst understanding that Willesden would scorn the very idea. Such is the complexity of the assumption of knowledge and power – and the resistance to the intellectual that the aggressively agrarian Khmer Rouge embodied – that runs through Embassy.
In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right. I could say, ‘Because I was born at the crossroads of Willesden, Kilburn, and Queen’s Park!’ But the reply would be swift and damning: ‘Oh, don’t be foolish, many people were born right there; it doesn’t mean anything at all. We are not one people and no one can speak for us. It’s all a lot of nonsense…’
At its heart, Smith’s excellent story is perhaps about the need for a rebalancing of power relations, somewhere between the extremes of the Khmer Rouge’s New and Old People, between Fatou and her employers, such that the unavoidable weakness of one party is no cause for unease and exploitation on the part of the other. Yet The Embassy of Cambodia resists such easy reductions by its very resistance to bipolarity; as with all of Smith’s work, this story revels in a diversity of individuals who need to be placed in accommodating relationships even when unavoidable power imbalances are in play. Sometimes those relationships will need to be reset. The story ends with victory 0-21, but for whom? And where do they go from there?
The Embassy of Cambodia is out tomorrow (7th November 2013).
My thanks to Hamish Hamilton for this review copy.