Saturday, 16 November 2013

Zadie Smith - The Embassy of Cambodia

As an English and French undergraduate, and one who chose to study only literature modules in my final year *should have thought that through*, my degree seems to be one non-stop reading list, with a few intermittent splurges of French grammar and translation to keep me on my toes!

A long list it may be, but boy is it a good one! From Marquez' One Hundred Years of Solitude, to Beigbeder's Un Roman francais, Smith's N.W. to Quignard's Villa Amalia, the list is varied, colourful and intriguing.

I must admit, although I am enjoying the variety of 600 page works I've come across, I couldn't help doing a little victory dance when I found that the next piece I was to read for my dissertation, Zadie Smith's The Embassy of Cambodia, was only sixty-nine pages long. That's right, sixty nine sweet pages. But surely Smith's work would suffer from the 300-odd pages it was missing? Surely she couldn't capture all that she had in White Teeth, or N.W. in just sixty nine pages?

Yes, she could.

I have heard some people class The Embassy of Cambodia as Smith's little victory lap, her publishers allowing her all sorts of liberties due to her renowned success since the publication of her first novel White Teeth at the age of 21 - when she was a student at Cambridge University, and later with On Beauty and N.W. (The Autograph Man has seemed to slip quietly into the shadows...) In fact, I would say that The Embassy of Cambodia - which was originally a piece she wrote of The New Yorker - is a classy, clever, and skilful demonstration of just how much Smith has developed as an writer, in her perception of what is necessary in a story.  

Like the majority of her other novels, The Embassy of Cambodia is set in the "multicultural" London suburb of Willesden Green, where Smith grew up. Also like the majority, The Embassy of Cambodia tackles big themes such as immigration, class distinction and the monotony of the present:

Fatou - a young immigrant from the Ivory Coast - is sent to England by her father where she works as a nanny for a rich, ignorant White-British family. As Fatou passes the Embassy of Cambodia on her daily walk to the swimming pool, she sees the constant to-ing and fro-ing of a shuttlecock flying high above the tall walls of the embassy. The back and forth, attack-defence of the shuttlecock provides a rhythm to the short narrative as Fatou pursues her day to day duties, her only sense of spontaneity and courage stemming from her relationship with her Catholic friend, Andrew. Smith shows us snippets of Fatou's life prior to England, where she worked on Carib Beach in the Ivory Coast, was violated by Russians and demeaned by British tourists - essentially anyone with money. Clearly, Fatou is another one of Smith's protagonists who is trapped not only by their race, but also by their class - her position in England is no better, as she is cruelly and coldly sacked from her job. The constancy of this inequality is echoed by the shuttlecock's continuous back and forth. Might, one day it float over the fence and into her hand, freeing her from this repetitive life?

The Embassy of Cambodia, is subtle, yet packs a punch. A novella or short story that narrates an unfair world. If you like Smith's work, what have you got to lose when its only sixty nine pages of your time?

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