‘Sharp angles and keen intelligence’ – The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

eoczsZadie Smith’s latest has garnered a few column inches as a result of its brevity (it clocks in at 69 pages) and the fact that it has been published as a small pocket sized hardback. These conversations feel like a needless distraction. Is it any good? Is it worth a read? These are the questions we should be asking. The answer, for the most part, is yes.

We find ourselves in Willesden, and ‘we’, the people of Willesden are the voice of the narrative – although it isn’t quite a lift from Joshua Ferris’ And Then we Came To The End, because there is a hint of discord between the self-appointed voice and the good people of Willesden acknowledged as the narrative proceeds. The eponymous Embassy is a place of mystery, a place observed (by the aforementioned people of Willesden) but not entirely understood, a place in which people (who may or may not have anything to do with Cambodia come and go (but not like Michelangelo), a place in which badminton is played (with a perpetual pock and smash) but not basketball.

Our story concerns a young woman called Fatou whose interest is piqued by the Embassy as she passes each day on the way to the nearby swimming pool. Fatou works for a well-heeled family as a live-in nanny and home help, a job for which she isn’t paid anything beyond room and board. She wonders if she is a slave and decides she isn’t because she is, after all, allowed out to do the family shopping – and also manages to sneak out once or twice a week using the guest passes for the local swimming pool (without her employers knowing). Swimming, which recalls her youth at the Carib Beach resort in Accra for good and ill, is a release, a time for her to be herself, away from the employers who seem to begrudge her existence and their children who are somewhat venal.

The book opens with the question, ‘Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia?’ – but the question could just as easily be what does the Embassy of Cambodia represent? If you follow that line of thinking to its logical conclusion, you emerge with a question of race, or at least familiarity. What is something so profoundly foreign doing on a street such as this? A small connection emerges between the Embassy and Fatou. You cold also ask what The Embassy of Cambodia is about? In some ways it is about a person such as Fatou moving through this world in which such questions are asked. In another, it is about the effect of such questions on an otherwise polite girl.

Stealing a swimming pass from her employers, which begins before the beginning of the story, is a small and justified act of rebellion. As the story proceeds, and Fatou considers her options, and the possibility of romance with a young man from the church she attends (a young man whose mannerisms sometimes repel her), her questions become more insistent, her sense of injustice becoming more finely tuned, and yet, before the revolution reaches fruition, an act of heroism, of all things, unseats her. The eye of the camera blinks and we leave Fatou, on a bench by a bus stop opposite the Embassy, debating her options. Perhaps, the reader wonders, the Embassy too is watching, like the school building in Peanuts.

It’s a neat story, one with sharp angles and keen intelligence. The only slight wobble comes with the speed with which Fatou’s anger surfaces, in an exchange concerning the Holocaust and Rwanda and for the moment the story feels too much the product of youthful high spirits, but the calm level hand of the author reasserts itself and the story regains its hold. If you’re a fan of Zadie Smith’s work to date, you’ll want to make sure you check this one out.

Any Cop?: A short story that demonstrates all the pleasures to be had from the form. Recommended.


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