At a mere 69 pages and lots of white spaces in between, Zadie Smith crafts a quiet story that is no less important in that it is a window into London’s immigrant culture. It may be London in context, but here in Singapore it is the same. We may be living in a First World country, but race, gender, ethnicity and religious belief play a huge role in one’s station in life.
First published in the New Yorker, The Embassy of Cambodia is a rare and brilliant story that takes us deep into the life of a young woman, Fatou, domestic servant to the Derawals and escapee from one set of hardships to another. Beginning and ending outside the Embassy of Cambodia, which happens to be located in Willesden, NW London, Zadie Smith’s absorbing, moving and wryly observed story suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.
Smith’s painting of Fatou is exquisite and evocative. Through short chapters numbering from 0-1 to 0-21 (clearly reflecting a lobsided badminton game), we get to follow Fatou. She accepts her station in life, harbours no big dreams and holds no bitterness. Her only “crime” is a weekly filching of the family’s guest passes to swim at a local club. She owns no swimsuit and swims in a black bra and panties, but the garments are so inconspicuous that nobody pays her any heed. On Sunday, after church she will go with her only friend, Andrew, to a Tunisian cafe for coffee and cakes. It is not a routine, more of a comfortable rut.
Zadie Smith’s prose is simple yet elegant and purposeful. For a short piece of work, she packs a lot of details that cry out gently for a closer reading. For instance the high walls of the Embassy and a constant badminton game going on behind the wall as she passes on her way to the pool is a subtle metaphor for the sad state of foreign menial workers like Fatou. Even how the chapters are numbered suggest the state of affairs for people like her. The split narrative structure is genius – it switches between a third person narrative that observes Fatou and a first person narrative voice that represent the people of the town, another words that represents us. The gear shifts invisibly and effortlessly, putting us in the story, sometimes next to the character and at times outside observing her impassively.
This short read is superbly observed and rendered. You know only an author with deep compassion can write something so multi-layered and nuanced. A gem of a read of a human tragedy.