“How Large Should this Circle Be?”(24): Interrogations in Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia

NW6 31122013Smith, Zadie. The Embassy of Cambodia. London: Penguin-Hamish Hamilton, 2013.

My first thought on taking up The Embassy of Cambodia was a query of definition. Was I reading a novella? sixty-nine pages can hardly be classified as a novel, or a short story. Or a . . . ? And then there is Smith’s organization of her narrative into very short numbered sections detailing very specific events and conversations. On a very rough count, The Embassy of Cambodia takes about 11,040 words to make its point.  (Pause to think rather cynical thoughts about publishers. The book costs C$12.00, but it is a hardback).  The work appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker, and for a moment I rather regretted that I don’t have a subscription to that publication. If I did, I would be able to enjoy the cartoons as well as fiction of this high calibre.  But I digress, or perhaps not. This is a book in some ways about digressions, transgressions, and life in and on the margins. As the blurb on the dust cover says, The Embassy of Cambodia “suggests how the apparently small things in an ordinary life always raise larger, more extraordinary questions.” Perhaps questions of definition and genre are not particularly “extraordinary,” but The Embassy of Cambodia is definitely a work that raises questions.

Flag 31122013There are a lot of things we don’t discover in The Embassy of Cambodia. At the end of the book, we leave Ivoirian Fatou, with whom most of the book’s sixty-nine pages are apparently concerned,  “sitting on the damp pavement in the middle of the day” (69). Fired from her position with the Derawals as domestic servant–she may be their slave, but she doesn’t think so–Fatou has her passport but not her Oyster card. With a bit of luck, her Nigerian friend Andrew will meet her at Brondesbury Overground station at six p.m., but we never find out if he does or whether she is able to find a job cleaning the office where he works.

NW6 31122013Neither do we find out just who is playing Badminton behind the walls of the Cambodian embassy, nor why the embassy is in Willesden. In  Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, what is significant are the lacunae, the things that are not explained because they are probably inexplicable, or at least inexplicable in Fatou’s world of Willesden.

Flag 31122013In many ways, not knowing, not having or not making the time to find out is at the heart of The Embassy of Cambodia. The piece reminds us that in so many things “we have a limited view over the wall” (7), and that this “limited view” often results from choice. After all if we took notice of everything, “we would have no space left in which to live our own lives” (23). Much depends on ignorance both wilful and otherwise.

NW6 31122013In her usual sardonic tones, Smith draws our attention, albeit briefly, to situations about which we often choose to remain ignorant: exploitation, marginalization, colonization, the tensions between the first and third worlds, illegal migration, gender inequality, slavery, and genocide. Smith leaves us hanging between two possible choices of ending: “a violent conclusion” or “a hopeful return” (69). Which is it to be, and how much of it is our personal responsibility?

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