The Embassy of Cambodia, Zadie Smith

And the wonderful Zadie Smith has written another wonderful story in The Embassy of Cambodia, a short, sharp insight into a snippet of the life of Fatou, an indentured housekeeper in London. I love Smith’s writing, the density of meaning in her prose, its loaded quality.

This book uses an obscure “embassy of Cambodia” which appears in the London suburb of Willesden. The narrator has no idea about Cambodia, where it is, its history. But she regularly passes the Embassy and watches from outside the walls, a badminton shuttlecock sail back and forth – “Pock. Smash. Pock. Smash.” Fatou’s story unfolds in segments, told between the folds of her. Insane existence in London. Readers hear about her father, swimming, an encounter in a hotel with a Russian man. For all she has endured, Fatou has simple desires and expectations. She accepts her lot in life, the limitations placed on her by her class, position, culture and gender. Beneath this acceptance, Smith has woven a fascinating commentary on modern society:

“The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world – in its dramatic as well as quiet times – we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?”

This conundrum is at the centre of Smith’s concerns – “Was it wrong to hope to be happy?” How far should Fatou seek to find herself a place in this new world? Where should she settle and with what and whom?

I can’t hide the fact that I think Zadie Smith is a true genius. Even just this short story is filled to the brim with wonder and awe inspiring insights. It is well worth the read.


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