Review: The Embassy of Cambodia

So this little book by litfic writer Zadie Smith is a short story originally published in the New Yorker. Elliptical, character-focused, light on plot, it’s not at all the sort of thing I usually read (although the category “what I usually read” is shifting towards litfic and non-fiction lately, largely because of the limitations of SFF sections in public libraries).

Our Protagonist is Fatou, a young woman from Ivory Coast working for a wealthy family, the Derawals, in North London. Willesden, in particular. The Derawals hold her passport and don’t pay her any wages, reimbursing her with room and board only. Nevertheless, Fatou doesn’t seem aware – or, at least, isn’t letting herself be aware – that she’s being exploited:

In a discarded Metro found on the floor of the Derawal kitchen, Fatou read with interest a story about a Sudanese “slave” living in a rich man’s house in London. It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not.

Her acceptance of the situation she finds herself in pervades the story. She has one close friend, Andrew, who she goes to church with; although she’s not particularly interested in or passionate about him, she seems resigned to the fact she’ll end up marrying him. Similarly, the Derawals are ungrateful and abusive; they do know that they’re exploiting Fatou, and that knowledge makes them awkward (not awkward enough to pay her, though). Again, this is a situation that Fatou simply accepts; she uses disengagement as a tool of resistance, perhaps.

But then, there’s the Embassy of Cambodia. The Derawals’ mansion sits next to this embassy, and the only signs of human life anyone sees from the building is a shuttlecock flying through the air as someone plays an interminable game of badminton with someone else. This unseen match between invisible players becomes a metaphor for everything Fatou does not have access to: wealth; privilege (particularly male privilege; Fatou’s decided that both badminton players are men); leisure time; privacy. The image of the badminton match is the way the story registers and acknowledges the profound inequalities that Fatou isn’t exactly allowing herself to think about.

It also links to the second of the story’s key themes, encapsulated in a sentence about halfway through the text:

The fact is, if we followed the history of every little country in the world – in its dramatic as well as its quiet times – we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or apply ourselves to our necessary tasks

“Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle,” continues the unnamed narrator, a self-identified person of Willesden. “But how large should that circle be?”

The Embassy of Cambodia is one such circle – inward-looking, giving nothing to the community in which it stands. At one point, Andrew and Fatou have a conversation about genocide and how each community of people mourns their own losses the most. The narrator even weighs in at the end of the story, when we’re left with an image of Fatou, waiting for Andrew as the people of Willesden pass by, worried about her but not worried enough to stop. We don’t get to know what happens to her: that is beyond our circle of attention.

So this is partly a story about living in a city: in cities we see worrying things all the time, and usually put them outside our circle of attention pretty quickly. Not necessarily because we are bad people, but because we have only limited room for others to take up in our heads. Should we widen those circles? And if we did, would we see people like Fatou, and try to help them?

Like any really good story, The Embassy of Cambodia has no answers, just questions. The response is up to us. Are we going to be like the Derawals, aware of our privilege and not wanting to look it in the eye? Or like the people in the Embassy of Cambodia, withdrawn into an endless and irrelevant game of badminton behind high walls? Or are we going to be something else?

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