The Embassy Of Cambodia by Zadie Smith, 2013
The magic trick:
Putting the reader on both sides of the immigrant experience
I don’t think many professional histories consider counterfactual studies to be worth much. What’s the point? “OK, but say the Confederacy had an atomic bomb!” Interesting bar talk but not worth a real historian’s time.
Ah, but when it comes to literature, and especially this little SSMT blog, I say why not delve into counterfactuals? It helps break down a story.
What the hell am I talking about? I’m not all that sure, to be honest, but let’s try it.
So with “The Embassy Of Cambodia,” let’s assume that Smith employed a flat, third-person narration to tell this story. I don’t think it would work nearly as well. We would get the same story, yes; all of the same plot points. But we would lose this subtle sense of judgment and guilt that comes through in the way she actually narrated the story.
Smith’s third-person narrator offers brief commentary here and there while telling the story. It’s not much, but it’s just enough to guide the reader’s reactions. The narrator speaks as if he or she is a member of the community. The reader then feels like a member of the community. And that’s important because a huge theme in this story is community – and Fatou’s inability to find it no matter what she does.
The technique reminds me of the one used by Peter Taylor in his wonderful “Venus, Cupid, Folly And Time,” which also features a narrator who tells the story from the veil of community discomfort.
“Cambodia” manages to put the reader in both points of view of the immigrant experience with equal effectiveness. And that’s quite a trick on Smith’s part.
0 – 3
When the Embassy of Cambodia first appeared in our midst, a few years ago, some of us said, “Well, if we were poets perhaps we could have written some sort of an ode about this surprising appearance of the embassy.” (For embassies are usually to be found in the center of the city. This was the first one we had seen in the suburbs.) But we are not really a poetic people. We are from Willesden. Our minds tend toward the prosaic. I doubt there is a man or woman among us, for example, who—upon passing the Embassy of Cambodia for the first time—did not immediately think: “genocide.”