WORDS Lola Boorman
Many were surprised to see reputable imprint of Penguin, Hamish Hamilton, publish Zadie Smith’s 69-page long The Embassy of Cambodia. The author is better known for her weighty novels, White Teeth and NW, than her shorter fiction or essays. The Embassy of Cambodia, however, began life as a short story in the New Yorker and has subsequently been published individually in pocket-sized hardback.
Too fleeting to be considered a novella and yet too rounded and complete to be a short story, Smith’s new work hovers between forms. Divided into 21 chapters — which represent no more than one or two paragraphs and yet which seem wholly sufficient and infinitely revealing — the reader is forced into the heart-breaking and hopeful life of Fatou. Emigrating from the Ivory Coast at age 18, eventually finds herself in North West London housekeeping for a wealthy Arabic family with no passport or wages; her only escape is her morning swims at the local health centre and her church outings with friend and tentative love interest, Andrew. Fatou’s story is rendered through an eerie and ambiguous “we”: the ethereal and disconnected voice of an old lady looking out the window of an old folk’s home, across the road from the embassy of Cambodia.
Fatou’s story is both elliptical yet complete. It suggests volumes to the reader; never has a character been so vividly or effectively portrayed in so few words. Her story is not finished, there is still so much unsaid about her, and yet the reader will turn that 69th page and feel they have just read a 300-page novel. It is in this sense that Smith’s command of style and language is truly remarkable. Her crafting of the short story in this way recalls and defines Hemingway’s much quoted “Iceberg theory”. It is refreshing to see the short story being exercised with such mastery and anyone who asserts that this form is purely for writers who are too lazy to write a novel will surely marvel at the skill and precision which was required in the construction of this work.
Reading this story in isolation is slightly jarring, however. The reader wants more, and after paying €9.99 for one short story we may as well have bought the New Yorker and glanced at a few other contributions along the way. The fact that The Embassy of Cambodia will undoubtedly sell is testament to Smith’s renown and her irrefutably mastery, however, one can’t help think of a popular, acclaimed novelist resting on her laurels while other writers struggle to pull together collections of stories that present a unified body of work, and not simply an evolving one.