This tiny novel – only sixty-nine pages – is really more of a short story. Yet, by offering it to us in book form, Zadie Smith confers on The Embassy of Cambodia (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) a greater depth and weight. Fortunately, this story deserves it.
The Embassy of Cambodia focuses on Fatou, a domestic servant in London. Fatou likes to swim at the local club – taking guest passes from her employers while they’re out for her brief periods of leisure time. On her walk to the pool, Fatou passes the Cambodian embassy. An incongruity in an upper class, suburban neighbourhood, the embassy remains a mystery to those around it. Occasionally, tourists go in and out, seeking visas. Once, a Cambodian-looking woman exits. But constantly, a volley of badminton is seen to go back and forth. Serve and return, back and forth.
Fatou’s story is steadily revealed in a manner that makes these sixty-nine pages feel like a full-on novel. From the Ivory Coast to a maid in a hotel in Accra, to Rome, to her current role with the Derawal family where she wonders, idly to herself, whether or not she is a slave, whether they would return her passport to her if she asked. There are terse and telling interactions with the family and Smith demonstrates a mastery of the old show don’t tell adage.
Fatou and her friend Andrew – originally from Nigeria – discuss politics in a Tunisian cafe every Sunday. He tells her more about the history of Cambodia but always wants to re-focus on Nigeria’s history. He has his own story of suffering, just as Fatou has hers. As indeed, the story reminds us, each nation and person does.
In sixty-nine pages, Smith reminds us of this poignant fact and she does so with skill. I look forward to reading more pages from her.