February 11, 2013

"The Embassy of Cambodia"

By Zadie Smith
~8600 words

An African woman in London is mystified by the presence of the Embassy of Cambodia.

The main character, Fatou, is an Ivory Coast immigrant who works as a live-in maid at the Derawal residence, down the street from the Cambodian Embassy. Every Monday, on her way to the swimming pool, Fatou walks past the embassy, where a badminton shuttlecock flies back and forth, the top of its arc just visible above the eight-foot perimeter wall. Intrigued, Fatou asks her friend Andrew, a Nigerian immigrant who was instrumental in her conversion to Catholicism eighteen months earlier, about the history of Cambodia. Their friendship develops, and when Fatou is fired by the Derawals, Andrew offers to find her a new job and invites her to stay at his place.

The characterization is very strong. Both Fatou and Andrew are unique and fully realized creations with their own rich histories, and they gain the reader's sympathy through a potent combination of frailty and hubris. Fatou, for example, swims in black underwear because she can't afford a proper bathing suit and wonders if her job is a form of slavery. She is afraid of the Devil at the same time that she steals pool passes from her employers and is "unwilling to be grateful for past favors." Even the Derawals, who are only secondary characters, are represented with great skill. Mrs. Derawal's barely contained passive aggressiveness upon firing Fatou is a wonder to behold.

The protagonist's cultural dislocation is also brilliantly symbolized by the placid presence of a war-torn, developing country's embassy in central London, where the staff apparently have nothing better to do than while away the hours in a quintessentially British-colonial pastime.

An interesting technical aspect of the story is the instability of the narrative voice. The narrator presents herself (I refer to her as female, though there is actually no grammatical proof of her gender) as an observer living in the same neighborhood in which Fatou resides. The story begins with a first-person plural point of view:
Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia? Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It's a surprise, to all of us. The Embassy of Cambodia!
No doubt there are those who will be critical of the narrow, essentially local scope of Fatou's interest in the Cambodian woman from the Embassy of Cambodia, but we, the people of Willesden, have some sympathy with her attitude.
For most of the story, however, this real-body narrator remains invisible, leading to a third-person perspective centered on Fatou, in which the narrator's observer status is problematized through the possession of intimate details more typical of an omniscient or partially omniscient narrator. Toward the middle of the story, she briefly transforms into a first-person singular, Homeric-like rhapsode:
In Willesden, we are almost all New People, though some of us, like Fatou, were, until quite recently, Old People, working the land in our various countries of origin. Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak; I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right.
Suffice it to say that the narrative voice, along with section headings that would appear to represent a badminton shutout in progress (0 - 1, 0 - 2, 0 - 3, etc.), is a playful experiment that doesn't quite work for me. Perhaps the form is meant to reaffirm Fatou's disorientation in British culture, but I find it mostly a distraction. Nevertheless, excellent characters can make up for a lot, and in the case of "The Embassy of Cambodia," they save the day.


Reader poll: I found "The Embassy of Cambodia" to be ___.


  1. I did find the change in POV a bit annoying, since it didn't seem that the people of Willesden were terribly observant (or, at any rate, observant enough to stand in as semi-omniscient narrators), but Fatou was definitely an interesting character. You say "I refer to her as female, though there is actually no grammatical proof of her gender," but I believe the reference to her bathing costume mentions a sturdy bra and panties, placing her as female.

    I like the badminton players that passers-by can't see, and I wonder if their soft serve, hard return serves as some kind of commentary on the type of people in Cambodia or the world at large? Those that always see the good in others (soft serve) vs. those that are cynical (hard return), perhaps?

    1. Fatou is definitely a woman. I was referring to the unnamed narrator telling Fatou's story.