The Embassy of Cambodia is a splendid novella written by the English novelist, Zadie Smith. The novella focuses on the surprise of building an embassy of Cambodia in the area of northwest London. And, the context of the story is built around such a setting to portray the life of the protagonist, Fatou, an immigrant woman from Africa. Thus, the novella reverberates with the themes of identity politics, power dynamics, and cultural alienation, which is accompanied by the element of otherness. The Embassy of Cambodia also concentrates on the themes of suffering and faith and out of which, the theme of emancipation manifests.
The Embassy of Cambodia | Summary
The novella begins with a description of the embassy of Cambodia in Willesden, London. Next to the embassy is a health center. The embassy has a high fence over which a shuttlecock is seen flying back and forth, horizontally, showing signs of people playing badminton.
The narration shifts to the protagonist of the novella, an immigrant woman from the Ivory Coast, named Fatou. She works as a nanny in the household of Mr. and Mrs. Derewal. She loves swimming and every Monday, somehow managing to steal the guest passes from the Derweals, she goes to the swimming pool located past the embassy. Thus, on her way to the pool, Fatou observes the relentless movement of the shuttle, their “Pock, smash. Pock, smash”, movements. Whereas, on Sundays, she visits the church and after which she meets up with her Nigerian friend, Andrew Okonkwo. Their discussions mostly include their sufferings as African and much more deep conversations. Fatou tells us that, Andrew tends to digress, after every topic of conversation, about the corruption of the Nigerian government which hides the true number of people who died during the genocide. Fatou is constantly of the opinion that Africans suffer more than anyone else in the world. As a matter of fact, genocide in Rwanda has seen more people being killed than for instance, during The Holocaust. But Andrew has a different opinion.
One time in the Metro magazine, found in the Derewal household kitchen, Fatou reads about a Sudanese “slave” living in the household of a rich family and although such a thought was not expressed for the first time, Fatou ponders the fact of her own possible identity as a slave. But she convinces herself, in comparison to the Sudanese slave, that she was not and moreover, she was not some prisoner like the Sudanese slave.
One day, Fatou comes back home after she meets with Andrew and she finds the youngest daughter, Asma, of the Derewal household, choking on a marble in her thought. As Fatou sees her struggling and gasping for air, Fatou quickly comes to her help and rescues the child. But later some days after this incident, Fatou is fired without any notice as the nanny from the Derawal household. She is convinced that the reason is not that she was stealing the guest passes to the swimming pool but that the reason for her suspension as a nanny is never revealed by Mrs. Derewal.
Once more, Fatou resorts to help from her friend, Andrew, for accommodation. As Fatou leaves the Derewal household, she asks back for her passport that had been seized by them when she came to work with them. The novella ends with Fatou waiting at the bus stop for Andrew, as she watches the movements of the shuttlecock in the embassy.
The Embassy of Cambodia | Analysis
Smith provides insight into the concerns of suffering through the plural first-person narrative style, probably the old lady on the balcony, who observes the movements of Fatou and offers the readers her perspective, more or less like an omniscient observer. This narrator bestows the readers from the perspective of a representative of, “we, the people of Willesden” but upon whom, the author gives a brief description, as well. The narrator is referred to as someone standing on the balcony, “overlooking the Embassy of Cambodia, in your dressing gown, staring into the chestnut trees, looking gormless”, with nothing better to do. Such a subtle description with the word, “gormless”, could denote the narrator of the novella to lack any sense and thus, might connote the unreliability of the narrator. Anyhow, the old lady describes one of the mottoes of the Khmer Rouge that goes, “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss”, denoting the genocide of Cambodia and thus, bringing up the matter of suffering.
Fatou’s perspective of suffering becomes manifested in her conversation with Andrew. She debates with him on the topic of the genocide that happened in Rwanda, which killed millions of people and it bothers her that such an enormous amount of suffering becomes invisible and unconcerned, especially with respect to the visibility that was received by The Holocaust. To this, Fatou solemnly wonders:
“Are we born to suffer? Sometimes I think we were born to suffer more than all the rest”.
But Andrew responds to this by bringing forth a concept of natural law: “Only God cries for us all, because we are all his children”. But despite this, every other person mourns for the sufferings of their people, for instance, Andrew points out, “The Jews cry for the Jews. The Russians cry for the Russians. We cry for Africa, because we are Africans” and to conclude that every country has their share of sufferings.
But Fatou is still not convinced and believes that Africans suffer more than anyone else. And, once again, Andrew brings a counterpoint to her statement and tells her simply to think about the fact that “why would God choose us especially for suffering when we, above all others, praise his name?” and adds to this that, Africa is the most and “fastest-growing Christian continent”. But to this, Fatou only responds by saying that the suffering is not caused by God but by the “Devil”. The author elevates such a dimension of suffering by adding anecdotes from the personal life of Fatou, what happened to her during her hotel days in Accra, Ghana.
The first anecdote describes the devil that appeared in the form of a Russian man who raped Fatou. This is only described briefly but such an incident is seen in the form of suffering from the side of Fatou and her perspective, this is considered as “unholy”, something that needs to be cleansed through baptism. Something that throughout the novella, Fatou attempts to do and which is manifested in the repeated imagery of water, including her habit of swimming in the pool. Fatou’s anger after reminiscing about the incident of the Russian devil, who raped her, is juxtaposed and expressed through swimming. Probably suggesting the process of baptizing herself in the pools of water.
The second anecdote describes two incidents that Fatou witnessed. One during the time of her stays in Ghana and the other in Rome, connoting the never-ending migrations of an African. In Ghana, Fatou witnessed the death of nine children, ten or eleven years old, boys and girls. Apparently, they went to the beach and drowned themselves in the water because they didn’t know how to swim. Such a horrific death is juxtaposed with the absence and lack of emotions from the side of the viewers and people who witnessed this. Fatou tells us, “Everyone else just shook their heads and carried on walking to where they were going”. Whereas the incident that took place in Rome, wherein a boy of fifteen years old had died by knocking down his own bike, was witnessed with abundant emotions of screaming and crying, and most shockingly, Fatou points out, these emotions were expressed by mere strangers. Andrew, after hearing this story, merely sums up by saying, “A tap runs fast the first time you switch it on”, an insightful and thought-provoking statement, at the same time, that made a huge difference to Fatou on her perspective of suffering.
Such a statement evokes the tap of suffering that comes with a heavy flow of suffering but whose forceful flow slows down with time. For Western people who are not familiar with everyday suffering, events of death mean abundant emotions. But for non-Western people, especially Africans who are disposed of most of the sufferings of migration and slavery, trauma is a continuous and relentless suffering, whose force of the flow of emotions gets reduced to an everyday event of trauma. Andrew’s response to Fatou’s anecdote might suggest, the Nigerian friend agrees with her on the perspective of the fact that Africans suffer more everywhere. The anecdote that sorts to juxtapose and exposes the different reactions to a traumatic event from the side of the Western, denoted in the incident in Rome, and from the side of non-Western, denoted in the incident in Ghana, thus, expressing trauma as something unusual and something usual, respectively. Therefore, the author succeeds in beautifully portraying the matter of suffering from the perspective of an African immigrant.
The Embassy of Cambodia — Themes
Smith situates the themes of identity politics and power dynamics in the household of the Derawal household. Fatou continuously ponders her identity whether she is a slave or not. But the novella more and more makes it clear to the readers that she is treated as inferior and from the side of the Derawal family, the author portrays shades of racism. For instance, although Fatou believes there is no physical abuse between her and the Derawal family, she remembers some events like being slapped twice by Mrs. Derawal or the children speaking towards her with no respect, and even more, she hears constantly, her name being used as an abuse. For example, “You’re as black as Fatou.” Or “You’re as stupid as Fatou”, undoubtedly, manifesting the tone of a racist attitude. Nonetheless, Fatou considers herself not a slave.
The trope of identity politics of treating Fatou as an inferior in the household of the Derawal family because she is an immigrant African is heightened when the readers learn about the fact that her passport has been seized by the family at the time of her beginning of the job as a nanny. The author sharply gives prominence to this theme by putting forth the theme of power dynamics that gets manifested at the end of the story.
After rescuing the youngest child of Mr. and Mrs. Derawal, who is clearly not impressed with the fact that a nanny saved the life of their child, one day decides to fire Fatou without any prior notice. Such an incident, undoubtedly, expresses the fear that gets sprung among the Derawal household that indicates the shift of power dynamics, an imbalance of power. This theme is more looked upon as Fatou accepts her suspension from her job as a nanny and asks for the return of her passport. The fear of imbalance of power between Mrs. Derawal and Fatou gets transformed as manifested in the lines, “At last Mrs. Derawal looked at Fatou, right into her eyes, but her face was twisted as if Fatou had just reached over and slapped her”.
Herein, the independence of Fatou as a self-sufficient woman is described. Such a sense of freedom and independence is expressed at the end of the novella as Fatou leaves the house of the Derawal:
“Walking out into the cold gray, Fatou felt a sense of brightness, of being washed clean, that neither the weather nor her new circumstance could dim”.
The Embassy of Cambodia — Title of the Story
The title of the story is crucial to the novella as the narration surrounds the mysterious building of the embassy of Cambodia and around which the predominant game of badminton occurs.
The Embassy of Cambodia — Character Sketch
Fatou — She is the protagonist of this novella who embraces a process of transformation from a dependent woman to an independent and self-sufficient woman.
The Embassy of Cambodia — Literary Devices
The novella predominantly uses the literary device of symbolism. Smith places symbolism upon the movements of the shuttlecock being played in the mysterious embassy of Cambodia. In fact, the game of badminton is quite significant to the story because the novella is divided into twenty-one chapters based on scores of a badminton game, such as 0-1, or 0-2…. The first number is always kept as 0, which might echo the final lines of the short story:
“As if one player could imagine only a violent conclusion and the other only a hopeful return”.
Thus, connoting the possibility of a hope that gets outnumbered by the score of the “violent conclusion”. A “hopeful return” is symbolized at the end of the novella, wherein, the readers witness Fatou embracing independence.
The rhythmic, “Pock, smash. Pock, smash” movement of the shuttlecock represents the characters outside this badminton game, outside the embassy of Cambodia, as outsiders, symbolic of the element of otherness, faced by an immigrant like Fatou. Moreover, such a symbolism connotes a device of juxtaposition, wherein, the rhythmic and relentless movement of the shuttlecock can be contrasted with the movement of Fatou’s life as “Not elegant, not especially fast, but consistent and determined”.
The novella also uses abundant imagery of water to connote the element of emancipation achieved through baptism, a ritual purification wherein an individual is cleansed of their unholy sins by pouring water on their head.
Smith employs similes, as well, to enrich her novella with meanings. The incident wherein Fatou rescued Asma from choking is compared with “a wave”, wherein the marble “flew from the child’s mouth and landed wetly in the carpet’s plush”. The comparison to a wave echoes the waves of the beaches that swallowed up the nine children in Ghana and once again, this comparison makes use of water imagery.