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A Pained Dullness
on 18 November 2013
The length didn't bother me, although I feel that The Embassy of Cambodia would work better as a longer short story.
This is the tale of Fatou, a foreign maid who works for the ungrateful and colourless Derawal family. It tells of her secret adventures with club poolside swims and misadventures as to what constitutes for a painful destiny..
Initially, I approached my new Zadie Smith with interest and an open mind.
I was startled when the first few pages brought on a yawn. The stifled badminton games in the compound of the embassy at the first instance, seemed to me, to be moulded as some kind of valuable metaphor either to signify stupor in the maid Fatou's mind or a wistfulness. Or perhaps even, the symbol of a ruthless exploitation aimed at a weaker target. I just couldn't put my finger on it.
The trouble was, that the opening chapters failed to lure me onward into any further curiosity. The hope for intrigue vanished. My interest turned stagnant. Perhaps, it was that sudden dullness at being confronted repeatedly with the now tedious word, embassy and the sluggish rhythm of the badminton game in motion.
I found the story stale in flavour. In the past, I'd devoured one too many similar skeletal structures mapped inside those of contemporary London novels where the rich turn their noses up at the poor, religion is shaped as a yardstick for hypocrisy, personal spirituality locks horns with an intense intellectual dialogue now and then and also, the usual variety of colourful cultures thrown in for added effect. This, to heighten supposed confusion, tension & conflict. Such would prove the basic tools of the novelist's trade. Only the plots and event-descriptions vary.
Perhaps too, my Malaysian heritage worked against me in wanting to embrace the tale. The badminton games masquerade as a stylised feature. Many Asians know the full history of the Khmer Rouge like the back of their hands. In Malaysia, maids form a part of our inherent subcultures.
Not just the affluent but the average middle-class family all kept local servants. The young girls and lads or even middle-aged women came from kampongs, villages and estate plantations. Years later, foreign Filipino, Indonesian and Cambodian maids became the mainstay. Our neighbours Singapore often employed maids from Sri Lanka. So this is old territory to someone like me. As a reader of The Embassy of Cambodia, this is possibly the content I'd subconsciously care about most.
From the time we are born, we endear ourselves to them, they are friends and nannies....sisters and little mothers... we listen to their stories...we share anguish at their histories. We know of the well-cared for, we also read now and then of an ill-treated maid, often an illegal or runaway, who woefully ends up in a hospital and then later, a courtroom with which to gamely protest her slave labour and seek the mercy of the press. We are aware of a maid's docility and even sadly, sometimes of her hostile aggression that leads on to murderous intent.
In this respect, I think someone from my part of the world will more likely than not, find Zadie Smith's story shallow.
I liked the scenes of the Derawal family to begin with but the plot appeared to hang further up the pages and there was no redemption for any parent or sibling here, either. Still, I enjoyed these few erratic episodes of selfish family life. At least, there was some hint of vitality and movement. I wished the dramatics had been expanded further.
So what comes at a price here? The baddies are bad, the good are plainly good. There is just so much more to the countless complexities of human behaviour but where such a valuable perspective is not ever drawn upon. It's not the volume to a book but how the content is carved, that matters to me. The reader is left only with half a tip of the iceberg, a fraction of the icing on the cake. The necessary subject of servitude was questioned in a transient manner and not visited further. If you are a voracious reader of international literature generally, expect no surprises, no newness.
I feel that the story came stitched up together from a few choice facts about the Khmer Rouge and shocking features of maids being treated as slaves in the Middle-East or a London suburb, painted in the evening tabloids. Because of this, the lacklustre plot seems only half-finished. It held no depth for me personally and rejected the more hardworking idea of tracing a character's emotional journey.
Characters stay true only to the superficial outer appearances of themselves. Too much poignancy may appear complicated to the form of the novel and so the trait appears dismissed without care by the novelist. The reader has to strain himself/herself for the hopeful pursuit of an emotional journey. So glad now that it was just 69 pages. A book however tiny or big, deserves to be tailored so much better.