MARCH 1, 2014
FIRST-PERSON PLURAL is not a very popular grammatical person in literature. Flaubert uses it in the opening of Madame Bovary (“We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a ‘new fellow’”), but this is quite exceptional in a world divided largely between first- and third-person-singular grammatical persons. Even Flaubert quickly shifts the narrative focus; although he tells us one or two things about the habits of his story-telling schoolchildren, their real function is to add a certain gossipy quality to the narrative, more than anything else.
Zadie Smith uses a first-person-plural grammatical person in her story The Embassy of Cambodia (originally published in The New Yorker last year and recently issued by Hamish Hamilton as a small 80-page book), and it seems to be because of this relationship between gossip, the novel, and the idea of a story-telling collective, one that speaks on behalf of a classroom, a neighborhood, or a town. One can argue that fiction consists mostly of gossip heard, transmitted, and disseminated by writers who speak on behalf of imaginary communities, and here is the imaginary imagined.
“Who would expect the Embassy of Cambodia?” Smith begins her story with this rhetorical question, which she answers in the following sentence: “Nobody. Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it. It’s a surprise, to us all. The Embassy of Cambodia!” Notice how Smith uses a comma before introducing us to the story’s narrators. That comma slightly tilts the sentence and apprises us about the gossipy nature of what is to follow. Yes, us.
According to the narrator(s), the invisible inhabitants of the Embassy of Cambodia play badminton all day long. The people of Willesden, who tell this tale (in unison?), listen to sounds the embassy staff make (“Pock, smash. Pock, smash”). In line with the scoring rules of badminton — each game is played to 21 points — their narrative is divided into 21 sections. Sections have subheadings — 0-1, 0-2, 0-3 — and throughout the narrative the other side invariably wins. But why does the first team always lose?
Perhaps because it partly represents the protagonist of the story, Fatou, who before living in London had worked at a beach resort in Accra, Ghana, under quite difficult circumstances.
It was not the first time that Fatou had wondered if she herself was a slave, but this story, brief as it was, confirmed in her own mind that she was not. After all, it was her father, and not a kidnapper, who had taken her from Ivory Coast to Ghana, and when they reached Accra they had both found employment in the same hotel. Two years later, when she was eighteen, it was her father again who had organized her difficult passage to Libya and then on to Italy — a not insignificant financial sacrifice on his part.
Fatou’s once-a-week visits to the health club adjacent to the embassy building and her relationship with the embassy lie at the heart of Smith’s story. Working as a domestic servant to the Derawal family, Fatou abuses the guest passes of her employer. She is aware of her status as an outsider of that health club, that neighborhood, and the city itself.
We watch her as she swims in the pool, recollecting memories from her previous life in Ghana. She chats with her friend Andrew, “the only person she had found in London with whom she could have these deep conversations.” Smith’s portrayal of their friendship is vivid and smells like life. Toward the end of the long story, Fatou proves right in putting her trust in this man who studies for a business degree at a London college. Smith presents her characters, who are not terribly interesting when isolated from their surroundings, in such a natural way that they become parts of a meticulously devised artifice that gives us a sense of how London felt during the Summer Olympics in 2012, in the immediate aftermath of which this story takes place.
Take this sketch in which the narrator pauses the telling of the story to present us with some bits of wisdom that belong to the people of Willesden:
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. The fact is if we followed the history of every little country in this world — in its dramatic as well as its quiet times — we would have no space left in which to live our own lives or to apply ourselves to our necessary tasks, never mind indulge in occasional pleasures, like swimming. Surely there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?
It doesn’t take long before we understand that our first-person-plural narrator is not a chorus, but a specific resident of Willesden who speaks on behalf of her community, a representative chorus. “Of the Old and New People of Willesden I speak,” she informs us, “I have been chosen to speak for them, though they did not choose me and must wonder what gives me the right.” We even get a glimpse of her as she stands on the balcony that overlooks the embassy in her dressing gown. The narrator approaches herself from outside and describes her figure, again, in first-person plural. We thus see her as she is: an elderly lady speaking on behalf of her community. But does she have the right to do such a thing?
The book’s mixture of speculation, observation, and gossip had been inspired by this elderly lady’s random sightings of Fatou. “Many of us walked past her that afternoon, or spotted her as we rode the bus, or through the windscreens of our cars, or from our balconies,” she muses toward the end of the story. It is this sense of wonder Fatou created in Willesden’s people that brings about The Embassy of Cambodia.
It took me less than 40 minutes to finish the book, which is as exceptional as the book’s grammatical person. I read it in Istanbul during an unexpectedly sunny day in February, on a bench in Gezi Park, the location of mass protests that took place last summer. The events had been a surprise, to us all, as Smith’s narrator would put it. Before leaving the park I remembered how people set up a library there and enjoyed being part of a similar kind of first-person plural. Rumors about the impending police intervention had terrified many who were out to protest. People’s sense of being part of a first-person plural had resulted in an anxious anticipation of the appearance of the other, represented by the police. Following Twitter, we watched the collective gaze of protestors focus on the state apparatus. As I closed Smith’s book, which ends on an ambiguous note, I couldn’t help but feel sad for Fatou, and reflect on the nature of Smith’s use of “us” and “we,” and their relation to gossip. I remembered how sad many people felt after the protests subsided and their sense of collective action came to end. First-person plural is the lifeblood of collective movements, after all, and activists have to rely on rumors — listen to them and spread them — to decide and act. The political narrative of collective action is something we experience in first-person plural; historians and analysts write about them using third person, but that comes later. The excitement I felt when I realized, all of a sudden, that I was not so far away from the Embassy of Cambodia in Istanbul (it is a few minutes walk away from the Park), on the other hand, was definitely a very personal, and singular, feeling.