Zadie Smith’s piece in the February 3, 2014 edition of The New Yorker resonates with a large audience in the wake of recent natural disasters- Philippines’ Typhoon, Canada’s flooding, Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami- and permit me to add the powerful gusts of wind sweeping through the East Coast in the last 24 hours. Smith created this piece in a bid to explore the question, Who are the first ones to be evacuated in the aftermath of such disasters?
Enter the Minister of Interior.
He is your typical minister. Clinging to his most portable treasure ( an Aert van der Neer); Confused about which suit to wear; Conflicted with escaping the chaos in the country or helping his people; Chauffeured by a self-centered driver; Cornered by an escaped convict.
Enter the escaped con.
He is not your typical escaped con. He breaks in to the Minister’s life abruptly like a burglar at night- no warning, no mercy. He is chatty and philosophical. Wagering a dark past that involves the Minister and himself; Wielding a knife and threatening the now distraught chauffeur.
Enter the reader.
Who waits for a shattering reaction; Who combs through for names. This story contains none of such. Set in an unnamed country with largely unnamed principal characters, Zadie Smith bestows upon her audience more than enough room for imagination.
De-cluttering the imaginarium (designated space for imagination) is critical in fiction and if one succeeds in this endeavor and simultaneously maintains a seamless flow of prose, the writer has delivered. Most of the writers that achieve this set out on a journey (the piece) to explore a question and return without an answer, but rather with more questions. Thus, when asked about what would happen to the unnamed country after the disaster, Smith replies with, “It’s hard to say. And harder to write! At least for me”.
It is amazing how a work of art sends you hunting for another work of art. Zaden Smith attributes the title of her piece to an Aert van der Neer painting, housed by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Sad to say, Van Der Neer was among the talented artists who died penniless and without as much recognition in his time as he gets now.
On a happier note, short-story writer, Zadie Smith receives well-deserved attention for this simple but poignant piece. And The New Yorker keeps the happy bells ringing by granting readers full access to the ENTIRE story:
…and a “Behind the Pen” feature with New Yorker Fiction Editor, Cressida Leyshon:
Did Zadie Smith deliver in your opinion?