Zadie Smith’s “Moonlit Landscape With Bridge”

Feels incomplete. (Link to the New Yorker, btw.  Story is currently free to read.)

Caught my eye because Smith is reliable in creating sympathetic characters with higher level thought processes.  I happened to be tinkering on a piece dealing with a minister departing a foreign country.  So, we’re like, twins. 

While I haven’t read a ton of her stuff, I’ve noticed a lack of refinement in the symbolism department.  To wit…

Synopsis: Minister of a disaster-ravaged country heads to the airport, encountering a harrowing figure from the past, suggesting tough decisions in the formation of the current government.

As she says in the interview discussing the story, the title comes from a small Flemish painting she had seen in a NY gallery with her husband that she decided to let her minister actually own and abscond with in his departure.

Surprisingly, the painting factors very little in the story.  The title factors very little in the story.  There is little comparison between the presumably serenic landscape and the devastation wrecking this country ostensibly on the other side of the world and of another time.

I think much can be done there.  And ought to be.  It’s quite mystifying.

Smith leads us, too, in the vicinity of danger, but is reluctant to lead us into 1) depravity, or 2) fatalistic uncertainty.  Early, the Minister and his driver encounters a crowd desperate for resources (water).  Later, they encounter an escaped convict who knows the Minister from years before.  In the former instance, we don’t have a sense of the desperation of the crowd; the worst that happens (or feels like could happen) is that the Minister’s trouser leg gets caught in mud.  In the latter, the escapee is wisely shown to have been freed by the weather disaster, but neither is this force of nature underlined (in either respect, of hurricane/typhoon, or convict himself), nor are we ever afraid for the Minister’s life.  Weapons are displayed, but we feel pretty comfy.

There’s no washed out bridge, or similar, as far as I remember, though that might be too on the nose.

I don’t understand why the painting was selected, then, if not to emphasize a departure.  Dichotomies are everywhere:  civilization/dischord, civilization/nature, serenity/chaos, esteemed present/underhanded past, power/riff-raff.  But only the last two are developed beyond sketches.  Too bad.

 

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