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New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Moonlit Landscape With Bridge" by Zadie Smith

I'm used to hearing about Zadie Smith as London's resident archivist of middle- to upper-middle-class life and the racial tensions that take place in that stratum of society. However, I really like the Zadie Smith who writes these post-apocalyptic/speculative stories like "Meet the President!" (GCB 8/27/13) and now "Moonlit Landscape With Bridge."

It's important to note early that "Moonlit Landscape with Bridge" is a painting from 1650 by Dutch painter Aert van der Neer [shown here, at left]. As you can see, the painting depicts a nighttime scene or nocturne. Apparently van der Neer went through quite a large "nocturne phase." I don't have time to delve too deeply into van der Neer's biography and the critical reception of this painting, and to draw symbolic links. I wish I did, but I have a life and a day job and all that other good stuff. Although, it's pretty clear to see the dark, shady tones of this painting are echoed by the dark, gloomy tones of Smith's story. That's not hard to see. Also, in the story one of the characters repeatedly comments that he's able to see the bridge again from the road. Other than that, I don't know why Smith needed to name this story after the work of a somewhat obscure 17th century dutch painter. If some one else does, I'm all ears. But as for the text...

It remains open for questioning whether or not "Landscape" takes place in some dystopian future or just an unfortunate, shadowy corner of the present, Smith is here again sketching out a scenario in which things have gone hopelessly wrong: a freak weather occurrence has devastated a small African country and, most importantly, torn down the shaky scaffolding of it's ruling party. The country is now in chaos, and the Minister of the Interior, the main character of the story, must get to the airport, so he can leave the country, under some not-insignificant but not immediately life-threatening duress.

From nuts and bolts perspective, what's interesting about this story is the way a great writer can back-load so much of a character's history into what is actually only about three or four hours of physical action, as the Minister leaves his mansion and is driven to the airport by one of his hired hands. Bits of back-story get shaken loose everywhere: in the way he says goodbye to his chief domestic servant (with whom he used to have an affair), in the conversation he has with his driver on the way to the airport, in the terror he feels when he is accosted by a para-military who recognizes him from his own past life as a revolutionary, etc. etc.

Having said that, the character remains intriguing precisely because of what's left out of the story. We know that he was, at one point, a revolutionary fighter and that he was engaged in some pretty shady (not to mention violent) overthrow of the existing regime some 30-40 years before. We also get the sense that he's been accomplice to some serious atrocities since and probably become part of the very same kind of brutal, oligarchical, elitist government he once fought to depose. To put it simply: He's buried a few bodies at sea, and the storm has caused them to rise to the surface.

On the intertextuality front, Smith refers to one of the great Vonnegut lines, from Slaughterhouse-Five: "And so it goes." Not only does the character himself use the line, but he tries to remember where it came from and he cannot. He only knows that it was something from a book he and the President had shared when they were dorky revolutionaries on the rise.

I believe the use of the line "And so it goes" is used to insinuate that the Minister does not make it out of the country alive. I can't remember Slaughterhouse-Five too well, but I do remember that the phrase "And so it goes" was not exactly used to mark occasions of happiness and joy. If I remember correctly, it was used as a nihilistic way to detach oneself from the extreme violence and atrocities of WWII. Ultimately, Smith leaves us hanging; we do not find out of the Minister is killed or if he makes it out of the country. However, given the context clues I would say he does not.

A good story and absolutely worth a read. I might even re-read it to see if I can find any more clues about the Minister's fate.


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