Zadie Smith’s “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” was originally published in the February 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
I’ve always felt a bit out-of-step when it comes to Zadie Smith. I like her writing quite a lot, but what I’ve read — and it hasn’t been everything — has never quite added up. Similarly, this piece alludes to a great deal and I read it with true interest, only to feel slightly disappointed in the end: it seemed to be exploring less than it first appeared to be.
The animus to the story is this: the Minister of the Interior is leaving his country for the safety of Paris following a devastating natural disaster. His family has already left. Here is how the story begins:
The Minister of the Interior stood in the middle of the room, assessing a pale morning-sky blue; the next tan, of light material, intended for these terrible summers; the last a heavy worsted English three-piece, gray, for state visits. They were slung across one another every which way, three corpses in a pile.
I think that’s an exceptional opening, particularly with its soft allusion to the Minister — oh, yes, to his country and its citizens as well, but also to himself, his past — as a bunch of corpses. The Minister’s “worries” continue:
He was at least fortunate that the most significant painting in the house happened also to be the smallest: a van der Neer miniature, which, in its mix of light and water, reminded him oddly of his own ancestral village. It fit easily into his suit bag, wrapped in a pillowcase. Everything else one must resign oneself to losing: pictures, clothes, statues, the piano — even the books.
We don’t know it yet, but soon the Minister’s assistant Elena comes in and we learn that some kind of typhoon has washed over the country. Elena’s children lived by the sea, and she has not heard from them. Smith does not hesitate to make the Minister even more atrociously preoccupied with himself:
“Difficult days, Lele,” the Minister said, picking up the light blue, trying not to be discouraged by its creases. “Difficult days.”
He continues to be preoccupied by the “lies” he’s tired of from the foreign press. Normally, I think I would be pulled out of the story by such a blatantly atrocious, insensitive human being, but Smith is seductive. She presents this man with these horrible traits all laid out in a row, and yet he feels real. It doesn’t feel like she’s simply setting up the story.
when he realizes his youngest daughter would be having a debutante party in a grand hotel in Paris: “I am further from my village now than I have ever been. Italicized just like that, in his mind.”
He even wants to help people as he travels to the airport. The crux of the story occurs when a man from the Minister’s youth gets into the car, wanting a lift to the airport. I won’t go into much detail here, but the man is rather fascinating, chaotic, and we see just where the Minister came from, how far he’s come from his village indeed — and how closely he resembles the same ruthless villain he apparently was in his youth.
In the end, though it felt like so much more, I’m left with a feeling of “is that it?” I mentioned this above. Though there are a lot of threads woven in that complicate the work, it ultimately felt a bit simple: here’s a man who would leave his country for Paris. He’s awful — even if he feels he may have an ounce of care — and that’s about it.
One touch I admired quite a bit, still, and that may be the key to the story’s opening up for me, is the Marlboro Man, that man from the Minister’s youth. In the end, he’s left smiling like a mad man, wishing the Minister a good trip. Again, this is chaos, and there are plenty more men like the Marlboro Man who are going to be pillaging the place. The Minister, a man like the Marlboro Man himself, makes lip service to order, but he knows what he’s leaving behind.
In her Page-Turner Interview this week, Zadie Smith remarks that if she were to follow the “Minister” of “Moonlit Bridge with Landscape” to Paris, she would be interested in his soul.
In “Moonlit Landscape with Bridge,” Smith tells how a highly placed government official is fleeing his country in the aftermath of a terrific storm that has reduced the countryside to rubble. In the course of the story, we see the roads to be impassable, and the people without water.
This is a man who in his youth had been “up to his knees” in “a river of blood,” according to another revolutionary who’d known him when. The Minister reacts petulantly to this depiction, thinking that it wasn’t exactly a river of blood, it was a river “stained” with blood.
This is a man whose soul is in quite a state of disrepair, given that he can remorselessly quibble over how to describe a bloodbath.
His arrogance is summed up in the way he treats his servant Elena. When he embraces her in parting, he thinks she seems like an old woman, nothing like the lover she had been to him when his wife was pregnant so many years ago. He doesn’t understand how she has gotten so old, when he himself doesn’t feel old. He doesn’t ask after her children, or her feelings, despite the fact her children are at the coast, which has taken the brunt of the terrible storm that has brought down his government. His soul seems not so much small, like himself, but shriveled in the extreme.
In the course of this story, do we get any sense that his soul has been touched or brought back to life by the cataclysm? After all, it had been his job, as Minister of the Interior, to care for the wellbeing of his people. He ineffectually attempts to distribute some water to some desperate peasants, with chaos as the result. He gives little thought to the outcome of what he has done, soothing himself by the thought that he has acted, at least, on the peasants’ behalf. His soul is untroubled by any role he has had in the disaster. He passes a reservoir his administration had built, and notes with discomfort that it has been long useless, having been so poorly built.
He thinks without shock of a girl, so many years ago, whose head had been cleft in two by a revolutionary machete.
His is a soul untroubled by responsibility.
Although he has lost everything, including one of his shoes, he hasn’t really lost anything. He makes it to the plane in time; he isn’t strung up; he hasn’t been spoken truth to power, really. There are plans to live in Paris. How can that be? Oh – with the money he’d stolen from the people, perhaps in skimming from the reservoir project, safe in a bank in Switzerland, no doubt.
There is a banality to his story that is unsettling. He sails through, muddied, silly, and disreputable, but unbowed. Someone remarks that this collapse had come just in time, otherwise maybe the people would have actually strung them up, so to speak, and hauled them off to the Hague – for crimes against humanity.
What this sketch does is introduce the story. If Smith is interested in the Minister’s soul, it makes but the slightest appearance here. The real story of the Minister’s soul is yet to come.
As for the title? Smith says The New Yorker didn’t like her first title. Given that Donna Tartt is having quite a ride with The Goldfinch, using a painting for a title does not feel very fresh. The Minister’s painting appears to play no role in the story at all, except that the Minister says it reminds him of his village. Looking at the painting online, it is hard to see how this painting of a medieval city-scape could remind a person of a village. Smith makes the offhand remark that a Dutch painting is appropriate to this story because the Dutch became rich through war (and the minister became rich through revolution). This doesn’t work for me either, given that the Dutch actually became rich through trade and because theirs is considered to be the first capitalist economy. What does work for me, regarding the painting, is the memory of the Nazis and their vast hoard of stolen art. But that connection is not honored either. The painting is a kind of dead-end that bogs the story down. The devil, on the other hand – the devil, as Trevor pointed out, steals the show, as always.
“Moonlit Landscape with Bridge” is an entertaining sketch of the banality of evil, but it doesn’t really work as a story. I think one of the reasons it doesn’t work is that the storm is offstage, as is the revolution that brought the Minister to power. Even the devil is hustled offstage. There is no acute sense of danger, nor is there an acute sense of catastrophe.
Despite the sense that the Minister has that he is in the presence of the devil, the reader has no sense of a struggle over the Minister’s soul. His soul had already left the building years ago.