Short stories

Universal Storytelling in Zadie Smith’s “Two Men Arrive in a Village”

In her interview with the New Yorker right after publishing the short story ‘Two Men Arrive in A Village,’ Zadie Smith discussed, among other things, the inspiration for this story. She mentioned the idea of eliminating specifics in storytelling in a way that allows a story to implicate everybody. In her words,

“I started thinking of all the ways the local and specific enable one kind of engagement and potentially block another, “

Smith’s purpose for this short story was universal storytelling; to narrate a story that everybody will resonate with. And she achieves this very well.

Two men arrive in a village as the sun set; it is not the first time that such men have arrived here, and in the neighboring villages. They are soldiers of the imposed government. They terrorize, plunder, kill the villagers, and rape young girls. Stories about their arrival are narrated the next day, and it goes on like this with the different men that arrive here. In general, the author includes themes and narrative aspects that all tackle the issue of violence. She does so by communicating universal emotions like fear. Everybody wants to feel safe, but they also know that they, as individuals and communities, are not immune to violence, such as this in the story.

When explaining why the men mostly arrived at sunset, Smith describes different community settings in one. Instead of confining her descriptions to a single setting, the author includes women who are just from the farms or offices, children playing near the chickens or at a communal garden outside an apartment block, teenage girls who are out in front of their huts or houses, wearing their jeans or their saris or their veils or their Lycra miniskirts, cleaning or preparing food or grinding meat or texting on their phones. Smith carefully avoids specifics in her narration to ensure that the primary universal issue implicates everyone. The narrative technique emphasizes the fact that these events can happen anywhere, regardless of the setting.

I started thinking of all the ways the local and specific enable one kind of engagement and potentially block another

The narrator compares one way the man arrived, with how they did in this village. Regardless of the village or manner of arrival, “the effect was the same: the dread stillness and the anticipation.” Similarly, their stay is characterised by an unspoken question of the eminent. In another instance, the narrator explains a typical chain of events when the men arrive.

“At some point, as they move from home to home, taking whatever they please, a brave boy will leap out from behind his mother’s skirts and try to overpower the short, sly man.” After this, Smith goes ahead to describe this village’s version of the brave boy. She successfully manages to shift between generalizing the activities and narrating the story of what happened when two men arrived in this village.

This generalization creates a universal form of story telling that does not confine a narrative to specific regions nor serve a particular audience better than the other. The, sometimes, volatile nature of human relations makes us aware that violence can affect anyone, and what happens in this village can recur in a different village, city, town…  

What are your thoughts and questions on Two Men Arrive in a Village by Zadie Smith? Let me know in the comment section.

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