Identity — A Timeless Parable

Commentary of “Two Men Arrive in a Village” by Zadie Smith

Women — the universal entity that have protected and pushed humanity forward despite civilizations generic and widespread violence. Using repetitive, casual language, as well as first person narration, Zadie Smith, in her historically fictitious short story “Two Men Arrive in a Village” subtly shouts her emotional parable of identity and perseverance within the face of a violent mankind.

Seemingly insignificant and inconsequential, Smith skillfully utilizes the word ‘or’ as a tool within her writing. She carefully places the word ‘or’ thirty two times into her piece. I repeat, thirty two times! For example, when she states, “the women are only just back from the desert, or the farms, or the city offices, or the icy mountains,” shows different scenarios and people from all walks of life. The overabundance of such a simple word encourages us to see that there is more to the story than a gruesome storyline, enabling us to see the various types of attacks that have been carried out on African villages. In fact, the various means of violence are so repetitive that they themselves become insignificant, as can be seen in the following paragraph by Smith “Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank…most often they will have in these hands a blade of some kind, a spear, a long sword, a dagger, a flick-knife, a machete, or just a couple of rusty old razors.” Within this passage the word ‘or’ deemphasizes the means of attack, but rather highlights the abundance and magnitude of the violence, which blends into a oneness that cannot ranked or separated by degree.

The story is told from the first person perspective of a woman in the village during the attack, allowing the reader to get lost in the descriptive details. While the story is fictional, it is recounting events in history, thus bringing awareness. The author addresses the reader as “we,” giving us an identity. She places a responsibility on us to convey the horrors and truisms of this story to others, to pass it along to our children.

When we deeper examine the story, we are struck by timeless characters whose identities exemplify the struggles of civilization. There are two main sets of characters highlighted by the author; the attackers, and the women of the village. The attackers illustrate the cowardliness of violence that has plagued mankind. Smith paints a vivid image of the wimpy-men when she exclaims, “The tall dim one raised his gleaming machete and, with the same fluid yet effortless gesture with which you might take the head off a flower, separated the boy from his life.” Smith then goes on to analyze the women of the village, who embody the strength of unity. She depicts, “Our women, who stood in formation, arms linked the one to the next, in a ring around our girls.” Smith goes on to say, “women stood so in ancient times, beside white stone and blue seas, and more recently in the villages of the elephant god and in many other places, old and new.” In an interview with Smith, she states this story is an, “imbalances of power — what happens when the weak meet the strong without protection.” Smith repeatedly blurs the differentiation between time and place, allowing the story to be a truism through the ages — a parable.

The two men who invaded the village are given an elusive identity, “…one of the men is tall, rather handsome — in a vulgar way — a little dim and vicious, while the other man is shorter, weasel-faced, and sly.” We have no idea who these men are or where they come from. All we know is that they bring fear and senseless violence. Smith asserts, “..such people become nothing more than ga haramata, they lose themselves, their names and faces, and can no longer claim merely to bring the whirlwind, they are that wind.” Unfortunately, irrational violence has occurred universally throughout time. In an interview with Smith, she explains she was inspired by Hungarian folklore — fables that were orally transmitted for hundred of years. The folktales express horrors that have been passed down through the ages.

In the last paragraph the author almost reveals to us the true identity of the attackers, “It is probably not his real name but he said his name was — ” but at the last moment leaves us hanging! The author consciously leaves us questioning the true identity of the cowards, for without a name, the two men who raped and traumatized an entire village are transformed from a story into a timeless parable, a story used to teach a lesson.

During the bloody chaos of the attack, we are graced by the security of the women of the village. The women are the strong glue that hold the families together. They are the unrecognized leaders of communities, as Smith highlights “…in our village we are very fortunate to have no rigid bureaucrats but instead the chief’s wife, who is, when all is said and done, more of a chief to us than the chief has ever been.” A woman’s identity is pride filled and cannot be annihilated, even by the most extreme incitement of fear. When the cowards arrived by foot in the village, it was the bravery of the women who took a stance, not the men “…the old men in the village — who, though men, have no defense — will often now grab at the bottles themselves, drinking deeply and weeping…” The author profoundly describes the actions the women took to maintain the safety of their families during the attack, “…in formation, arms linked the one to the next, in a ring around our girls…” fighting tooth and nail to protect their babies.

Himba Woman Guarding Her Children

While the women of this village are incredibly inspirational, women protecting their communities is a theme we see throughout history. I am reminded of an event that happened in my own community in October of 2002 — a month of terror. Two men were traveling down the highway through Virginia, randomly shooting people at gas stations, grocery stores, even schools. In one month, ten people had been gunned down — ten people. Schools all throughout the state had been closed. One morning before the cowards had been caught, our community decided it was time to stop living in fear and to move forward. My school reopened. Our courageous mothers, including my mother, linked their bodies together creating a tunnel for their babies to walk through to enter the school. From Africa to Virginia, women around the globe have demonstrated strength and healing to ensure their villages move forward. Smith’s story brings universal time and place together, showing a woman’s brave role in human survival will never be diminished.

We are faced with the question, how will you be remembered when you are no longer on this earth? Will your actions and identity linger like the couragesness of these women, or will they blow over like the cowardness of the men in the ga haramata winds?

Works Cited

“Beltway Snipers, Part 1.” FBI. FBI, 22 Oct. 2007. Web. 11 Sept. 2016 <>.

Himba Woman and Some of Her Family Standing in Her Father’s Homestead in Otutati, Namibia. N.d. Web.

Leyshon, Cressida. “This Week in Fiction: Zadie Smith on Stories That Implicate Everybody.” The New Yorker. N.p., 2016. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.

Smith, Zadie. “Two Men Arrive in a Village.” New Yorker. N.p., 6 June 2016. Web. 7 Sept. 2016.

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