"The King's Last Song"

Amidst all the books about the glories of ancient Angkor or forgettable tales from recent aid workers, Geoff Ryman has delivered a novel Cambodian volume - one worth a read.

By Ron Gluckman /Phnom Penh, Cambodia

THE ONGOING TRAGEDY OF CAMBODIA, a tortured nation that has yet to heal from decades of war and auto-genocide, extends to its literature. Most of it centers upon the deadly rule of the Khmer Rouge, or revels in the glory era of the ancient Khmer culture, which peaked nearly a millennium ago. On the time between, or upon other topics, little has been written.

Then there are the forgettable scribblings of an endless procession of aid workers. One of the few standouts is Ron Poulton, a Montreal native who arrived with the United Nations Mission in the 1990s, and made a credible stab at detective fiction with Battambang, set in that city during the waning years of French rule.

Now comes The King’s Last Song from another Canadian, Geoff Ryman. He manages to break the mold, even as he writes about Cambodia’s glorious Khmer years and the recent decades of war. Utilizing an elaborate dual plot line that admittedly frays in places, this is nonetheless a departure from what has come before, for both Cambodia and the author.

A celebrated writer of fantasy, Mr. Ryman’s credits include worlds of his own creation (a future populated by lesbian polar bears) and odd settings. He says he has been obsessed with Cambodia for decades. The nation inspired Mr. Ryman’s The Unconquered Country, published in 1986—a full 14 years before he set foot there. A new novella, Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter, about ghosts of Khmer victims haunting Number One’s daughter, has been nominated for a 2007 Hugo Award.

Clearly, Cambodia has gotten under his skin. This book vibrates with shimmering, subtle, dead-scary observations of what makes the place tick, and tremble.

The hugely ambitious novel follows two plot lines, essentially mysteries separated by nearly 900 years, bound by the recent discovery of an ancient text that reveals riddles of the earlier time. Volumes of long-buried gold-scripted scrolls are found in the vicinity of the world-renowned Angkor temples, detailing the life of King Jayavarman VII, Cambodia’s most revered ruler and builder of Angkor’s greatest structures.

Turned over to a French linguist who is immediately kidnapped, the deciphering of the ancient scrolls and the search for scholar are the premise of the modern section. This provides a window to the past, as archeologist Luc Andrade translates texts; unveiling chapter after chapter of colorful court intrigue about the Khmer empire, then among the world’s mightiest.

The search for Luc propels the modern plot, but only on the surface. As Mr. Ryman fills in detail on Luc’s various colleagues, he spins a nightmarish and irresistibly accurate tale of the last few tangled decades of Cambodian history.

The historical sections are, in strictly literary terms, more ambitious. Mr. Ryman not only had to research and retell ancient legends, but fill in sizeable gaps in the record. In this, he shows his skill as a fantasy writer, scripting a death scene for King Suryakumara. History is vague on Jaya VII’s time among the Chams (in present-day Vietnam).

Mr. Ryman makes him a prisoner of war, wed to a slave wife who conceives an unusual son, providing many surprises. Likewise Jaya’s romance with Queen Jayarajadevi, inspiration for many of the magnificent Angkor temples. “Curiously enough,” Mr. Ryman confides, his version “was flavored by the love story between [current Cambodian prime minister] Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany.”

The ancient legends offer substantial material, which this author mines expertly. His elaborate descriptions add enormous depth to genuine accounts of a vast empire that conquered much of Southeast Asia, only to vanish mysteriously. Still, engaging as the ancient epic was, I kept turning pages to get back to the modern sections.

This is the real measure of Mr. Ryman’s accomplishment—considering how much we have read about the Khmer Rouge, most fictional accounts are doomed to cliché. This Cambodia is populated by tormented ex-soldiers, good girls pressed into sin, amputees, unwitting killers, and all the rest we’ve seen so many times before. Still, all come across convincing. That’s because Mr. Ryman brings them to life in ways that define, like no other novel, the misery that is the essence of Cambodia.

“You could very easily meet William,” is the opening line of the book, introducing a most likeable Cambodian who we have, in fact, all met. He’s the English-speaking guy who meets boats or buses, offers rides or advice, and asks nothing. With his notepads stuffed full of business cards, and friends in Phoenix, Frankfurt and Sheffield, he’s the understated, ambitious, embraceable child of Cambodia we all befriend.

If William, motorcycle driver and Luc’s gofer, is likeable, Map, the mean-spirited guard, is positively terrifying. “You would meet Map easily as well,” he writes. “Or rather, you would not be able to escape him.” Veteran of all the armies that ravaged this land, Map lost what was left of his humanity and reason after a close friend was injured in a bomb blast. That friend survives only because Map feeds and cares for him. But Map is dispatched to another front, returning to find his friend gone. Nobody will say where. At gunpoint, a clerk concedes that they left him to die. Map blows his brains out.

Map’s relationship with William is difficult. While wearing Khmer Rouge colors, Map murdered William’s parents. William doesn’t know, but the awkward effort at impossible reconciliation encapsulates Cambodia’s tortured steps towards healing.

“I loved Map, the character,” Mr. Ryman tells me. “Too much so. Chapters from his point of view threatened to overwhelm the book. He was such a dark figure, so given to explosions of violent rage or anguished remorse that he made the book much darker than I wanted it to be.”

Bloody, bitter, gloomy, gritty, Cambodia oozes through The King’s Last Song. It’s an epic tale that captures not only the grand scope of Khmer glory, but the darkness left behind by war.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who has been living in and covering Asia since 1991. When not roaming around the region for a wide variety of publications, he divides his time between bases in Bangkok, Thailand and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. This piece was published by the Far Eastern Economic Review (www.feer.com) in July 2007.

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