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