Totally by accident, researchers find 150 inscribed gold leaves buried deep near a former irrigation canal at Angkor. The leaves turn out to be a book of memoirs dictated 800 years ago by King Jayavarman VII.
Wanting to protect the book from art smugglers or ordinary thieves, Cambodian authorities decide to have French archeologist Luc Andrade secretly bring the book to Phnom Penh. As a general accompanies him with a military escort to the Siem Reap International Airport, both Andrade and the general are kidnapped.
Afraid for their own safety, tourists flee Siem Reap, leaving hotels and shops without clients, as police and the military start a frantic search for the two men.
Thus starts Geoff Ryman’s novel “The King’s Last Song,” recently released by HarperCollins Publishers, whose story alternates between contemporary events prompted by the discovery of the golden book and the life of its author, King Jayavarman.
Calling it a suspense or historical novel far from describes this 488-page work, the direct style of which engages the reader from the very first line, while the sober poetry of its wording, especially in the chapters on the King, recreates the depth and mystique of an ancient land.
Sketching life in Cambodia today, Ryman takes the reader on a journey into the past and present that shape Cambodians.
Mirroring the country’s daily reality, everything is in moral shades of gray as characters operate within a system of unofficial commissions, abuse of power and arrests based on enmity and convenience, in which profit or plain survival cancels ethics.
And underlying every character’s behavior is pain, either assumed or unconscious, a legacy of the war and conflicts that have left few Cambodians born before 1990 unscathed.
Tan Map, one of the main characters, was 12 years old when he joined the resistance that would turn into the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s. He joined the Vietnamese-backed Cambodian forces in 1983, and is now a heritage police official in Angkor Archeological Park.
Sinn Rith, a lieutenant of the Siem Reap military regiment, lives on a bare minimum because all his money is invested in his general’s hotels in town. He has hated Tan Map ever since Tan Map killed his quartermaster at army headquarters while under his command in the late 1980s.
Then there is Ly William, named after a kind British aid worker in a refugee camp on the Thai border in the 1980s.
Since Cambodia does not recognize his high school diploma from the camp, he drives tourists around Siem Reap and Angkor park.
Usually cheerful, in a moment of despair he wonders whether his life will ever change.
“Stay a nice poor smiling little Cambodian? Stay here until I’m a fifty-year-old motoboy, a starving old man on a rusty bike outside a fallen-down hotel,” he says.
The kidnapper is Saom Pich, a farmer and early Khmer Rouge leader who had first met Saloth Sar—later called Pol Pot—in 1960. “Nobody wants the Khmer Rouge back, but the things that created them are with us again,” he tells Andrade in the story. “Corrupt people of all kinds come to Siem Reap and look down their noses at honest farmers.”
The character Andrade also is out of Cambodia’s history. As Ryman explained in an e-mail interview, Andrade is in essence a Cambodian, a Westerner who grew up here in the 1950s and 1960s, left due to the civil war and returned as soon as he could. In the story, Andrade chooses to remain captive to finish translating the golden book into modern Khmer.
As the story develops, all the complexities and ambiguities that politics have created in the last decades emerge in a matter-of-fact way, without comment or undue drama.
A peaceful man, as Tan Map calls him, Ly William is incapable of responding with violence when Tan Map confesses that he was among the Khmer Rouge who killed his parents. Tan Map hands him his gun so that he can shoot him, but Ly William does not even want to touch it—he feels grief, not rage.
Sinn Rith’s hatred for Tan Map vanishes when he discovers him in the forest conducting an exorcism ceremony for the souls of the people he killed and mourning his friend Nim Veasna, who died after losing his hands and legs in a fight against the Khmer Rouge in the late 1980s.
In the chapters on King Jayavarman, Ryman transforms this historical figure into a human being with the strength of character and charisma that he must have possessed to become Cambodia’s most famous king at the height of the Khmer Empire, towards the end of the 12th century.
Ryman draws a vivid picture of the King’s era, filling it with court intrigue and battles waged with lances and arrows on elephant backs that end in “a lake of blood.”
The King’s story starts with him as a child prince living at Angkor’s royal palace more or less as a hostage to ensure his father’s loyalty to the reigning monarch. He later is shown as the prisoner of a Cham king, whom he befriends, and living on the seashore south of today’s Hue in Vietnam—it is with the support of Cham forces that King Jayavarman would take over the throne at Angkor.
Above all, Ryman depicts the King as profoundly religious—a fact confirmed by stone inscriptions, he said—a Buddhist with a deep love of his people, for whom he built 102 hospitals.
Even though those chapters are based on historical data, imagination had to fill the gaps since there is little information on King Jayavarman’s life, said Ryman. “Fiction is a pathway to the truth,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “But it’s not the same as historical truth.”
A Canadian based in London who teaches creative writing at the University of Manchester in England, Ryman said he spent four years writing “The King’s Last Song” after his first visit to Angkor in December 2000. His research included countless reference books, hundreds of interviews and several trips to the country.
The story begins with the discovery of the golden book on April 11, 2004, and ends with a conclusion true to Cambodia today: neither happy nor sad, with more hope then despair, and a peculiar type of justice.
“A novel is an opportunity for readers to imagine and work their way into a reality,” Ryman wrote in the e-mail.
“My job is to give the reader the information they need in terms of setting, character and clear writing so that they can make of it what he will.”
As in the case of Cambodia, all is not resolved at the end of the book: Only the future will tell.