I was at the gym, running on the treadmill. Above me were rows of televisions. I glanced up and saw the following question written on one of the screens: “What is Cambodia?”
It was the game show, “Jeopardy.” In this game show, the host starts by announcing the answer to a question. Then the contestants have to guess what question matches that answer.
I wondered what answer the host had read to them, which would suggest the question, “What is Cambodia?”
There was no sound on the TV. I had no way of knowing. I looked down for moment. When I looked up again the moment had passed. The game show had moved on to another topic.
“In the Shadow of Angkor, Contemporary Writing from Cambodia,” is a book of defiance and hope. It lumps short stories, essays, poems, interviews, folktales, rap lyrics, even a portion of a screenplay into a bouillabaisse of Cambodian voices. Most of the authors are drawn from the Cambodian Diaspora. Though it draws on material that was written both before and after the Khmer Rouge regime, it is not a work of history, but instead strives to capture the ineffable and elusive cultural moment of contemporary Cambodian literature.
For the Western reader there is a certain drama in the title itself: Contemporary writing from Cambodia? There have been several memoirs from the Cambodian Diaspora, about tales of endurance and near death in the Khmer Rouge regime, but “In The Shadow of Angkor” strives to be more comprehensive in outlining a burgeoning Cambodian literary movement. That, at least, is the hope.
It is both a testament to the value of the book and to its limitations that by far the strongest piece of fiction was written by Soth Polin in 1969. Polin is a writer of remarkable irony, sensitivity, and sophistication. His story, “Communicate, They Said,” begins with the staccato rhythm of a person consumed by an obsessession: “It lasted for months. For months. Like a huge whirlwind in my head. Some images came back repeatedly, suffocating my soul in an obsessive spiral.”
The source of the character’s despair is a struggle in his soul between the grandeur of Khmer history and the more banal reality of a contemporary Cambodian office worker’s life. “It rained diamonds inside my skull,” he writes. But the grandeur he senses within him, and in his country’s history, is juxtaposed rudely against his current reality: “Powerlessness, mediocrity, lowliness, the debris of the visible.”
This see-sawing between grandiosity and minisculism is not brought on by a woman, but it leads him to one, Sary, a colleague in his office, to whom he confides.
“She stared at me for a while. Intensely. Adorably. Then she said in a decisive tone, hammering every word, ‘You’re suffering sweet Vanna; but do you know why? I’ll tell you why. You’re suffering because you do not communicate!'”
The remainder of the story concerns itself with a car trip to the beach. The hapless Vanna, with the “diamonds inside my skull,” is dragged along morosely with his chattering colleagues who are completely unburdened. It’s a love story of sorts, in which the nebbish, impeded by his thoughts, gets the girl, though a love story that is marked, at the end, by the site of “two military jets flying like arrows towards Phnom Penh, their contrails long and straight.”
Soth Polin wrote the story in Khmer, and it was translated to French by Christopher Macquet, and from French to English by Jean Toyama.
“In the Shadow of Angkor,” seems to acknowledge Polin’s accomplishment; his story, an interview with him, and a fascinating essay about having Pol Pot as a primary school teacher, “The Diabolical Sweetness of Pol Pot,” lead off the collection.
Polin’s contributions displace what should have naturally been the introduction to the book, editor Sharon May’s account of how the collection came into being, titled, “In the Shadow of Angkor: A Search for Cambodia Literature.” Perhaps she put her account of the book’s creation further inside to allow for a strong lift-off with Polin, or to avoid upstaging the Khmer authors, but once she gets going she is not demure.
May first visited Cambodia in the mid-eighties; her interest in the country was piqued several years earlier when she saw “A photograph in a magazine: three Cambodian women trudging up a charred hillside.” She has since been back many times. She speaks Khmer. For two years she ferociously pursued material in this anthology. Her essay strikes a defiant note. It begins with an US journalist dismissing her project of assembling an anthology of contemporary Cambodian writing. “There is no tradition of the Western novel in Cambodia,” he declares. “It’s just not a very literary culture.”
The anthology that May and her co-editor Frank Stewart-with the fortuitous collaboration of Christopher Macquet, who happened to be pursuing a similar project at the same time-have produced is a rebuttal to this dismissive sentiment. It’s very existence is a triumph. But it is a complicated triumph. Her essay begins with an epigram that appeared in the Khmer newspaper Kambuja Surya in 1962: “If its writing disappears, a nation vanishes.”
It is interesting to consider the reverse: If a nation vanishes, what happens to its writing?
“The origin of the Kounlok Bird,” is a folktale, translated by David Chandler, which traces the sad fate of three girls whose father dies and whose mother marries a good for nothing man. She sends her daughters to the forest to die. They survive by turning into Kounlok birds. When the new husband goes to jail, the mother comes to the forest, missing her girls, but when they hear her voice they flee, thinking she wants to kill them. It ends with a remark about the Kounlock birds in “Cambodia today,” and how they are easily startled and fly off crying “Kounlok! Kounlok! And in the still of night, its cries fill us with unspeakable sadness.”
This rather brutal and sad folk tale is followed by a more contemporary folktale written by Darina Siv. It concerns a boy and his cow, their friendship, and what happens to them under the Khmer Rouge regime. It is fantastical and whimsical and not that gripping or convincing; its main interest is the fantastical fairy tale has a happy ending, in which the boy and his cow live happily ever after. The author was a survivor of the KR regime, and it reads a bit like a bedtime story delivered to herself.
Khun Srun’s “The Accused,” is written from the point of view of a prisoner who is being interrogated and fears for his life. It ends, “I have one hope left, however. A tiny one. I know I am innocent and wrongly accused. So I try to fool myself, I try to be an optimist: The inspector is a Khmer; he has the same blood as I do.” It’s a haunting ending, but the story’s main character never became fully real to me. Stories such as Kong Bunchoeun’s cinematic but thin, “A Mysterious Passenger,” or Pollie Bith’s cloying “Caged Bird Will Fly,” also fail to achieve a presence and density of feeling, humor, or perception.
And here is where the defiant triumph of bringing together so many Khmer writers, working in the short story form, and also the essay, as well as rapper Preach and the notable Khmer poet U Sam Oeur, and even play and screenplay excerpts, runs into its limitation. Beyond the snide dismissal of all Cambodian literature by the US journalist with which Sharon May begins her essay, there is this assessment of the state of affairs in Cambodia by cultural historian and Princeton University professor Christine Stansell. Writing in Dissent Magazine about the ahistoricism that resulted in the Khmer Rouge genocide, she writes:
“All the stories and suffering rattle around in a vacuum. The country has been unable to create a thick enough public culture to relieve, even slightly, individuals of their terrible burdens: There are few rituals and no common moral discourse or meaningful memorials that connect redemption, justice, reconciliation, vengeance, or forgiveness to the plight of the whole country. Expressive forms are sparse. The literature of grief centers on memoir and oral history; the fiction, drama, and poetry of lamentation have yet to develop.
“With so little access to the expressive forms of art and moral discourse, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, for individuals to find a way out of their anguished solitude.”
“In the Shadow of Angkor” rises only partly to this challenge. In Keir Saramak’s sharply drawn sketch, “Workman,” the skin color of the workmen on his block is closely analyzed with sensuous detail. In Putsata Reang’s essay, “The Dinner guests,” the author recounts the strange juxtapositions of fate within her family, the part that got out, and the part that did not. Early on, there is this line: “On April 17, 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge invaded Phnom Penh, forcing those they didn’t kill to walk for days to concentration camps.” It is an affecting story, but entirely because of the tale that is told, and not at all because of the telling.
That line bothered me. Is there a parallel in other literatures of genocide in which a single fact is related in this plain, almost metronomically repetitive manner? It is the voice of the wire service, that most depersonalized of all literary forms, which questions nothing.
It seems haunting and strange to me that the most innovative, ironic, and individualistic style and voice in the whole collection is in Soth Polin’s story written in 1969, on the eve of the country’s descent into a hell. And yet it makes sense, because it may be impossible to innovate in terms of form coming from a place of trauma. And yet, I wonder, to what extent is craft and style the privilege of those that haven’t suffered? Perhaps this sort of story telling innovation, in which voice and character are primary, is a kind of decadence, but it is a necessary decadence, I think, for a culture to move forward, and for “individuals to find their way out of their anguished solitude.”
Soth Polin seemed to be implying something similar when I spoke to him by phone. He now drives a cab in Long Beach, California, and when we spoke he was sitting in his cab at a train station, waiting for a fare. Apparently he is almost always in his cab. He said he had no time to write, “Because writing doesn’t bring food on the table.”
It has been thirty years since he has been in Cambodia, and he claimed to have no sense of what the younger generation of writers is doing. But he did have ideas about the current predicament of the next generation of Khmer authors.
“They have only the will to survive,” he said on his cell phone. “They can not think anything other than genocide. What they remember is the fantastic nightmare of Pol Pot, nothing else. The new generation of writers will create a new style of writing, literature is a mirror of society. So they will create the new novel. But now the young writers speak only of Pol Pot-there is nothing else but genocide, it marred the Cambodian people, and they have difficulty getting out of the nightmare, they have nothing else to say. The country is traumatized. I hope they will get out. You can not live in genocide.
“Even the Jewish writers, they had to find something else besides the Holocaust! The world will not be interested in the same story, they have to find something else.”
Actually the world still seems very interested in the Holocaust and its literature, but Soth Polin is right to suggest that if the subject does not change, the way of addressing and approaching that subject has to evolve.
“In the Shadow of Angkor,” is probably not representative of that “something else.” But it feels-in its consistent evocation of the flavor and personality of a culture and its people-like an important and necessary step in that direction.
(Thomas Beller is a contributing editor at The Cambodia Daily, his latest book is a collection of essays, “How to be a Man.” The Cambodia Daily previously reviewed “In the Shadow of Angkor” in 2004.)