Cambodia: the end of an era

Newspapers are not what they used to be. If you’ve had anything to do with the media in the last ten years, you’ll have heard a lot about dumbing down, loss of quality, the death of print and so on. In fact, depending on who you speak to, you might be forgiven for thinking that the whole industry is choking and dying right before our very eyes as we all stand round snapping photos and tweeting about its last moments.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact the search for my Cambodian book reminded me of one of the most exciting things to happen to journalism in recent years.

I was whiling away a quiet moment or two on the Guardian Books site when an article about the Cambodian genocide by Madeleine Thien caught my eye. Thien is a Canadian novelist, so I couldn’t include her book, Dogs at the Perimeter, on my Cambodian list, however, given her expertise on the country, I decided to leave a comment asking if she could recommend something I could read.

Less than two hours later, Thien replied with a full list of suggestions. I was delighted and more than a little surprised. Despite having written for various publications myself, I realised I’d been used to thinking of journalists as somehow operating in a different, parallel universe, a world that readers could not reach.

And yet here was one of these mysterious beings replying to me out of the blue. All of a sudden the article flickering on the screen in front of me seemed to switch from being a closed, finished thing, to an ongoing, evolving process. It was as though, instead of publishing something that was fixed and definitive, Thien had given a seminar in cyberspace and thrown the floor open to questions from the world.

Thien seemed particularly passionate about In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner, a book that was due to come out that very week. ‘I hope this book will find its way to readers everywhere. It is an astonishing novel, brilliant, heartbreaking, and deeply courageous. A truly unforgettable piece of literature,’ she wrote. That was good enough for me.

Inspired by Ratner’s own childhood, the novel tells the story of seven-year-old Raami, a Cambodian princess who is evicted from her luxurious home in Pnomh Penh along with the rest of her family when the Khmer Rouge seize power in 1975. Caught up in the mass exodus from the cities as the regime seeks to eliminate all traces of education, culture, privilege and power, Raami endures four years of hard labour, starvation, abuse and terror in the party’s brutal new rural order – a world where her imagination is her only escape.

Few writers use imagery more richly than Ratner. Whether she is describing the sun yawning and stretching ‘like an infant deity poking its long multiple arms through the leaves and branches’, the gardener covered in butterflies ‘as if he were a tree stalk and his straw hat a giant yellow blossom’, or the way a marsh shimmers ‘as if at any moment it would spit out the sun’, the writer excels at finding arresting ways of bringing experience to her readers. This stands her in particularly good stead when it comes to the darker elements of the story, where the fear and sadness she builds are almost tangible. It also makes the more whimsical passages, particularly the exchanges between Raami and her haunted poet father, marvellous and engrossing where they might be twee and obvious in another author’s work.

Ratner’s consciousness of the value and weight of words is coupled with a profound sense of the importance of storytelling, which runs through the book. Various characters speak about the power of tales to connect people across time and space. Indeed, Raami’s faith in them is such that, in the final moments before he is taken away, she runs after her father begging for one more story, as though the mere act of narrating might be enough to keep him with her and save his life.

Like the novel itself, this belief in the power of telling is rooted in Ratner’s experience. She writes movingly about her motivations for rehearsing her family’s traumatic history through fiction in her ‘Author’s Note’ at the back of the book. The story is, she tells us, ‘in essence, [her] own […], born of [her] desire to give voice to [her father’s] memory, and the memories of all those silenced’.

As such – and given the unrelenting suffering and misery that makes up much of the book – it is perhaps inevitable that the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in emotion. While no doubt true to the experience of many children in such extreme circumstances, Raami’s repeated assertions that she is responsible for all the bad things that happen become a little wearing. There is also a slight problem with the narratological need to keep raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension when the family has lost nearly everything from day one.

But these are trifling things by comparison to Ratner’s achievement. Looked at as a whole this is a powerful and beautiful debut from a writer committed to finding new ways of telling stories and taking the reader to heart of the matter. The world can always do with more of those.

In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner (Simon & Schuster, 2012)

3 responses

  1. Don’t know how I missed your review, but I loved this book and am in awe of the writer’s ability to lift her experience above the drama of tragedy to great a great piece of literature. In this era of the “bare all” memoir, it is refreshing to have a little distance, while maintaining respect for those who both lost their lives and those who suffered in surviving. A brilliant read, that is with me still.

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