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)

Switzerland: a secret recipe

The internet has been a breeding ground for weird and wonderful literary ventures since it stretched its tentacles into most of our homes somewhere around the mid nineties. Whether you want to talk about, swap, write or analyse books – or even cut them up and make them into something else entirely – there is a site out there for you.

Few people, however, have been more dedicated to exploring the possibilities of marrying web and paper pages than Swiss networker and literary critic Beat Mazenauer. Having been involved with arts projects on the internet since the early days of the information superhighway, he is the driving force behind such collaborations as the literature platform and the recent Imaginary Museum of Migration, which collects and displays the migration stories of its users. He is also General Secretary of the Swiss Ministry of Culture, a daring project that capitalises on the fact Switzerland has no official ministry of culture (as its government members are known as federal councillors instead) to highlight the power of domain names.

Mazenauer gave me a fascinating list of Swiss titles I could read for this project. Several of the books on it were so tempting that I had to ask a colleague to help me choose. In the end, what made us decide on Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta was the intriguing and tragic life story of its author, Aglaja Veteranyi.

Born into a family of Romanian circus performers, Veteranyi spent her childhood travelling Europe performing tricks until she and her relatives were granted asylum in Switzerland, the country she came to adopt as her home. Illiterate because of her nomadic life, the teenage Veteranyi taught herself to read and write German before embarking on a career as a freelance writer in 1982. However, the abuse and exploitation of her early years had taken a lasting toll and the author drowned herself in Lake Zurich in 2002.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta is an autobiographical novel in which a child narrator describes the life of her itinerant circus family. In addition to walking the tightrope of childhood and adolescence, she must also negotiate the nightly fear that her mother, ‘THE WOMAN WITH THE STEEL HAIR,’ will fall from the winch from which she hangs in the big top, as well as the violence and sexual menace of her father and the risk that the family may be identified and sent back to Romania to be executed. She and her sister do this by masking one horror with another, creating a gruesome story about a child cooking alive in a vat of polenta, which they tell themselves for comfort when the world becomes too frightening.

The subject matter sounds grim, yet the narrative voice is light-hearted and even funny for much of the book. Filled with quirky insights and descriptions that capture the cadences and preoccupations of childhood to a tee, the novel fizzes with life. There is the car trip that ‘lasted several years’ and musings on knotty problems such as whether God speaks other languages, all of which make the succinct expressions of suffering all the more telling when they come: ‘I don’t scream. I’ve thrown my mouth away,’ says the narrator at one point, expressing more in eight words than pages of description could do.

The narrator’s striking perspective on the world is enhanced by the bold structural and formatting choices that run through the book. There are phrases picked out in capital letters, lists of repeated words, one-sentence chapters and even blank pages, which make the work feel more like a baggy poem at points and underline perfectly the disconcerting nature of a childhood where nothing can be relied upon and the most basic of rules do not apply.

At the root of this unease is the search for home and identity. To the narrator, ‘every country is in a foreign country’, and the family’s history and allegiances shift depending on who they are speaking to:


‘We’re Orthodox, we’re Jewish, we’re international!

‘My grandfather owned a circus arena, he was a salesman, a captain, traveled from country to country, never left his own village and was a locomotive engineer. He was a Greek, a Romanian, a farmer, a Turk, a Jew, an aristocrat, a Gypsy, an Orthodox believer.

‘My mother was appearing in circuses even as a child so she could feed her whole family.

‘Another time she runs away to the circus with my father against her parents’ wishes.’

Out of this melting pot of conflicting accounts, Veteranyi concocts a rich and subtle meditation on childhood, belonging, nationality and truth. Wistful, tart and witty, the book achieves that fine balance of pathos and humour that only the very best childhood narratives share. It left me wanting more.

Why the Child is Cooking in the Polenta (Warum das Kind in der Polenta kocht) by Aglaja Veteranyi, translated from the German by Vincent Kling (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012)

Greece: child’s play

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But when I saw Clockroot Books’ 2009 edition of Margarita Karapanou’s 1974 classic Kassandra and the Wolf, complete with Ihrie Means’s disturbing cover art — a woman’s body topped with a wolf’s pelt and reflected in a mirror — I had to take a closer look.

One of literature’s youngest child narrators, six-year-old Kassandra is also one of its most unsettling. In fact, with her detached, vicious and sometimes bizarre accounts of life at her grandmother’s home in Athens, she often seems every bit as embattled as Birahima, the former child soldier in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah is not Obliged. 

Too young to feel obliged to present a socially acceptable persona to the world, Kassandra is unfailingly frank. Whether she is describing her torture and killing of the kitten ‘Borrowedy’, who is lent to her for a week, or her sexual abuse at the hands of grandmother’s chauffeur Peter — ‘He panted and sweated. I didn’t mind it too much’ — she overturns society’s tacitly agreed modes of talking about things again and again.

Even the favourite authorial trick of getting the reader onside by making the protagonist a book lover is disregarded here, with Kassandra declaring: ‘I don’t want to learn reading and writing’.

Sometimes, this unchecked verbalisation has great comic effect, as in the case of the PhD or ‘doctor’s desertation’, as explained by Kassandra’s acquaintance France:

‘Well, you see, you take a book and go to the middle of a desert or something and then you bury it in the sand for a long time and then you dig it up again and you find that all the words have got mixed up like the sand and then you put them all back in place only this time you put them back any way you like.’

Yet for all her frankness, Kassandra finds herself repeatedly sidelined, silenced and misunderstood. Where she releases outbursts of oddities or obscenities that reflect the troubling associations of her mother’s distance and her inner world, her refined relatives see only naughtiness and disrespect. Repeatedly chastened and instructed on ladylike behaviour, she develops a stammer before retreating into silence — ‘But I do talk to them, only I don’t use words’, she tells the specialist hired to assess her.

The danger of failed communication is made clear in the sad fate of Uncle Harilaos, who, having declared his desire to kill himself on several occasions, takes his own life.

Society, it seems, is not set up to accommodate so naked an expression of needs and longings. If Kassandra is to survive, she must learn to disguise and smother her impulses and join in with fashioning the conversational cat’s cradles the adults spin over her head. She will gain her place in the world this way. But she will also lose something too.

Compelling, strange and savage, this is a rare example of how a book’s cover can reflect the contents within.

Kassandra and the Wolf by Margarita Karapanou, translated from the Greek by NC Germanacos (Clockrootbooks, 2009)