Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cambodia: In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner

The standard disclaimer at the front of this book is rather at odds with the afterword. One states that the book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual people, events or locales, is entirely coincidental. In the other, we read "Raami's story, is in essence, my own". Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Her protagonist, Raami, is seven years old, and the events are told through her eyes, as her comfortable and privileged life in Phnomh Penh, in a family descended from Cambodian royalty, is forever lost. Forced into the countryside by the revolutionary soldiers, constantly moved from place to place, made to labour in the fields and on vast earthworks without the aid of machinery, she loses most of her family and descends into starvation.

However, this is not as depressing as it might be, as the story is told with poetic beauty. The old Cambodian folk legends and the poetry that her father has read to her comfort Raami, and she sees beauty in the world around her.

I did feel that the narrator's view seemed somewhat too sophisticated and abstract for a seven year old. I may be misjudging here, as this may just be the different world view of one brought up in a Buddhist tradition. None of this mattered in the end, however, as events unfolded towards their gripping end. The last couple of years are told in the shortest part of the book, as the days descend into a blurring monotony of sameness, an endless repetition of work, sleep, and very little to eat.

The author escaped with her mother and arrived in the United States at the age of eleven. I would have loved to read a book written by someone still living and writing in Cambodia - however, the vigorous extermination of "intellectuals" - anyone who could read or write - by the Khmer Rouge goes a long way to explain why those books might still be rather hard to find.

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