The latest addition to my website is Oum Suphany‘s រោមតំណក់ទឹកភ្លៀង (Under the Drops of Falling Rain). This is a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman who lives through the Pol Pot regime and all the suffering that resulted. She is separated from her family when the Khmer Rouge suddenly start driving people out of Phnom Penh and never sees them again. (Suphany lost four of her six sisters and her parents.) During the course of the novel, her sister dies in hospital. She herself suffers from being used as slave labour and she is forced to marry a man five years her junior, whom she had never met before. Fortunately, he is a kind and decent man and they become attached, before he is sent off on patrol and never returns. As the Vietnamese take over and drive out the Khmer Rouge, she and others escape and face bombing, harassment by Khmer Rouge soldiers and difficulties in finding food. The book tells, in alternate chapters, the story of the Pol Pot days and the story of more recent times. The account of the earlier period is definitely grim and made more horrific because of its personal nature, while the account of the later period is less interesting, not least because things seem to be much better. Overall, it is a well-told story of a terrible period.
We have just returned from a holiday in Laos and Cambodia, finally seeing Angkor Wat. I have two novels from Cambodia on my site and two from Laos and, though I was given another Cambodian novel in English, it seems unlikely that many more will be added. Though the Khmer Empire was undoubtedly very literate in its heyday, that was a long time ago. Jayavarman VII will join Suppiluliumas of the Hittites as one of my favourite kings, not least because of their respective names but also because they seem to have both been great statesman. The Khmers certainly seem to have been highly literate as there are inscriptions carved on walls and stelae and most sites seem to have what are called Libraries (see left) where, apparently, they stored texts written on palm leaves. These have, of course, all disappeared but continued to be used by monks, though many were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.
The situation, today, however, is less promising. I asked our guide in Laos about Harry Potter and all he knew was the films. He was not aware that they came from books. (The books have not been translated into Lao but two have been translated into Khmer – ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង សិលាទេព and ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង បន្ទប់ សម្ងាត់, i.e. the first two). I saw relatively few libraries (apart from the ones at the ancient sites) or bookshops in either country and those that I did see tended to have predominantly books in English and other foreign languages. The books that they had in Lao or Khmer tended to be for foreigners learning the language or children’s or technical books. Moreover, unlike in other countries, I did not see people reading. The reasons are clear. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge entirely emptied Phnom Penh, a city of 2 million people. Not only did they kill two million people and destroy its infrastructure, they also destroyed the literary culture. Bookshops, publishers, libraries and writers all disappeared. They have not really reappeared. The US dropped over 3 million bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed country in the world ever. When bombs are raining down on you, writing books is not a top priority. The country remains a single party state, nominally Communist, though allowing private property and private enterprise. Literature does not seem to be a priority. Indeed, instead of reading, people in market stalls and cafés tended to crowd around television sets, watching what seemed to be appalling soap operas, many dubbed or subtitled and imported from China, Thailand or Vietnam, three countries which continue to have a considerable influence, not always benign, on the two countries. Sadly, it would seem that the literary life has been replaced by the modern, Western-style electronic media life.
The latest addition to my website is Rim Kin‘s សូផាត (Sophat), the first Cambodian novel published. It is a straightforward novel of love and loss. Sophat is born to an orphan woman, Soya, and her lover, the rich official, Suon. Suon abandons Soya when given an opportunity to return to Phnom Penh and while she is five months pregnant. He makes no further contact. Soya, on learning of his subsquent marrige to someone else, collapses and dies. Sophat is brought up an orphan and then transferred to a monastery. When he is twelve, he sets out for Phnom Penh to find his father and ends up in the household of the rich official, Athipadey Séna. He meets Athipadey Séna’s niece, Man Yan, and the pair fall in love but because of a misunderstanding, he leaves. The two are reunited, separated, reunited and again separated, with Kin leaving us guessing whether they will ever manage to stay together and whether Sophat will find his father. It is a simple novel but well done for a country’s first novel. Sadly, it is only available in French translation, not in English.
My current reading is novels from countries that have yet to appear on my website. Of the three I have read this past weekend, the Cambodian, Vaddey Ratner‘s In the Shadow of the Banyan, is by far the best. I came across it when doing some research for a family member who is going off to Cambodia (and who is now there). I own another Cambodian novel but it is in French, translated from the Cambodian. This novel was written in English and very good it is, too. It is a semi-autobiographical story about a girl who is seven when the novel starts. She is the descendant of a previous king. The story recounts what happens to her and her family (and many other Cambodians) when the Khmer Rouge take over. Much of it is inevitably unpleasant but Ratner writes really well and manages to show the inner strength she and her mother have which enables them to survive.
The Brunei and Maldives novels I found thanks to Ann Morgan’s superb blog A year of reading the world. She has managed to find novels in English from all sorts of exotic places with diligent research and gentle persuasion and I doubt if I would have found these two without her efforts. The Maldives novel, Abdullah Sadiq‘s Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu, is a recounting of a traditional Maldives legend, replete with magic, dreams, violence, sex, trickery and all the other features we associate with fables. It is also available on line for free, so there is no excuse for not reading it. There are other Maldives novels but they are in Dhivehi and have not been translated into any other language and, in any case, are very difficult to obtain outside the Maldives even if you could read Dhivehi.
Christopher Sun‘s book Four Kings s definitely the worst of the three. Indeed, were it not for the fact that it is the only novel in English from Brunei, it would not be here. As with the Maldives, there are other Brunei novels but only available in Malay. Sun’s novel is a not very good thriller in the The Da Vinci Code style, i.e. one involving religion. If you like that sort of thing, you may enjoy it but I cannot really recommend it unless, like me, you feel that you should have read a Brunei novel. More exotic (to me) countries to come.