Book review In The Shadow of Angkor

In the shadow of Angkor : contemporary writing from Cambodia / Frank Stewart, editor ; Sharon May, feature editor

The horror of what happened in Pol Pot’s Cambodia really hit me twice when I first visited in 2004. The first moment was in Siem Reap at Wat Thmei; the killing fields monastery on the northern outskirts of town. I had thought this was a regular monastery, with pagoda, and stupa commemorating the dead. But the glass faced stupa filled with human remains – skulls and bones – took my breath away. In the background children were running laughing and sailing their bicycles around the courtyard, oblivious perhaps of the tragedy that this place represented. It was only much later that I learned that Savong’s father had donated the land for this place, and that he himself – along with friends – had gathered the bones of those executed and lost the killing fields. When I first saw the stupa I broke into tears.

A week later I was in Phnom Penh, and I paid a visit to S 21, the public school that became home to a Khmer Rouge interrogation and torture centre. The prosaic grey public architecture, and the paintings depicting what occurred at S 21, combined with the rows and rows of photos; portraits of the victims, were both haunting and palpably upsetting.

To better understand what had occurred there, I began reading a lot of material about Cambodia’s past.

Among the most illuminating perspectives was this collection of essays, poems, short stories an scripts gathered by the University of Hawaii and published as an anthology in 2004.Recently I’ve been re-reading this anthology in part because I have more understanding of this complex little nation, and in part because I wanted to see how far Cambodia has travelled in the 10 years since this book was first published.

It is a collection put together to mark 25 years since the Khmer Rouge era ended. Included are an interesting mix of folk stories that predate the 1970s, works of Cambodian fiction, eyewitness accounts of life under the Khmer Rouge, poetry by the renowned poet U Sam Oeur, a documentary film script by Rithy Pan, rap lyrics by Cambodia’s first ever rap star, praCh, and an absorbing essay by academic Sharon May called A search for Cambodian Literature – which is an heroic account of the role of writers and artists who ensured that the threads Cambodian culture were not broken during the Holocaust.

Given the sheer diversity of material here, the book is not always an easy read. Different styles, different perspectives, different stories. Yet together the anthology still provides one of the better, more literary, overviews of life before during and since the harrowing Pol Pot era.

I particularly appreciate the interviews with Soth Polin, an author, (who was taught for a month by a popular, sweet-voiced teacher of French: Pol Pot) and the interview with U Sam Oeur and May’s essay because these pieces provide a narrative that arches over the war years – painting a rich story of the writers, singers and artists who were driven by the creative urge simply because they were born to create. I am moved by the story of the writer who penned a novel on scrap paper – all he could find in the post war years – and sold or lent this novel for a few riel at the markets: loose pages tied with string – but still a novel.

In 2014 Cambodia is becoming a thriving, highly commercialised nation, and the dominant generation is now a full generation away from the war. I think a lot of history is now being packaged, commoditised, sanitised – or simply forgotten.

In The Shadow of Angkor brings us back, face to face: the will to create in the face of terror.

  • In The Shadow of Angkor
  • edited by Frank Stewart and Donna May
  • University of Hawaii Press
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