Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether real, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.
This great novel is set during the takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the immediate horrific, unbelievable aftermath. I was an idealistic teenager at the time and I first heard about what was happening there in a Readers Digest Condensed Book of Cambodia Year Zero. It seemed that no one outside knew (or cared?) what was happening there at the time, indeed it seems as if most of the world didn’t become aware until years afterwards, perhaps from Christopher Koch’s book The Killing Fields and the subsequent movie. I felt like screaming to the world, “Why don’t you care? Why don’t you DO something?!” Of course there was nothing I could do, maybe nothing anyone could do, until the horror was finished by a Vietnamese invasion – for which they received no thanks, since everyone (not least the Cambodians themselves) suspected them of a colonisation exercise, and perhaps that is what it might have become. But even if they were only swapping one Communist regime for another (and a foreign one at that), surely it was better than the KR which murdered perhaps a third of the total population, totally emptied the cities, and tried to drag the country responsible for the glories of Angkor back to some barbaric agricultural pre-civilisation.
In this novel, the background and experiences of the heroine are very similar to those of the author. She is deprived of her privileged childhood, with one exception: the love of story-telling that she receives from her father. One constant theme in the book is this importance of telling stories. This is one reason why, despite the horrific historical setting, the story is not not 100% negative; there is still beauty to be found as well. The natural world is important, and its symbolism pervades the story.
I realised, or was reminded (as I should know) that life is a lottery. Of those sent from the city, some are lucky with the country folk they are sent to live with and with their new life, others meet tragic ends.
Like Cambodia itself, the heroine Raami survives impossible odds to survive. It turns out that survival depends on what is inside yourself.
Sadly, there is not much true idealism left in the world. It was given a bad name by fanatics such as the KR in Cambodia, the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis and so many others in relatively recent times. Mostly, what is left is cynicism. What the world needs is renewed idealism ALONG WITH humanity and tolerance.
RATTNER, Vaddey (1970 – ), In the Shadow of the Banyan, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4516-5771-5
Ambahy – Night which tears and lacerates itself at the dawn of lucidities, on some eyelids that close to dreams. It gently pours me into the cold shadow which opens naked on the stones. The sun strips the world and, from modesty, the wind blows in the sands, blinding the eyes. I resume my steps and rush them ceaselessly on in all my wanderings. How slow the shadow is in reaching us… I am already only a dream, a stroke from the times that fray in fantasies. To drift in the shadows that stretch and lengthen.I stumble my breath on stones that obstruct my lungs – spit! Spit!, I stumble my steps on the beach still pregnant with darkness.
Blood, my blood on the black sand.
Madagascar is where I would have been at the moment – sadly I had to postpone my holiday there until next year due to an outbreak of the plague there! All my best wishes for the safety of everyone there. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a fascination with Madagascar and have wanted to go there. Travelling there via literature proved even more difficult; at the time I started this reading program there were apparently NO novels translated into English. I finally settled on Nour, 1947 by Raharimanana, which was written in French (and HAS been translated into Spanish as Nur, 1947).
This novel is a poetic, mythologised history of the Great Red Island. It is very obvious that the author (who now lives in France) is also a poet, and very often the language is more poetry than prose, though not written in verse, so heavy is the imagery and it can be not easy to tease out the tale. Magic, mythology and history co-inhabit the story. Much of it reads like a dream (sometimes a nightmare).
The title refers to the abortive revolt of 1947 against the French colonialists. Nour is a heroine figure, who meets a tragic end when she is shot by the French, and who was loved by a WWII rifleman. It is a multiple text. Interspersed with the poetic history of the island, the story of Nour and Dziny and the bloodied revolt are diary entries from befuddled missionaries trying to civilise the ‘natives’ in the previous century.
I think of Madagascar as largely peaceful and unified, but that must be a misreading of its history. Going by this story, the red soil must be soaked with blood from inter-tribal struggles (ultimately to unify the island) and the fight against colonialism. While it is part of what is obviously a big African tradition of anticolonial.writing, Raharimanana does not spare his own countrymen either. It is tragic, violent, sometimes gory, and pessimistic. But its language and imagery are overpowering.
Raharimanana (1967 – ), Nour, 1947, Dijon, Motifs, 2008, ISBN 2-84261-403-8
The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.
So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.
HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)
“A thin blue vein pulsed in the collecting pool of blood where a bullet had lodged deep in the boy’s back. Hailu was sweating under the heat from the bright operating room lights. There was pressure behind his eyes. He leaned his head to one side and a nurse’s ready hand wiped sweat from his brow. He looked back at his scalpel, the shimmering blood and torn tissues, and tried to imagine the fervor that had led this boy to believe he was stronger than Emperor Haile Selassie’s highly trained police.”
So begins this fiery tale set at the time of the overthrow of the regime of Ethiopia’s last king. The central character, the surgeon Hailu, is dragged unwillingly into it despite his best efforts to keep out, while his sons split, one of them attracted to the resistance that was to become the socialist Derg dictatorship. The descriptions of inhumanity, violence and torture perpetuated in its name are quite confronting. The characters, especially Hailu, are torn between loyalties and courses of action. At the outset he is forced to make a wrenching decision for what he hopes is the best interest of his patient, the victim of terrible torture. There are no apologies for the hated old emperor (yes, the one revered by Rastafarians), but the new dictatorship is worse. Perhaps we should have learnt by now that we can’t expect a bloody revolution to be better than what it replaces. Since we haven’t, this stunning book about what may seem old history is fully relevant today.
MENGISTE, Maaza (1974 – ), Beneath the lion’s gaze: a novel, Norton, New York/London, 2010, ISBN 978-0-393-33888-1