In the Shadow of the Banyan

Early morning in Hanoi, Vietnam

The countries, culture and people of Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and the surrounding area interest me. Vietnam was the first country I travelled solo in and while I was there, in addition to the cultural immersion, I also enjoyed reading the works of two local authors, which I purchased from a street vendor, Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind, both of which are excellent.

We learn a little how they live, what they eat and how a soldier deals with the aftermath of war. These occasional books translated into English provide an important insight into real experiences and a way of thinking that cannot be portrayed by any other than those who were raised there. Their experiences often cause us to question our own perspective, our knowledge, and beseech us to see things from another point of view. It is a joy therefore to come across a publisher of who said:

When I came to S&S, I told everyone here I wanted to publish books that deepen the cultural conversation and take readers to places they couldn’t otherwise go. – Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster

This is certainly the case with Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, narrated from the perspective of 7-year-old Raami, a girl whose experiences reflect the author’s own, though she has chosen to fictionalise her story.

 It isn’t so much the story of the Khmer Rouge experience, of genocide, or even of loss and tragedy. What I wanted to articulate is something more universal, more indicative, I believe, of the human experience our struggle to hang onto life, our desire to live, even in the most awful circumstances. – Vaddey Ratner

Lest we forget, Hanoi, Vietnam

The daughter of royalty, although a failed, corrupt democracy ruled, she and her family were evicted by the revolutionary Khmer Rouge, a marginal guerrilla group – whose leaders were from the same intellectual class as Ratner’s well-educated father, however who held radical ideals to transform the social fabric by destroying traditional family, social and wealth connections and creating an experimental collective.

Their revolution took the form of putting the population into work camps in living conditions worse than peasants. Whether driven by fear, paranoia or disillusionment, they ruthlessly continued to seek out and judge people as the enemy, a definition that moved and changed like the current in the Mekong itself until through murder, disease or starvation scholars estimate that as many as a third of the population (1-2 million) died. The regime was finally overthrown by the Vietnamese military in January 1979.

Ratner tells the story of Raami, physically challenged from a polio defect which shortened one of her legs, her experience during the period of exile with her parents and sister, how she survived the extreme living and working conditions and what it taught her along the way. She remembers the stories and poems that her father shared with her and they continue to be a source of strength for her throughout her life.

“Do you know why I told you stories Raami?” he asked. I shook my head. I knew nothing, understood nothing.

“When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly.” His voice was calm, soothing, as if it were just another evening, another conversation.

“I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything – your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering.”

It is a humbling story and frightening to perceive, yet dealt with by Ratner in a way that allows us to acknowledge and attempt to understand something of the seemingly never-ending cycle of oppression, idealism, revolution and the dangers inherent when revolutionary intent is hijacked by power, destroyed by paranoia and becomes tyrannical, while preserving the few special moments that continue to pass between people despite the danger posed by their selfless acts.

Terrible as it is and damaged as they are, it is those who survive and who are still able to maintain some belief in the human spirit and humanity that bring one of the few gifts that such terror evokes. It is a price no person would ever wish to pay.

For all the loss and tragedy I have known, my life has taught me that the human spirit, like the lifted hands of the blind, will rise above chaos and destruction, as wings in flight.

The author has succeeded in taking this sad chapter in her country’s history and showing us some of its beauty and culture, sharing memories and thoughts that can never be erased and putting them into a new form, this literary work, which we are privileged for it to be shared in English.

In a sense it leaves us puzzled and perplexed, just as witnessed in Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, yet another tyrannical regime that loses its way to the detriment of its people. The stories can be shared and passed on, but they also represent a kind of grief for a way of life now lost to future generations.

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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31 thoughts on “In the Shadow of the Banyan

  1. Lovely story and sounds like an interesting read. The quote about why her father told her stories was especially touching. Having read about Mme Bovary all day who felt trapped by everything…makes me think of how people deal with entrapment.

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    • So true, the way this story is portrayed is sad yet uplifting. Madame Bovary reminds me of another book I just finished Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, she had much the same attitude as Bovary and wrote her diaries around the same time as Flaubert imagined his protagonist. Wretched they were, but unable to release themselves from it.

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  2. Thank you for a moving review of what sounds like a very moving book.
    The Kymer Rouge seem to be part of the 20th century’s tragic history with brutal dictators from Stalin, Hitler, Mao and the rest.

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    • Do, it’s something we can only benefit from becoming aware of, just as that haunting and beautiful film ‘The Lady’ shows of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, another daughter who saw tragic wresting of power and was silenced for so long. But what an inspiration she is.

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  3. That’s really cool that you have visited Vietnam! Although the book is set in Cambodia I bet your travels really helped you to imagine everything that was happening in the story so much more clearly than when I read it! Great review 🙂

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  4. >>Terrible as it is and damaged as they are, it is those who survive and who are still able to maintain some belief in the human spirit and humanity that bring one of the few gifts that such terror evokes. It is a price no person would ever wish to pay.<<

    So true, and on a scale of one, can vouch for the truth in this.

    Good post as always, Claire.

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  5. Lovely, moving, review, Claire. It is always humbling to see how people that have been touched by the greatest injustices and disgraces humans inflict upon each other, somehow rise about it all to appreciate the beauty of life.

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    • And so great that there exist those few who manage to humbly share their experience with the rest of the world, we who are all the better for having had our eyes opened and minds exposed to the toil and struggle of others. So much to be appreciative of.

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  6. Oooh! Thanks for this post, Claire. I had read about this book and am very curious to read it… so I was thrilled to read your excellent review. I reread ‘The Killing Fields’ when I was in Cambodia, and it was incredibly moving to read it in the country where such senseless violence occurred. I, too, love Cambodia and its culture, and I would love to see a story from that time told through the eyes of a young child. Can’t wait to read it!

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  7. Another convincing post to say I must add this on my must-read. I travelled to Vietnam twice, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city, and Siem Reap of Cambodia, unfortunately miss Pnomh Penh. I really miss that part of the world. Wonderful review Claire. You write reviews effortlessly. A book review that doesn’t read like a review. 🙂

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    • Thanks Jo, I just loved Hanoi and the North, they were calm and tranquil when I visited in the mid 90’s and the experience has forever stayed within me and often reappears in random writings.

      Thanks too for your comment on my reviews, I like to think of them as a conversation, more honest and less formulaic, as one is in when talking to like-minded friends about books.

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  8. I love all work Aminatta Forna since many years
    Already used many references it in my days of struggle.
    Anyway it is a beautiful and impressive history
    Thank you dear Claire!

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