The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

The Last Gods of Indochine is a fascinating work of historical fiction, covering two periods of history in a dual narrative, whose links eventually become clear in a surprising and unsuspecting conclusion.

The dual narrative follows firstly the journey of a young woman recovering from her role as a volunteer in World War I, who decides in 1921 to leave England and follow in her French grandfather’s footsteps to Cambodia. Afflicted by strange dreams that seem to relate to the area she is visiting, she tries to unravel their mystery and some of the things written in her grandfather’s journals that don’t initially appear to make sense.

While Jacquie Mouhot is a fictional character, her inspiration Henri Mouhot is a real historical figure, the first French explorer to rediscover the lost city of Angkor (though it hadn’t been forgotten in the region) and the grand monuments, whose temples, carvings and structure would reveal much about life during the 800 years (802-1431 AD) that the Khmer Empire was at its heights.

In the second narrative we meet Paaku and his teenage friend in 1294 Angkor, just before the beginning of the decline of the vast Khmer Empire and civilisation, a disappearance that mystified historians for many years, how a city of over 1 million inhabitants could disappear, its monuments and infrastructure reclaimed by the jungle, covered over as if it was never there.

Henri Mouhot’s tomb – Photo from 1989 by J.M. Strobino

Even the gravestone memorial to the explorer Henri Mouhot was reclaimed by the jungle, pierced by the insistent roots of a tree, and forgotten for many years; in recent years a new path has been created to try to resurrect it as a visiting place for travellers.

Events change the destiny of these two young men, highlighting the beliefs and vulnerabilities inherent within the culture at the time, that may have contributed to its demise.

For more about my thoughts on the novel and to read the article I wrote on the Rise and Fall of the Khmer Empire, you can visit The Bookbrowse Review.

The Last Gods of Indochine was nominated for the The Man Booker Asian Literary Prize, an award that sadly, has also disappeared.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher for review at Bookbrowse.com

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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.