Ten days ago, our Battambang Book Club reflected on the novel “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner. We had an interesting and fruitful discussion on this Khmer novel in English about the tragedy that occurred in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975.
In a curious twist of fate, we realized that this novel is not well known in Cambodia but is appreciated more for its literary quality abroad. For example, the novel is not available in a cheap version at the Russian market in Phnom Penh unlike most other significant books on Cambodian history.
Perhaps the genre of historical fiction is not considered as reliable as autobiographical accounts in re-discovering historical truth. This issue has come up also in my blogs on “The Memory Stones” and on “Milkman”. In the “Shadow of the Banyan” is nonetheless a wonderful work of art for a number of reasons.
One reason is that it describes the evictions from Phnom Penh through the eyes of seven year old Raami, who has a physical disability in her leg but is blissfully content with her sheltered family life in Phnom Penh. Both the accounts of the Khmer family life in the city and cruel deportation to a beautiful countryside ring true. Raami’s father has communicated a love for Khmer legends and poems which then serve as the structure of meaning for Raami, while she tries to fathom what is happening to her and her family. Despite this disruption, the family and the structure of meaning continue to hold together until her father is brutally executed. Then both break down.
Raami has to learn how to survive, yet it is the rare family encounters which enable her to cling to hope. In the end, it is the fierce tiger love of her mother which saves her. Her uncle had died after he realized his powerlessness. Later Raami revisits the legends and poems but only her father’s works continue to inspire her then. It is as if the whole structure of meaning has been shattered by the experience. It is at least possible that her physical disability made her aware of the harsh side of life even while living in Phnom Penh so that later, she was able to understand how her mother was trying to save her.
Another reason is that the novel captures a curious “disconnect” that possibly functions in Cambodia to help people to survive by simply ignoring the suffering of others around them. For example, the description of family life in Phnom Penh is happy and simple but it is clear that the family is comfortable in financial terms. There is no hint of any concern or worry about the plight of the poor people either in the city or the countryside. This observation seems to be true of other similar autobiographical accounts of the period. The family is happy to live in a cocoon.
Later the family can stay together by looking after each other, which is what other families are doing. However there is no sense that families are actually helping other families whom they do not know. When her father is arrested and executed, there is no one ready to help or resist. Perhaps Prince Sihanouk created this image of a Cambodian paradise and middle-class families were content to live within it and perpetuate it.
A further reason why this novel seems worthy of serious reflection is that there is no happy reconciliation at the end. There is partial survival. That is all. The conflicts between Cambodians remain as do their fears regarding other their giant neighbours, the Vietnamese and the Thais.
In fact, I am left wondering if this psychological dynamic is particular to Cambodia or not. Once the Khmer nation is threatened, the primal reaction of Cambodian people seems to be, come together as one force, but once this threat lessens, the primal concern simply seems to revert to care of family members.
When I watched the Irish made documentary last year about the Khmer activists protesting land-grabbing by powerful Cambodians, “Cambodian Spring”, I was struck by how even the activist movement fragmented when the members quarreled over which family was receiving the most benefits. Nonetheless, I have also often been struck by the patience and tact of village leaders as they mediate disputes between villagers. I still have not figured this question of conflict mediation out. It remains a puzzle.