Steven W. Palmer’s “Angkor Away” comes out just as the Kampot Readers and Writers Festival is about to put Cambodia on the literary map, so now is a good moment to review how Cambodia looks in English-language fiction.
Angkor Away sits firmly in the Asian noir tradition a literary ‘movement’ founded in the mid-1980s. In the early 1990s, Christopher G. Moore, a Canadian and former law professor, and now a resident of Bangkok and full-time writer started the Vince Calvino series, and in 1994 he brought out Zero Hour in Phnom Penh (there have been several editions and revisions since, and even a name change – the second edition was called Cut Out, before reverting to the original title). In this novel, and his Thailand ones, Moore set the parameters of the Asian noir world, one where law is meaningless and power lies with the rich and ruthless. The other elements associated with Asian noir – sex, drugs, bars, disappearances and so on – are merely local colour for a world-view that can be traced right back to Dashiel Hammet.
Angkor Away ticks all the Asian noir boxes. The hero is a young Englishman named Paul Johnston, who has made a small fortune in drugs in Chiang Mai. The local big man tells him to hand over the keys to the lab, and Paul moves to Cambodia and takes up more or less where he left off, though with a twist.
There’s a reasonable amount of violence, including an unexpected and very gory murder, a paramilitary operation or two, and a little torture. If you’re squeamish don’t read it, but the level of violence is actually rather lower than in most Shakespeare tragedies, which typically leave the stage littered with corpse-kebabs as the curtains come down.
Many others have followed in Moore’s footsteps – some high end, some low. At the high end we have to mention Lawrence Osborne’s recent novel Hunters in the Dark. Lawrence is a serious writer; he gets reviewed in the Guardian and the New York Times and such. There’s no doubt that he’s a good writer. His plots are well structured, his characters are rounded, his dialogue is purposeful (meaning not an excuse for info-dumping) and his prose fluent. Which makes me a little self-conscious about admitting that I found reading Hunters in the Dark rather disconcerting, like wearing glasses with the wrong prescription – like, a trip from Kampuchea Krom Boulevard to BKK1 that leads through Wat Phnom? I preferred his Moroccan novel The Forgiven which I rank as much superior – the genuine Paul Bowles experience.
At the other end of the scale lies that area where Asian noir meets Asian pulp. There’s nothing wrong with pulp; it’s a genre, like noir, and has its own rules and readership. The bar, however, is set lower. Nobody expects insights into the human condition from pulp. They expect a good read. Remember that, and you can enjoy novels like Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money and Tom Vater’s Cambodian Book of the Dead.
Not quite so enjoyable are the far-too-many self-published works: Nette and Vater are properly published by commercial publishers, which means, at the very least, that someone thinks they’re good enough to risk spending significant money on. Capitalism has a way of filtering out the worthwhile from the wannabes.
Angkor Away fits into the pulp end of the spectrum, which means that the emphasis is on narrative. Things happen. As an aside, I’d recommend anyone thinking of writing their own pulp fiction to read Stephen Leather and J.A. Konrath, both masters of narrative – which is not quite the same thing as plot. Plot is the overarching storyline, and very important, but narrative is the up-close work of moving the story along from page to page, paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence. Konrath, by the way, has sold over 3 million books and runs a great blog where he tells you how he does it.
Not all current Cambodia fiction is noir, far from it. One of the very best books with a local setting is Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia (think Dead Kennedys), a collection of short stories that, for my money, has no close competitor. It is, however, “art” literature, and may be a bit obscure if you like your plots to wrap up neatly. (Or as my mother used to say, “It’s not really about anything” – which was practically everything on TV).
This naturally brings us to Pol Pot’s Beautiful Daughter, which is a novella by Geoff Ryman. Ryman is another major Cambodia author, whose other works include The King’s Last Song (Angkor at the time of Jayavarman VII). I should also mention Madeleine Thein’s Dogs at the Perimeter, which the Economist placed among the best of Indo-China fiction of the last ten years (but to be honest I’m starting to feel I may have read all I need about the Khmer Rouge, and then some – Angkor Away doesn’t even mention Pol Pot, thank God).
So now I’ve reached 900 words and could keep on going but must wrap up. Just two favourites before I do so: Andy Hill’s Scent of Rumduol, because it focuses on Khmer characters without a white face in sight, and Johan Smits’ Phnom Penh Express, because it’s funny, and comic crime fiction is the polar opposite of noir, and because Cambodia is not, to be honest, all that black.
The Kampot litfest will be held 5-8 November and has a Facebook page:
Most of these books are available at Monument Books in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap; many, but not all, are on Kindle: