Dark shadows to the east
An anthology of short stories finds Cambodian literature blooming anew with help from Thailand’s expat noir talent
ON REVIEWING the stories submitted for “Mekong Shadows”, the anthology of contemporary writing about Cambodia that he was assembling, Iain Donnelly realised he’d better let a little light into what had been conceptualised as a “noir” collection.
The reasoning had been that Cambodia, with its horrific modern history, could easily match the kind of noir literature that’s found a firm base in Thailand.
But not all of the authors contributing to “Mekong Shadows” – just released on Thursday in paperback and digitally – were giving him noir. In fact, there’s an overt optimism and hopefulness in some of the entries.
As well, all profits from the book’s sales are going to a very cheery cause – the Khmer Sight Foundation, which arranges operations to remove cataracts, the leading cause of blindness in Cambodia. Donnelly reckons that for every eight to 10 copies of the anthology sold, someone gets their vision back.
He and Mark “Bibby” Jackson, publisher of AsiaLife magazine’s local edition, also organised a competition for young Cambodians aspiring to become writers. The two winners whose quite capable pieces are featured in the book are only 15 and 18 years old. Donnelly next plans to assemble two anthologies of just Cambodian writing – one in English and the other in Khmer.
So “Mekong Shadows” didn’t turn out quite as intended, as a follow-up to “Phnom Penh Noir”, the anthology that Christopher G Moore curated in 2012. Nevertheless, there’s noir in the “Shadows” of the title and claustrophobic gloom runs through the bulk of the stories like that broad pan-Asian river in moonlight.
Several of the writers use as an effective setting the Heart of Darkness, the popular Phnom Penh nightspot, tapping the unease and discomfort of Joseph Conrad’s short novel. The Khmer Rouge, when not menacingly close, are rarely far away.
While Bangkok-based Moore, who’s only just made his peace with Cambodia in “A Memory Manifesto”, reviewed here last month, isn’t among the authors in “Mekong Shadows”, other writers well known in Thailand and well versed in Cambodia are in their element here.
James Newman (“Fun City Punch”) delivers one of his signature short, sharp shocks early on in the proceedings with “La Petite Mort”, in which Sartre’s definition of an orgasm is co-opted to signify a state of wilful amnesia. It’s private eye Joe Dylan on the case in a tale of vengeance couched in staccato 1940s-style tough-guy prose.
Jim Algie offers “The Genocide Boys and Girls”, the entire second novella from his excellent double-feature “On the Night Joey Ramone Died” that came out last December. This is the part with the femme fatale who’s keen on terrifying images, like those infamous Khmer Rouge mugshots.
John Fengler, arguably the best writer in Southeast Asia who still hasn’t published a book (despite incessant prodding by friends), contributes another of his classic reminiscences in “Stamp of Approval”, about a chance meeting at the airport on the way into Cambodia and an unnerving glitch trying to get out.
Scotsman Iain Donnelly has mustered a riveting collection of stories set in Cambodia, many from Bangkok-based writers keen to swap Sukhumvit Road for Norodom Boulevard and the Chao Phraya for the Tonle Sap.
In “Two for the Road”, T Hunt Locke, author of a slew of thrillers including last year’s “Repent: A Bangkok Murder Mystery”, doses the reader in complacency with a cosy amble through diary notes on a trek to the Kampot Literary Festival – and then sets off a bomb.
Matt Carrell (“Thai Kiss”, “Vortex”, “Blood Brothers, Thai Style”) pays a visit, shocking despite its brevity, to “The Hill of Poisonous Trees” – the English translation for Tuol Sleng, which became the Khmer Rouge’s main prison, S21, in a tightly wound profile of the crippled math teacher who photographed the doomed.
In “Happy Ending”, John Burdett – one of most successful authors writing Southeast Asia-based fiction (“Bangkok 8”, “Bangkok Asset” and others featuring Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep) – chronicles in just a few pages an endearing romance that spans 40 years, four nations and centuries of faith.
From Chiang Mai, travel writer-poet-photographer Alasdair McLeod offers several quick, poignant snapshots from under “A Low Sun”, where a Cambodian has been assigned to show Russian and Chinese investors a future casino site, but her hospitable smiles keep vanishing abruptly.
In the knife-edged “Snow”, John Daysh (“Cut Out the Middleman”, “Like a Moth to a Flame”) is in Shanghai with “a Chinese guy tied up in my bathtub” and a Khmer girlfriend who’s turned him into a killer.
Among the writers more attuned to Cambodia than Thailand, Chad (aka Cead) Evans gets off to a wonderfully lyrical start in “The Tuk-Tukker of Doom”, set in Seam Reap: “Invisible tailorbirds and bee-eaters rustled and chattered. Geckos clicked goodbye and retired up the wall for the day.”
But his protagonist, a cultural historian, is soon in trouble with an evil monk and will need his tuk-tuk driver to rescue him from “la nuit au Cambodge”, a very noir place to be.
Both Donnelly and Mark Jackson are represented, the latter with “Sleeping Beauty”, whose main character wakes up in bed with a babe and a black eye. His gradually reconstituting memories of the previous evening careen to a shocking conclusion.
Donnelly is here in his author incarnation as Steven W Palmer (“Angkor Cloth” and the forthcoming “Bangkok Drowning”). His grim, moralistic story “Oun Srolanh Bong (Girl Loves Boy)” is an emotional roller-coaster ride in which “love” is not necessarily the operative word.
In other yarns, Kampot-based Bob Couttie (“Temple of the Leper King”) explains what “Swing the Cat” means in mariners’ terminology, former humanitarian worker Yulia Khouri describes not one “Woman” but three in the moving poem that opens the book, Kosal Khiev recalls in prose and rhyme what “Returning” to Cambodia was like for him, and former UN translator Ek Madra distils his treatise “The Factors Contributing to Cambodia’s Civil War” into an informative fairy tale of love in the jungle.
Winning the award for scariest story in the collection is Phillip Coggan’s “The Dark Son”, about an ex-Khmer Rouge cadre whose mystical “power to dare” abandons him.
The most bizarre tale is “Shifting Fortunes”, the lengthy but slick end-piece by former Phnom Penh Post writer Joel Quenby, which fictionalises articles he wrote for the newspaper about real people and closes with a gunshot at (where else) the Heart of Darkness.
The anthology’s best episode, hands down, is actually a long excerpt from “The Cambodian Book of the Dead”, a taut and disturbing novel by Tom Vater (“Sacred Skin – Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos”). Rippling with clever wordplay, it’s a very dark reading indeed of Phnom Penh. Vater evokes “the smell of the tropics, saturated with reincarnation and ruin, this hypnotising combination of extremes, of promise and danger, of temptation and failure”.
As for the two young ladies making their published debut as writers, the calibre of their stories is utterly impressive given their youth, their forays into a second language and the fact that the Khmer Rouge not long ago attempted to drain the country of its intellectual sustenance.
“Little Girl and the Hat” by Vornsar Ses, the 15-year-old runner-up, and “Raindrops” by Voleak Phan, age 18, both involve children, as might be expected, but the points of view, pacing and dramatic flourishes are as grown-up as the stark circumstances demand.
Mekong Shadows: Tales from Cambodia
Edited by Iain Donnelly
Published by Saraswati Publishing, 2017
Available at Amazon.com, Kindle US$6.99 (Bt233)