Fat Whitebelly Fish (chapter 1)


Chapter 1: Bangkok

(Follow this link, spend 99 cents, and have the pleasure of writing an anonymous review)

He was almost in tears, the plump little German tourist with the bumbag. He stood at an ATM on Bangkok’s Silom Road wearing green Bermuda shorts and a floral shirt, breathing the nighttime stink of traffic with his mouth open; people hurried by with handkerchiefs to their noses, cars and taxis idled with windows sealed tight against the noxious blue air, but nobody spared him a glance.

Perhaps they saw the two men with him, one on either side. Dressed in anonymous polo shirts and unironed slacks, they had cops written all over them.

The one on the right, the one with the handcuffs poking out of his pocket, was almost a dwarf. He held a deck of credit cards in the bowl of his hand, angling them to the light and frowning. He read the name off the top one and passed it to the man.

“Ok, this one first.”

The little man wiped his face with both hands, took a deep breath, and punched the keys. The ATM beeped and gave out a thick wad of notes. The cop took it and pushed the card back in with his thumb.


But the machine refused to give any more.

“He’s hit the limit.” The second policeman was taller and had the flat nose of a boxer and the melted face of a smallpox survivor, or perhaps an acid victim.

The dwarf pushed the second card in. “What’s the limit on this one?”

The little tourist’s Adam’s apple bobbing in the sweaty creases of his throat. “Five hundred.”

“Do it.”

Four times the machine gave them notes. When the last card was out the short cop counted the takings, machine-fast, counted again, then peeled three notes off and passed the rest to his companion.

The moonscape cop thrust the roll deep in his pocket. Then he struck the tourist in the face, hard, with his open palm.

The little man staggered backwards into the belly of the first cop, who pushed him off and brushed his paunch as if removing a stain. He stuffed the three notes into the pocket of the man’s floral shirt and then squeezed his cheeks painfully between finger and thumb.

“Where are you staying?”

A cheap hotel not far away, notorious for its lax guest register.

The cop gave him a push between the shoulder blades. “Go back to your hotel. Tomorrow morning go straight to the airport. We don’t care where you go after that, but don’t let us catch you back here.”

The little man’s lip quivered. He clasped the short cop in his arms. “Thank you, thank you!”

Thai Footprint

FootprintThai Footprint is the blog of Bangkok-based Kevin Cummings (link here). He describes it as being about “People, Things, Literature, Music and Henry Miller too.” Kevin cites a quote from Henry as the inspiration for the blog: “Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” Quite right – these days I find myself forgetting things all the time. I remember Henry, though – he was one of the giants of the two decades or so following World War II, an apostle of freedom and self-liberation. He used to hang out a lot with Larry Durrell, the brother of Gerald – Gerald (as in the hilarious My Family and Other Animals) became famous before his older brother, then the Alexandria Quartet started appearing, all Gothic sex and purple prose, leaving unwary readers perplexed. “It’s a book by that nice Mr Durrell,” one old lady explained at the local library. “I expect it’s about animals.” Kevin says this about himself:

I have split the last fourteen years between Thailand and a small beach community in Northern California. I like to read. I like to creatively consume. Here I display a great deal about the artists, poets, novelists, musicians, photographers and the occasional muse who create in Thailand and SEA. Gop, the very cool and relaxed frog in the coconut shell was drawn by the very talented, cool and relaxed author / cartoonist, Colin Cotterill, to whom I am very grateful. I’m not a writer but my articles have been published in a few places. In the long run, John Maynard Keynes is going to be right.

The sections in the blog are:

The Henry Miller section is a collection of quotes from the great man. He was great, too – a little overlooked today, unfortunately. My advice is to start with Gerald Durrell’s three books about his boyhood on Corfu in the 30s, then read Lawrence Durrell’s Spirit of Place. Then read Henry. There are Interviews with, among others, Chris Minko of Khmer Krom, and artist/photographer Chris Coles. And there are book reviews – lots and lots of them, of which I especially recommend his review of Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series.

Kevin’s blog is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in Southeast Asia.

Song for an Approaching Storm

SongSong for an Approaching Storm (link to Kindle here) came out in English on 13 March 2014, with a fair bit of fanfare. The author, Peter Fröberg Idling, has an article in the Guardian on 20 March listing his top ten recommended books on Cambodia – you don’t get invited to contribute to the Guardian without good reason.

Idling (I hope that’s the right way to deal with Swedish surnames) trained as a lawyer, and worked as legal advisor to an aid organization in Cambodia 2001-2003, revisiting in 2005 and in 2008. His first book was the non-fiction Pol Pot’s Smile (2006), about a Swedish delegation who visited Cambodia at the height of the KR genocide without seeing anything alarming. If you find that unbelievable, bear in mind the innumerable visitors to Hitler’s Germany pre-1939 and to Stalin’s Russia who also saw nothing.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Song:

Idling’s book is historical fiction with a twist that will leave you breathless. Its intriguing conceit is based on a real-life anecdote repeated by Pol Pot’s former mentor, Keng Vannsak: that Pol Pot’s relentless radicalisation came about partly as the result of a broken heart….

Working as a legal advisor in Cambodia at the time, Idling began to research the story in earnest, talking to former colleagues of Pol Pot and trying to track down Pol Pot’s former fiancee, Somaly—was she still alive? And what of her involvement, while she was engaged to Pol Pot, with deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary? A fascinating tale of a love triangle between the three began to emerge… the result was this spellbinding, shattering novel.

Which I guess is what a publisher would say about any book, but early reviews back it up: “a beautifully evocative and compulsive book,” says the Daily Mail reviewer; “Who would have thought I could read about Pol Pot in a sympathetic light?  But such is the power of this must-read novel.”

I’ve bought the book but haven’t had time to read it yet – when I do I’ll review it on Amazon and Good Reads. And by the way, if you, dear reader of this blog, like a book, please review it on those two – it’s good for the author’s fragile ego, and, better, for sales. (Alternatively, if you think  book has wasted precious hours of your limited life, you can say that too).

Before I start reading, I want to pick up a point Idling makes in his Guardian piece on the Ten Best Books on Cambodia:

One might look at my following selection and ask where the contemporary Cambodian novels are. The answer, sadly, is that the authors in Cambodia are marginalised and struggling – there aren’t even any publishing houses. Very little of their work is translated into English. Thus, there are many foreign authors in the following list. But good literature knows no nationality or borders.

I sort of agree, but also sort of don’t. It’s true that Cambodian authors are struggling, but authors struggle everywhere – novelists make their living in all sorts of ways, but rarely from royalties. If you want to know about contemporary Cambodian authors, read Walter Mason’s recent travel book, Destination Cambodia – Walter is exuberant, endlessly enthusiastic, and knows his Cambodian authors. There’s also Sue Guiney’s writing schools in Siem Reap, and I believe Christopher G. Moore is doing things with Cambodian writers following Phnom Penh Noir.

Song for an Approaching Storm, published by Pushkin Press (which is English, despite the name) is available on Kindle (thank God the publisher is being sensible about ebooks and not attempting to charge an arm and a leg in order to subsidise the paper version) and from Amazon and in tangible form from Monument Books. I recommend Monument – you get the chance to browse real books, there’s nothing quite like it.

Strongman Hun Sen

strongman Hun Sen

Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen, (Harish C. Mehta and Julie B. Mehta), published by Marshall Cavendish Editions in 2013.

I’m reviewing this because Hun Sen is so important to Cambodia, but I haven’t actually read it (I promise to do so in a month or two), so this will be a review of reviews.

Over on Goodreads, Khem Yuos panha says: “If you know much about Cambodia already, I guess you will find it funny.” That’s the complete review. Khem’s favourite books (Goodreads lets you list your favourite books) include Hayek’s “The Road To Serfdom”, David Chandler’s “History of Cambodia”, and Paul Collier’s “The Bottom Billion”.

Also on Goodreads is Julian Haigh. He says: “Terribly biased … poor writing … the only book on one of the world’s longest reigning leaders … not available from street vendors in Phnom Penh ….” Haigh also says, and I find this intriguing: “Getting to know his character and even insecurities from this book, provide a valuable understanding of the Cambodian situation.” So the book lays bare Hun Sen’s character and insecurities?

Over on Amazon, D. Jameson notes that this is a revised version of a book first published ten years ago. “The original version was not earth shattering but the revised one is a huge disappointment. I cannot see why anyone would want to read it, much less spend money to purchase it. For anyone looking to find relevant information on contemporary Cambodia and its leader this is a big let down.”

The Cambodia Daily reviewed it when it came out, under the headline “In Praise of a Strongman“. The reviewer says that Marshall Cavendish rushed the revision out to to be on sale for the September 2013 elections. “the book fails to present a thorough exploration of Cambodia’s ‘Strongman,’ offering instead an idealized portrait of the prime minister written by two enthusiastic fans.” From the passages quoted in the Daily, the book seems to be based on the sort of thing you’d expect from North Korea – just substitute Kim’s name: “Giving little thought to his personal comforts, Hun Sen worked through breaks. He would not eat dinner at a fixed time, refusing to leave office until all the papers had been read, discussed and signed.”

But this is not North Korea, and so senior statesman Hun Sen has the chance to explain politics to rookie president Barak Obama: ““A talented and experienced negotiator, Hun Sen explained to Obama the harsh realities of life in Cambodia.”

The Daily’s review has this line, which I much admire: “The Mehtas say in the book’s introduction that Mr. Hun Sen did not ask to see their manuscript prior to publication, which they were free to write as they saw fit. His trust in them was justified.”

The most thorough review is from an unnamed “correspondent” at Asia Sentinel: pretty much like the others, but he gives a few details that make me really want to read this book – like this, describing divine signs eminating from a tree on the birth of Hun Sen’s son and apparent successor-to-be, Hun Manet: “[T]he light from the tree, being only about 70 meters away, bathed their home in silvery bursts at the time when Bun Rany gave birth to Manet.” Read the whole review, it’s very good.

This, by the way, is Harish Mehta’s Wikipedia page: it seems he’s written some quite well-regarded works on the press in Cambodia. I wish he’d read this article from the Economist. But it seems we still await a truly useful biography of the man who, for good and ill, has shaped the Cambodia we see today.