Death in the Rainy Season (Anna Jaquiery, MacMillan, 2015)

51vR6oZ3MGLAnna Jaquiery’s Death in the Rainy Season (the link is to her Amazon Kindle page) opens with a break-in in a quiet Phnom Penh street, followed by a murder. The victim of both is Hugo Quercy,  the brilliant and well-regarded head of an NGO called Kids at Risk. He’s also the nephew of the French Interior Minister, who is concerned there may be a scandal attached. The minister wants this settled as quickly and quietly as possible. Fortunately Police Commandant Serge Morel is holidaying in Cambodia, and so the Commandant, much against his wishes, is ordered to “assist” the local police, his task rendered no easier by his Cambodian opposite number’s apparent lack of interest in the case.

Without giving anything away, the list of suspects and motives Morel faces is huge: Quercy has been investigating local pedophiles, who might therefore have wanted to remove him; all is not well between Quercy and his wife; and Quercy has recently branched out into gathering evidence about land-grabbing, which could have earned him enemies in high places (and which would, of course, explain the unwillingness of the Cambodian police to take much interest in the case).  This is Anna’s second novel, following The Lying Down Room, which also featured the melancholic, paper-folding Morel. I asked Anna some questions by email.
  1. Anna, can you tell us a bit about yourself – your life seems to have been quite adventurous. Has it influenced your decision to write about exotic places?

There’s definitely a link there! My mother is French and my father is a Malaysian-Indian. He was a diplomat and we moved around a great deal – every three years or so. I grew up in Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, New Zealand and Russia. After I finished school (in Moscow), I moved to France for my university studies. I’ve worked as a journalist in a few places. We’ve been in Australia for seven years and are actually in the process of moving again, to New Zealand.

  1. What drew you to take Phnom Penh as the setting for “Death in the Rainy Season”? (I was very struck, incidentally, by the way you made the city real – the details are absolutely spot-on).

Thank you, I’m so glad you think so. I’m no expert on Cambodia. But I’ve always had an interest in its history. I lived in Phnom Penh as a child and we left in the early part of 1975, before the Khmer Rouge entered the city. I was too young to remember any of it, but I grew up with my parents’ nostalgia about the place. I’ve been there a few times and during my last visit two years ago, I made the most of every minute, absorbing what I saw – I walked around Phnom Penh for hours on end – and listening to the stories people told me about their experiences there. Phnom Penh has a special place in my heart and I wanted to bring it to life in my book.

  1. Serge Morel is not quite the conventional noir detective – as Angela Savage pointed out in her review, he drinks in moderation, doesn’t smoke, and is inclined to melancholy. He also has origami for his hobby, surely a fictional first.

It’s true I can’t think of any other detective who does origami in their spare time…! It wasn’t something I planned. As I developed Morel’s character, it eventually came to me that this would be something he’d be good at and would enjoy doing. It seemed to suit his character (as I see him). Origami, it seems to me, requires patience and precision, a predilection for solitude and introspection, as well as a poetic nature.

  1. It’s been said that the elements of story-telling are plot, character, setting and tone (I got the list from Tim Hallinan’s interview with Dana King) – would you agree? How do see them in your own writing?

Character comes first, without a doubt. Simply put, if readers feel invested in the characters in a story, they will want to know what happens next. When I give up on a book it’s usually because the characters seem lifeless or one-dimensional. Setting is also very important to me. P.D James once said it was what came first for her and it’s certainly one of the first things I think about when I start working on a new book. Generally speaking, I tend to start with a premise – a question – and the plot flows from that. Tone, or style, is something you develop over time, by writing and gradually finding your own voice.

  1. I gather you were quite meticulous in getting the pathology of your murder right (the state of poor Hugo’s skull certainly sounded convincing to me!) Death in the Rainy Season also touches on pedophile rings in Cambodia, land-grabbing, and the inner dynamics of the aid industry. Can you tell us a little about your research?

I spend quite a bit of time on research. With Death in the Rainy Season, I did a great deal of reading and talked to people who lived in Cambodia, including locals, academics and aid workers. I visited Phnom Penh and spent several days just walking everywhere, taking things in. I also keep in touch with people who are experts in their fields, whether it’s paper folding, policing or forensics.

  1. Who and what have been influences on your work? What writers do you admire most?

It’s an eclectic list. I have often said that two leading influences are Graham Greene and Anton Chekhov. I enjoy many authors of Indian origin (this may have something to do with my Malaysian-Indian background), including Salman Rushdie, Vikram Chandra, Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri. I admire writers like Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and Colm Tóibín. As far as crime fiction goes, I’m a big fan of Denise Mina’s books. Aside from hers, recent crime novels I’ve also loved include Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road, Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night and Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home.

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Human sacrifice

Screen Shot 2015-05-22 at 4.37.01 PMSacrificial backpacker-maiden, Vat Phu, from loupiot.com

The earliest evidence of human sacrifice among the Khmers might be this stone crocodile at Vat Phu Champasak. Today it’s in Laos, but it’s a Khmer temple dating from the 5th century, the very dawn of the Khmer kingdom.  (The current temple is from the 11th/13th centuries – more on Wikipedia).

image-4Crocodiles keep turning up. Every time a funeral is held a white flag is flown nearby. According to legend the custom commemorates a magical crocodile who ate a princess. The king killed the croc and hung his hide up at the place where his daughter’s ashes were enshrined, which was the start of the custom. After a while crocs became too difficult to find, and so the flag is now used instead. This relates to human sacrifice because the princess’s hundred handmaidens were supposedly buried under the hundred columns of the temple  (this post has slightly different details, and mentions sacrifices for bridges).

There’s a pretty well documented report of a royally-sponsored human sacrifice at Ba Phnom, a sacred mountain near Phnom Penh, in 1877 (a prisoner taken at the end of a brief insurrection, but not simply executed, as there were strong religious overtones). A neak ta (local spirit) called Neak Ta Krol was receiving sacrifices as recently as 1904 – I got the little I have on that from an encyclopedia called Asian Mythologies, entry on Cambodian earth deities by Solange Thierry, who’s a highly reliable source, but no idea where it ultimately comes from – shocked French administrators putting a stop to it, perhaps? Someone should ask them about the symbolism of the Eucharist – at least the Cambodians weren’t eating the victims.

bchruoychangvabridgeJapanese Bridge destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, 1973. From Getty images, entirely without permission.

Much more recently, there were rumours in the early 1970s that the government authorities were kidnapping children and burying them under the Japanese Friendship Bridge, which connects Phnom Penh to the north. The idea was that the spirits of the sacrificed children would protect the bridge from the Khmer Rouge.  The story is in the Phnom Penh Post. The person telling the story says he didn’t believe it at the time – but interesting that such a rumour should even be circulating.

6214-773181Seima stone showing the earth-goddess Torani (pronounced torr-nee). This stone is flat-faced, but the stone buried in the pits around the shrine hall is spherical. From Andy’s Cambodia.

And then of course there’s human sacrifice and monastic boundaries. When a monastery is being established or re-established, the shrine hall has to be marked off from the secular world. Eight sacred stones, called seima, are buried in pits at the eight compass points and half-points (north, south, etc). A ninth stone is buried at the centre of this space, directly in front of the main Buddha image – this one represents the god Indra, king of Meru and the gods (because good Buddhists do believe in Hindu gods). Nowadays these stones are just stones, albeit holy ones, but they are the size and shape of a human head.

thuggee-from-indiana-jones

If you’d like to learn more about human sacrifice around the world, with a focus on Europe and the British Isles, I recommend the blog which calls itself Bizarre History. In fact I recommend that blog for everything.

Gay in Cambodia

pride-week_charlotte-pert

Article in the PPPost: Discrimination a Fact of LGBTI Life. I had to think about the alphabet soup – Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transexual, and I still don’t know what the I means. But the message is clear: Cambodian society is traditionally homophobic.

The Post’s article is the usual depressing catalogue of life: tell your parents you’re coming out and you’ll get beat up and disowned. And maybe you’ll get told it’s a phase and you should marry and get over it. Yeah, sure, why not make two people unhappy for the price of one prejudice. More than two, since there’ll probably be children.

I did an interview with a gay Cambodian boy because I was interested in whether he saw his gay-ness as a reincarnation issue. Sort answer: he didn’t. For that matter, “gay” is a Western category – a pretty modern one, since in living memory Yeats could write about his old crones whose glittering eyes were gay and not raise titters. What’s the Khmer? I still don’t know. Back to the coalface.

Before moving on to the interview, the reason I’m coming to this is that I have a young relative, all of 13 years old, who is obviously gay – his body language, his interests, his personality. The kid is only 13 for Christ’s sake! Can’t he be allowed to grow up and be himself? His sexuality is not his defining feature. For that matter, who has sexuality as their defining feature? Is David Cameron defined as a well-known heterosexual? Is Vladimir Putin the heterosexual leader of Russia? Leave this kid alone!

Back to the interview: the boy was in his early 20s, grew up in a village, came to Phnom Penh, enrolled at Royal University of Phnom Penh. At this point he didn’t know he was gay (he was speaking Khmer so I don’t what word he used). Met another boy who was very flamboyant, they became best friends, and he realised he also was gay. At 20+? Now works with his sister in her fashion boutique. A very unhappy young man. I asked him if anyone in his family said he must have been a woman in a previous life. Answer: no. No particular explanation, in karmic terms. But: “I wish I could be one or the other in my next life, not half and half.”

Our treatment of difference is one of the worst of our inhumanities.

Neak ta: Preah Ang Chek, Preah Ang Chorm and General Dap Chhuon

neang chek and neang chom, famous boramey from Siem Reap_DSF6160

Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm

A neak ta is a guardian spirit. Some of them guard a patch of forest, others become domesticated and guard a village (every village has its neak ta), and some go on to greater things and guard cities and provinces. Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm are the neak ta of Siem Reap – their shrine is by the river and near the Royal Palace.

An article in the Siem Reap Post has background: the two were discovered at Angkor Wat in 1950 and later kidnapped by a local warlord named Dap Chhuon. This man was a fascinating figure – see here – he pretty much ran the northwest and sounds rather like Mr Burns from The Simpsons, “cadaverously thin with unblinking, deep-set eyes.”

The CIA thought he might be a good candidate to replace Sihanouk, but Sihanouk got to him first and he died in not-very-mysterious circumstances in 1959. (According to an official announcement at the time he died “of injuries” while assisting Sihanouk’s men with their inquiries). “One of Chhuon’s brothers, Kem Srey, was closely associated with him in his political activities and another brother, Kem Penh, was an international arms dealer.” Sounds like your average CIA plot all right.

Nor_chantaraingsey_Dap_Chhuon

Dap Chhuon surrenders to Sihanouk, 1953; by 1959 he was history.
Time Magazine from KI Media

When the pair returned they determined never to leave the shrine again, and when the Khmer Rouge tried to remove them they made themselves too heavy to lift or move. Today the shrine is constantly busy, and especially popular with newly married couples

chek-chorm01

Shrine of Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm

What are the statues made of? The Phnom Penh Post quite casually calls them “golden” – their colour is black, so is it saying they’re made of gold? Certainly they’re very heavy – 150 kg according to the Post, though Dap Chhuon had superhuman strength and could carry one on each shoulder. The Post continues, quoting a local official:

[A]ccording to Sem Tap, … “Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm contained great magic, to help protect Dap Chhoun from his enemies,” … “Dap Chhoun could foresee that the king would like to kill him.” Tipped off about [the] impending arrival [of Sihanouk’s troops], Dap Chuuon made plans to flee to the Thai border and attempted to take the statues with him.

“He swooped into his camp and tried to take those sacred statues with him, however he could not carry Preah Ang Chek and Preah Ang Chorm on his shoulders as he could before. The statues grew heavier by the second until they reached such a weight that Dap Chhoun was unable to move them.”

With his powers gone, and insufficient men to transport the Buddhas, Dap Chhoun was reduced to breaking off five fingers from the right hand of the Preah Ang Chek statue and fleeing to his farm at Tbeang Kert, enroute to the Thai border. It was here that Dap Chhuon, accompanied by his wife, was cornered by Sihanouk’s soldiers.

They’re on You Tube:

The third monk’s tale

monastery cat_DSF4805(This is the third monk’s tale because there are two more before it – it’s an extract from my forthcoming book Buddha and Naga, which is sort-of due out in October this year).

Wat Koh on Monivong Boulevard is one of the oldest monasteries in Phnom Penh. Founded by King Ponhea Yat in the early 15th century, it was destroyed in the 1970s and rebuilt in the 1990s. Its claim to fame is that the abbot has made it a refuge for stray and abandoned house pets. This is entirely in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching of compassion for all living creatures, but I know of no other monastery that does it. Wat Koh has an even more notable eccentricity: the monks are forbidden to go out on the alms rounds in the morning, and the laypeople have to come to them instead.

Reach Kim Sam is a monk at Wat Koh and a graduate of Buddhist High School, which means that he is proficient in both Pali, which he began learning in Buddhist primary school, and Sanskrit. His studies covered both grammar and scripture and took up five hours a day, two in the morning and three in the afternoon.

Vipassana, he says, is not meditation, as it is carried out under the guidance of a teacher; true meditation is done in solitude to calm the mind and reflect on what has been done during the day, and to discover whether one’s actions have been positive or negative.

The aim of the monastic life is to escape dukkha (see page XX). Every human experiences dukkha because in life we meet problems, and these are dukkha. Sickness is dukkha, old age is dukkha, bereavement is dukkha, death is dukkha. Even those things we think are not dukkha, contain it. A couple who marry and have children will have happiness, but they will also have unhappiness, because every act contains dukkha in some measure. This was the beginning of the Buddha’s insight into the nature of reality.

Yet despite this we should not refrain from action. Consider the man who sees a child in trouble in the river. The child calls out for help. The man can swim and could save the child, even though he knows that doing so will lead to dukkha. Can the man do nothing? No, because doing nothing is also action. He must save the child, because not to do so would be a lack of humanity. Perhaps the child has rescued the man in a previous life, so rescuing the child will be a return of merit for the one who once saved his life.

People are born with the kamm (negative energy) they have accumulated over the sum of their previous lives. Bap is what they add to it in this life. If a thief steals and is arrested, that is bap. If the thief is not arrested it is because he has accumulated bonn (merit) in previous lives, but eventually, if he continues to do evil, his bap will come to outweigh his bonn.

A monk is not selfish. He is motivated by compassion, just as was the Buddha. This compassion is exercised primarily on behalf of humans, but not solely, for animals are also living beings. The abbot’s concern for animals comes from his understanding of the Buddha’s teachings regarding compassion.

It was the abbot who decided that the monks of Wat Koh should not go out into the streets in the mornings to gather alms. He did this because many monks in the city collect alms at places where monks should not be seen, such as markets and beer-gardens, and even massage parlours. In crowded residential streets they enter apartment buildings where women dry their underwear, and at restaurants they stand outside in a manner that approaches moral blackmail. For this reason the abbot decided that laypeople who wish to support the monks of Wat Koh should bring their donations to the monastery, alowing them to gain merit while protecting the morality of the monks and the reputation of the Sangha.