Lord Jim at Angkor

peter+essaie+2.jpg“Lord Jim is a silly book; it reads like a story in Boys’ Own” – Graham Greene.

Joseph Conrad wrote : “If you want to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. But what storm can fully reveal the heart of a man ? Between Suez and the China Sea are many nameless men who prefer to live and die unknown. This is the story of one such man. Among the great gallery of rogues and heroes thrown up on the beaches and ports, no man was more respected or more damned than … Lord Jim”.

P15.jpgPeter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia (no one does dying duck in a thunderstorm better), came to Cambodia to make the movie version. The year was 1964. Screenwriter/director Richard Brooks had bought the rights for $6500 in 1958, and was in love with the story. You know how it goes – Jim, English mate on a merchantman carrying Asian pilgrims on the Haj to Mecca, disgraces himself and so must seek redemption through death in the wild Malay islands.

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Peter O’Toole with Dahlia Lavi

What’s Angkor doing in Malaya? Never mind, this is Hollywood. Cast and crew stayed at the Auberge Royale des Temples, built in 1909 in front of Angkor Wat where today the tourist busses and tuk-tuks park. Brooks spent well over half a million dollars building new air-conditioned rooms. “That hotel!” raged O’Toole in an interview afterwards. “More expensive than Claridge’s! Ten flaming quid a night [$28] and a poxy room at that. Nicest thing you could say about the food was that it was grotesque.”

The stars included James Mason (“Lolita”) and the Kurt Jürgens (“The Spy Who Loved Me”). The heroine was Dalia Lavi, just 16 – she got into the movie business through Kirk Douglas, who spotted her in the street when she was ten and offered to adopt her and take her off to live with him. Her parents declined, but he gave them a generous donation that allowed her to study ballet in Sweden. Director of cinematography, Freddie Young, the cinematographer on “Lawrence of Arabia”, shot scenes in the Bayon temple and Preah Khan (the HQ of the movie villains), at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and in the surrounding jungles and rivers. And from the look of this very atmospheric still, on the moat at Angkor.

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The temperatures were over 40º Celsius and there were no bars or good restaurants in Siem Reap, Pub Street being still a muddy alleyway (as indeed it still was when I first visited in 2001 – how time flies), but there were lizards and bats and mosquitoes, and dysentery and heat-rash, and snakes hanging from the branches of the trees. One of the crew members was bitten by a cobra and died. The local cops were unpleasant and the officials expected bribes.

There was also Prince Sihanouk, growing ever more anti-American over US support for anti-Sihanoukist rebels. Spontaneous demonstrations were scheduled in Phnom Penh for the second week of March 1964, and a mysterious Frenchman advised the movie-makers to get out early. Brooks rushed the project through, shooting 18 hours a day, and left just before 10,000 people marched through the streets of Phnom Penh shouting the usual slogans and attacking the US and British embassies. Sihanouk himself denounced the recently-departed film-makers as capitalist invaders. As a royal spokesperson later explained:

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For a film producer, even one of real talent, what is Cambodia? The ruins of Angkor… and that is all. So, a run-of-the-mill script is hurriedly written, one or two flashy stars are hired, one adds a mixture of eroticism and violence, advance promotion dwells on the same hold hackneyed themes (…scorpions lurking in boots… the poverty of the people… etc.) and the whole plot is put in motion.

Graham Greene would no doubt nod. Let’s let Peter O’Toole have the final say:

If I live to be a thousand, I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare. I really hated it there. How much so you can judge by the fact that after six months in the Orient I hadn’t picked up a single word there, whereas after nine months in the desert on Lawrence I was speaking Arabic pretty well.

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Sources:

•  Andy’s Cambodia

• Dahlia Lavi recalls the making of Lord Jim

• Stills at A Day for All Nights cinema blog

 

 

 

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Pierre does Angkor

pierre-loti-sit-like-an-egyptianIt’s a little difficult to take Pierre Loti (1850-1923) seriously. No: it’s bloody near impossible. His life was a bundle of weird. In 1904 (for example), in Constantinople, he was drawn into a plan to liberate a Turkish concubine from the harem; the plot was discovered, the woman died in purdah, and Loti, distraught, wrote a novel about it. (Les Désenchantées, 1906). A heartbreaking tale – except it emerged that the lady was neither dead nor Turkish, but a Frenchwoman who had taken the romantic chump for a ride because she’d thought it might be amusing, and faked her death when Pierre got a bit too much.

Pierre was always a bit too much. He loved costumes. He joined the navy as a common sailor and dressed as a Turk, and when he became an officer he dressed as a sailor. Richard Burton, of course, had done likewise, but nobody laughed at Burton, not unless they wanted an impromptu appendectomy; Loti, au contraire, was unkindly called “a dressed-up organ-grinder.”

pierre-loti-arabHe was, nevertheless, one of the most wildly successful authors of his day. Far-away, romantic places were his thing. He would travel, produce a book, and sit back and wait for the spin-offs. His Tahiti book, Le marriage de Loti, lies behind Delibes’ opera Lakme, and Miss Saigon can trace its ancestry via Madam Butterfly to his novel of Japan, Madame Chrysantheme.

How could a man like Loti resist the lure of Angkor? He first saw the liana-tangled towers as illustrations in a colonial review at the impressionable age of 15, and got there, a well established as a man of letters, in 1901. The result was Pilgrimage to Angkor (1912):

I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile, again, on another stretch of wall; then three, then five, then ten. … They smile under their great flat noses, and half close their eyelids, with an indescribable air of senile femininity, looking like aged, discreetly cunning old ladies.”

Not everything was so overwrought, thank God. Here he describes the little apsara dancers:

They twist like snakes, these little slender beings, who are so supple and seem to have no bones. Sometimes they stretch their arms like a cross, and then the serpentine ripple begins in the fingers of the right hand, ascends successively by the wrist, the forearm, upper arm and shoulder, passes across the throat, continues,on the other side, follows the other arm and dies away in the finger-tips of the left hand, covered with rings. In real life, these exquisite little ballet-dancers are carefully guarded children, often even princesses of the royal blood, whom none may approach or behold. Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.33.17 PM

After Loti there could be no turning back; he was the Paul Theroux of his day, and he put Angkor on the literary travel circuit. He defined a way of seeing it and feeling it, feminine, dark, inscrutable, through the books of professional traveller to Somerset Maugham and beyond. He’s the grandfather of Angkor gush.

He became the youngest member of the Academie Francaise, beating out Emile Zola for one of the strictly rationed chairs, and on his death was awarded a State funeral. His house in Rochefort, preserved as a museum, contains in its thirty rooms a mosque (including a small fountain and five draped coffins containing desiccated bodies), a Japanese pagoda, a medieval banqueting hall where guests were required to converse in Medieval French, and renaissance, Arabic and Turkish rooms. His own bedroom is like a monk’s cell, but mixing Christian and Muslim objects, the aesthetic, as ever, overwhelming the point.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.14.22 PMSources:

• Michael Freeman, Cambodia (2004)

• Pierre Loti, The Sacred Drama of Cambodia (Mask magazine, 1913, translated by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy).

• Wikipedia, Pierre Loti

• Loti and the Turkish lady

• Loti’s costumes

The soul of Comrade Duch

comradeduch1.jpgIn 2008 Duch, commandant of the Khmer Rouge torture centre at S-21, was interviewed by two psychologists. Their conclusion: We could all have been Duch, given his opportunities.

His childhood was marked by hardship, but not by trauma. He was poor, he suffered from chronic skin lesions and diarrhoea – perhaps he was suffering malnutrition. His father was deeply in debt, and this seems to have been the root cause of the family’s poverty. When he was older he came to understand the lesson: if life is suffering, it is because society is unjust.

He was an outstanding student at school. He changed his name to Guek Eav, alias Duch. Standing stiffly to attention with his arms tight at his sides he explains the meaning of the name Duch: “The schoolboy who stands up when the teacher asks him to stand up.”

He discovered mathematics. He loved mathematics. In the world all was in disorder, but in mathematics  every problem had its solution, and the solution was always beautiful.

He fell in love with a girl. She was studying French literature. He tried to persuade her to take up mathematics instead, but she left him for a boy from a richer family. He was devastated.

He found inspiring teachers who introduced him to communism. Like mathematics, communism was beautiful. Its explanations held the answer to Cambodia’s poverty and social injustice, the poverty that had dogged his father and the injustice that had destroyed his hope of love. He embraced it.

He rose to become head of S-21. At first he was enthusiastic and diligent, but gradually he realised that the Organisation was arbitrary, vicious, and heartless. Anyone might be arrested, tortured, executed, despite their demonstrable innocence. The deaths of children he found inexcusable. Long before the end, he lost his faith in communism.

He found Christianity. His motive, he said, was the love of God. Also, Christianity is the most powerful organisation in the world today, for see how Christianity defeated communism in Poland. And like mathematics and communism, it was from somewhere that was not Cambodia.

Karma is impersonal, it holds out no hope of forgiveness, just an eternal cycle of sin, suffering, and death, in life after life after life. Duch doesn’t deny his sins: “I have done very bad things before in my life. Now it is time for the consequences. (…) My unique fault is that I didn’t serve God, I served men. I served communism. (…) I feel very sorry about the killings and the past. I did not take any pleasure in my work.” Duch has no hope of forgiveness, and wants only peace. Duch-007.jpg

Duch is intelligent,  obsessive, diligent and punctilious, with a keen capacity for analytical thinking. These qualities permitted him to be a brilliant administrator of S-21.

He has a great need to believe and belong. His ability to express emotion is extremely limited, and his ability to empathise with others, to imagine another person’s point of view, is almost totally absent.

He lacks a centre. He has sought certainty, first from mathematics (representing France and science), then communism, finally Christianity. He loves Cambodia and justice and hates lies (mathematics never lies). The flip side is that everything has to be clear-cut, black or white, right or wrong. When he was a communist he was right, and all those who differed from him were liars and traitors.

His advice to the youth of Cambodia: “Making a decision takes a split second, but the suffering lasts a lifetime. My life is filled with regrets. At first I thought the communists were capable of saving my country … Deciding takes a split second, (but) decisions have to be made. They must be very careful in the decisions they make.”

At the end he made two requests of his interviewers: first, a Khmer-French dictionary, French being the language of intellectual discovery; and second, the opportunity to be reunited with the girl he loved in his youth.

 Source: Psychological Assessment Report Concerning Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.

Francoise Sironi-Guilbard and Sunbanaut Ka, for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

Robert Bingham: Lightning on the Sun

lightning.jpgRobert Worth Bingham IV was graced by the malice of God with good looks, great wealth, and impeccable connections. To balance these he was born into a summary of Southern Gothic plot-points – father killed in front of him by an errant surfboard, uncle electrocuted while stringing up party-lights, grandfather suspected of murdering second wife, grandmother’s last words a wish for “a big pink cloud to come down and take me away,” which it did, on the spot.

Success came early and easily:

 [He] was published in the New Yorker at twenty-six and co-edited the most important literary magazine of the nineties (Open City). He was a nightlife persona, throwing parties in his downtown loft that brought together New York’s hippest film stars, musicians and writers. His story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, was lauded as the voice of a generation…

Then he went to Cambodia. Just why, I do not know. Was he suddenly overcome by the emptiness, rocked to the core of his being by the inauthenticity of the unexamined life? I think not. But he was obsessed with death:

 He would joke nervously about carrying on what he called the ‘family curse’. In a 1997 interview in New York magazine, he claimed that ‘the odds aren’t on that I’ll get nailed early because they’ve been used up’.

The Binghams who had not fallen victim to a violent end had a propensity to succumb to drink. Shuffling around a house stacked with pizza boxes, broken furniture and a television set that was never turned off, [Robert] Bingham spent the final years of college wearing rags and swigging Jim Beam straight from the bottle.

When sober, Bingham was a complex man: often abusive, occasionally violent, but also kind, clever and generous with his wealth (he funded one friend through film school and footed the bill for countless other projects that caught his attention). When he was drunk, the ugly side to his character was exaggerated, and even his wildest friends learnt to keep their distance.

In Phnom Penh he played tennis on the courts where Lon Nol’s cabinet were executed and hung out with the other death-seekers at the Thanatos Bar. Sober, he was great company, knowledgeable about Cambodian history, witty and charming; drunk, he began to scream and spit and the scary animal came out. He developed a heroin addiction, wrote for the New York Times, and helped start the Cambodia Daily. He was recklessly fearless, even pulling a gun on a Cambodian official extorting money at a roadblock. Out of it came a novel, Lightning on the Sun.

The plot involves aimless young Asher and his girlfriend Julie (no second names) who come up with a plan to smuggle a large quantity of high-grade Cambodian heroin into America. At the American end is a Julie’s boss at the strip-club where she works, and whom she double-crosses. At the Cambodian end is a Khmer loan-shark who Asher double-crosses. Asher and Julie are clearly not going to end happily ever after, and the end of the line is Kampot.

”Lightning on the Sun” cuts deepest when Bingham lets his wicked sense of humor wield the knife. … Cambodia is more expensive backdrop than truly engaged terrain. But, paradoxically, Bingham’s writing is at its most alive when it is most nihilistic, when he lets the devils play. Crime by crime, none of them committed for any good reason, he constructs for each character an anti-résumé. … Against privilege, he asserts haplessness. Against conscience, a faintly ridiculous stupor. In its way, it’s wonderfully anti-American.

 

 Sources

Chapter 1, Lightning on the Sun

Stacy d’Erasmo, review in the New York Times, April 23, 2000.

Amelia Hill, review in the Guardian, 1 July, 2001

Samantha Gillison, review in Brown Alumni Magazine, July/August 2000

Bob Wake, review in Culture Vulture, 7 July, 2006

Adam Wilson, The American Reader

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pastor and the monster

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Pastor Christopher LaPel in Ratnakiri – from his Facebook page.

Christopher LaPel’s father was a Brahman priest serving Cambodia’s king in his role as the earthly incarnation of the god Vishnu. Imagine the shock and horror, therefore, when one evening at dinner he saw a cross hanging around his son’s neck:

One day while our family had supper … I reached to pick up food and the ivory cross hanging around my neck fell forward. My dad, when he saw the cross, raised his voice and cursed at me. He pulled me and said, “You shouldn’t wear the cross. Remember we are a Buddhist family, we don’t want you to wear the cross.” I didn’t even know what it meant.

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The royal Brahmans at the Sacred Ploughing Ceremony, 2015

Then came 1975 and the Khmer Rouge. Christophe’s mother and father were worked to death, and his sister and brother were executed. Christopher himself narrowly escaped death:

I worked 14 to 16 hours a day without food, sunrise to sunset. I lost a lot of weight—70 pounds in that time. Two-thirds of my friends died of either execution, malnutrition, overwork, or disease. One time I was very ill, I had a high fever—I’m not sure if I had malaria or typhoid, but I had missed work for three or four days. During that time, missing work for a couple days meant you were useless to the Khmer Rouge, they didn’t want to keep you.

We knew, during this time, if someone calls you during the night you would die. One night they called me to meet the Khmer Rouge comrade to ask why I was missing work. I knelt down, shaking from fever, when one of them put his hand on my chest and my head. He opened my shirt and touched my ivory cross. At that moment I heard a voice, I’m not sure who, say, “This guy is really sick, we need to let him go take a rest.” I came back to my hut and thought: There’s something about my cross, it’s amazing!

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Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, Thailand, where Christopher LaPel found his vocation

Christopher escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, where he converted to Christianity. Later he relocated to Long Beach, California, became a Christian pastor, and embarked on a life of turning others to Christ – and, might I say, treading truly in Christ’s footsteps.

In late 1995 pastor LaPel was conducting baptisms and training sessions in western Cambodia when village mathematics teacher called Hang Pin came to one of the sessions. Hang Pin said he was not a Christian, but had come at the urging of a friend. Under LaPel’s teachings he was accepted Christ and was baptised. The previously withdrawn man was transformed. He became relaxed and outgoing, teasing others, dressing neatly, sitting in the front row and taking notes. Filled with enthusiasm, he told his pastor that he could hardly wait to get home so that he could spread the good word. Which is what he did, establishing and leading a village church with 14 families.

But there was something dark about this newest convert. Prior to his baptism he wondered aloud to LaPel whether his brothers and sisters in Christ could forgive the sins he had committed in his past. His only consolation was that God forgives everything – “Thank God that the Lord forgives me!” LaPel didn’t ask questions – his role is to lead sinners to God, not to judge them.

LaPel had no idea that the star convert named Hang Pin was actually Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Comrade Duch, who as director of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre known as S-21 (or Tuol Sleng)  was responsible for the torture and murder of 14,000 men, women and children.

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Enough has been written about Tuol Sleng. Far more interesting is Duch’s soul, and that of Pastor LaPel. Early in their relationship Duch told the LaPel that he had never felt love in his childhood or later. “When he turned to Christ, love filled his heart.” What he seems to have felt before he met LaPel was deep and consuming guilt, as he told Christophe Peschoux, country representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights shortly before his arrest in 1999:

“[A]ll those who were sent to me [at S-21] had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”

Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”

Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)

LaPel-with-Duch-rdg-Bible.jpgChristianity seems to have brought Duch a measure of peace in the prison where he serves a life sentence for crimes against humanity, the only KR commander to have accepted his guilt and expressed remorse.

I think he must be the loneliest man in the world.

Christopher LaPel testified at his trial. He didn’t ask for leniency (nor did Duch), but testified to the power of God to transform a sinner. To this day he visits Duch in his cell, where they read the Bible and break bread together.

 Sources

• Brad Dupray, Interview with Christopher LaPel, Christian Standard, 4 August, 2010.

• Caroline Gluck, The Killer and the Pastor, TIME magazine, July 12, 1999

• Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, former Khmer Rouge commander of S-21 (to be published later in 2016).

• KarstenRauPhotography.com (photo of child victims at Tuol Sleng)

Nathan A. Thompson, poet

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Book launch 21 April, 7.30pm, MetaHouse. Available on Amazon.

MetaHouse, Phnom Penh, 7.30pm, 21 April 2016. Nathan A. Thompson humbly presents his first collection of poetry, 31 poems plucked from nearly 400 written over the last decade. They chronicle an early adulthood given over to drugs and furious pursuits, meditations on “the simple, spiritual things that promise salvation” (as writer, Shane Levene noted in his blurb) before resting in the groundless, ambivalent spaces of life. Nathan has been a committed writer since he was first published aged 14. He hopes this collection will be worthy of an appreciative audience.

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Nathan has written for the Guardian, Slate, Telegraph, Christian Science Monitor, Gawker, Vice, Independent, Salon and many more. He now lives in Phnom Penh, where he writes news, features and travel covering Asia. The range of his coverage is truly impressive (see the links below). I’m going to finish off with some quotes from an article he published in a magazine called The Fix, in which he stands in a Burmese poppy-field with a ball of raw opium in his hand and celebrates being three years drug-free:

I’m now three years clean from heroin. To the day. I didn’t mean to mark this event by smelling a ball of fresh dope like some screwy birthday cake. I doubt my old counselors would recommend this as a good place for a former junky to be. But I’m here to work. Not get high. Just a little bit? No… Definitely not to get high.

But I’d be lying if I wasn’t also fulfilling that old junky dream of walking through fields of bobbing poppies, watching fresh opium ooze from gashes in their bald heads. I’ve been fascinated with opium and heroin since childhood. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was a stressed child and, when I learned that there were these things called drugs that could calm my raging head, I was captivated. Still, I didn’t try heroin for real until I was 24.

Back then I lived in a small town not far from London. Mike the squatter scored for me. He smelt of rotten grass and bonfire. Inside the deserted hospital where he lived with a small group of anarchists and ne’er-do-wells, the walls were camouflaged in soot from the open fire they burned to keep out the winter darkness. Sometimes there was a blackened pot of baked beans simmering in the embers.

I inhaled smoke from a mercurial blob of smack as it ran down the tin foil. At first, I felt stoned. Then I felt nice. Really, really nice. I stopped caring about the damp, filth and soot. I didn’t care about the job I hated. I didn’t care about the nameless fears that fermented in my guts. It was a beautiful release.

The ball of opium is still in my hands. I smell it a second time. Heroin smells like this. A little urge lands like a soft punch to the stomach. Why not just break off a little bit? For old time’s sake? I hand the ball back. It’s a familiar pattern of thought and, after three years, it has little power. I don’t know if I’ve grown strong or if it’s been weakened by abstinence. The opium farmer, an earnest Burmese man with a kind smile, returns the ball to the only other room in his rough, wooden house. I check my Dictaphone and press “stop.” The interview is done.

The last time the urge to get high proved irresistible, I was at a screening of a documentary about the poet, Amiri Baraka. I had just returned to London after a stint in the countryside where I had managed to claw three months clean. As the crease-faced poet bawled lines to the sound of a squalling saxophone, I felt my phone vibrate. I pulled it out and angled my eyes down, “Banging gear, 10/10 quality, delivery on orders over two,” it read. I knew my dealer didn’t really have “10/10” quality stuff, but it was enough to start an eruption in my amygdala.

I tried to force myself to focus on the documentary. But it was too hard. When I left the screening I was trembling in anticipation. If I could just make it to the Underground I could put some distance between myself and the dealer’s area… But the phone was already out of my pocket. I disassociated—watching someone else dial. It felt good to stop fighting. As if I had been clinging to a rock and was now weightless in the torrent. “Nath? Long time, bro!” said the dealer.

My fixer and I are leaving the opium-growing village. I’m on the back of his motorbike. The road is red and winds through the mountains. As we round a Precambrian cliff, I see miles of rice fields below, glowing green in the sunset. That final smack session after the documentary lasted three days. I’m passing through those dates like the sun might pass through the Zodiac sign of the smackhead.

Sources:

Nathan Thompson’s website: includes links to his journalism

The Fix: Turning three years clean in an opium field

Errant magazine: 3 poems

 

Norman Lewis and Cambodia, 1950

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Norman Lewis and Bugatti

As a child Norman Lewis was sent to live with his three mad aunts, the first of whom never stopped weeping, the second never stopped laughing, and the third never spoke an intelligible word. Being South Wales the aunts spent their Sundays throwing stones at Sabbath-breakers, while their father, Lewis’ grandfather, dallied with his French mistress.  Eventually this lady was identified as the source of the largest outbreak of the clap ever seen in Carmarthen, and Norman was sent home.

North London, where he spent his adolescence, was quite different yet much the same. Norman’s father was a Spiritualist who channeled Indian chiefs and Tibetan lamas, but with so little accuracy that no one could be quite sure what they said; his mother, a psychic, diagnosed men, women and Pekes by the colours of their auras and cured them by the laying on of hands. True believers both, they held great hopes for their son, but he failed to develop his gifts:

“Norman dear, do you hear voices?”

“Yes mother, I hear you perfectly.”

“No dear, I mean Spirit Voices. Do you hear them? Feel Unseen Presences? See Astral Visions?”

“No, mother.”

“Oh. Well never mind dear, perhaps when you’re older.”

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1957 paperback edition of A Dragon Apparent

On reaching maturity Norman purchased a Bugatti, married the free-thinking daughter of a Sicilian Mafioso, and became a traveller and writer. His third book, A Dragon Apparent, published 1951 following a trip to Indochina the previous year, was an overnight sensation. “A brilliant report on a period of violent transition in a strange land,” said Peter Fleming, adventurer, travel writer, and brother of the creator of James Bond; “should take its place in the permanent literature of the Far East”, said the Economist. Norman Lewis had arrived.

He judged his moment to perfection. Communism was on the rise, empires were collapsing, and the West was worried. The French were hanging on in Indochina but the Viet Minh were making misery for them in Vietnam and the Khmer Issarak, though not communists, were doing the same in Cambodia. Cambodia was nominally an independent kingdom, but only nominally. Sihanouk, installed as puppet king in 1941, was proving a handful and wished to end the arrangement whereby French citizens could not be tried in Cambodian courts and French troops could do as it wished in the kingdom. The Issarak also wanted to end these things, plus Sihanouk as well. The future of the Free World (quaint phrase today) hung in the balance.

Sihanouk would eventually come out on top, but in 1950 the issue still was in doubt. In his capacity as a journalist for the British press Lewis interviewed Sihanouk and his prime minister, who complained that the French policy of sending in the Foreign Legion to massacre any village where an Issarak presence was even rumoured, or bombing to oblivion those places the Legion couldn’t reach, was counter-productive; nothing, they told him, was more likely to turn a peaceful farmer into a rebel. The French, for their part, seemed to agree; the general commanding the French troops admits to Lewis that he is unwilling to give guns to his Cambodian troops for fear their first act will be desert and sell them to the enemy.

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Sihanouk, in French uniform, inspects a village militia.

Politics isn’t all there is to the book – there are descriptions of Phnom Penh and Angkor, and a long passage about a bus trip through Issarak-controlled territory in which he had to be hidden under a cargo of dried fish. This had possibly been done before, but not in Indochina, not in English – Cambodia had been France’s empire, and the British hadn’t bothered themselves with it. I was struck, incidentally, by the way Lewis several times compares Cambodia to Africa – African-looking huts in which the people live, African levels of squalour and indolence. Much later Paul Theroux does the same, in his 2008 travel book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

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Phnom Penh, 1950.

So this is an important book; yet I must beg to dissociate myself from the praise. Lewis’ later books have a laconic prose and sardonic sensibility that make  compelling reading, but both qualities are pretty well absent here. Worse, far worse, is the condescending, supercilious tone he adopts towards the Cambodians. He does not get under the skin of the country, and seems unaware that the natives might be human beings with hopes and fears – apart from the hope that the French might not kill them. This is not great travel writing, although it is very good journalism.

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Coronation of Sihanouk, 1941. “They (the French) thought I was a lamb, but they discovered I was a tiger.”

His later books are much better. Naples ‘44, for example, is a classic, describing his experiences as an army intelligence officer in occupied Naples at the end of World War II (look for his account of General Mark Clark, who invaded Italy with typewriters and filing cabinets). Jackdaw Cake, his autobiography of his early years, is also excellent, and Voices of the Old Sea, telling of his life in a Spanish fishing village just before mass tourism destroyed the Mediterranean, is one I want to read.

Lewis’ great gift was to be present in places on the eve of some irrevocable change. In 1936 he went to Spain with his mafia-affiliated wife thinking to find peace and quite and six weeks later the Civil War broke out. He was in Burma just before the military coup that introduced fifty years of Socialism, and in Paraguay in 1975 he discovered that Christian missionaries were actively involved in exterminating the natives. A Dragon Apparent has its faults, but read it, for it falls into this tradition.

 Sources

A Dragon Apparent

 Jackdaw Cake.

Lewis’ obituary in the Telegraph and the Norman Lewis website.

Photos from editorials on Cambodia, Twitter.