Angkor Tears

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 9.18.23 AM.pngSteven W. Palmer’s latest Cambodia thriller is out. The subject is child trafficking, and the story is fittingly grim. It has a likeable hero (a Khmer cop) and an evil villain who – well, let’s see if anyone puts a hand up. Steven Palmer himself is a well-known figure around Phnom Penh, a leading light of the growing Cambodia noir movement. Kevin Cummings has an interview with him which is worth reading, and a very useful word-snapshot:

Steven W. Palmer is a Scottish expat currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has been living in Asia since 2012 and currently works as Managing Editor for three magazines published in Cambodia. His previous working life has seen him work in diverse roles from drugs counselor to social worker to DJ and promoter. He has self-published two previous novels; ‘Angkor Away’, the first in the Angkor series which introduced Chamreun to the world, and ‘Electric Irn Bru Acid Test’; a coming of age story set in 1980s Scotland and part of the planned ‘Glas Vegas’ trilogy. Palmer is part of the thriving South East Asian Noir movement, which spans literature, poetry, art, photography and music.

The book is available now on Kindle and on smashwords. I understand there’ll be a print version in Monument in a few weeks. There’s also a nice trailer on You Tube with atmospheric images and a gutsy soundtrack from Krom, Phnom Penh’s own noir blues band.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mekong Review

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The third issue of the Mekong Review is out. Will secular saint Aung San Suu Kyi face a lonely old age? Is Pulitzer-winning Nguyen Than Viet, author of The Sympathizer, a novel, and Nothing Ever Dies, memoirs, the true heir to Graham Greene? Does Southeast Asia needs more Silkworms? (Answer: yes).

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…Vietnam was a very literary war, producing an immense library of fiction and nonfiction. Among all those volumes, you’ll find only a handful (Robert Olen Butler’s “A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” comes to mind) with Vietnamese characters speaking in their own voices.

Hollywood has been still more Americentric. In films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon,” the Vietnamese (often other Asians portraying Vietnamese) are never more than walk-ons whose principal roles seem to be to die or wail in the ashes of incinerated villages.

Which brings me to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, “The Sympathizer.” Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.

But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Nguyen’s skill in portraying this sort of ambivalent personality compares favorably with masters like Conrad, Greene and le Carré.

Serious praise: we hear about Southeast Asia overwhelmingly from the outside; where is the fiction about the lives of Khmer-Americans deported back to the homeland they never knew, for example?

lady-and-the-generals.jpgThe piece on Suu Kyi is a review of Peter Popham’s recent biography, The Lady and the Generals: Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma’s Struggle for Freedom. Essential point: the people adore her but the generals don’t, and if she loses the adoration factor it’s hard to see a soft landing.

[T]he run-up to the historic election in Myanmar, last November that swept the Aung San
Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD)
to power was punctuated by long-time NLD activists complaining of being side-lined or simply dropped by their leader. More damaging to her reputation globally has been the criticism by the Western media, as well as by fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner the Dalai Lama, for supposedly turning a blind eye to the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Rohingya minority.

Then there’s her haughty and authoritarian style. She declared before the 2015 election that she would be “above” whoever takes the presidency that she craves, but is barred from by the army-written constitution because her two children are British citizens.

Political life is only going to get harder for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Indeed. And the loss of saint-hood is a given – politics is like that, just ask Tony. (Which Tony? Any Tony; Tony seems to be a very unlucky name for politicians).

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Elsewhere, Khac Giang Nguyen asks what a man who is a tree portends for democratic reform in Vietnam, Liam Kelley surveys the academic landscape of Asian Studies in Australia and finds is bleak (I vaguely remember being told by my betters that Australia’s future lies in Asia, that this was the Asian Century, and that we all had to prepare for it, but that was in another country, and besides, the policy is dead), and Robert Turnbull writes about politics and patronage in Cambodia – patronage of the arts, that is. Did you know that Hun Sen likes to jot down ideas for poems in classical Khmer meters as he helicopters from one meeting to the next? Neither did I, and it’s fascinating to know; but the more important point is that without patronage of some kind, Cambodian classical performing art will become a tourist ghetto, as has happened in Bali. (Or I believe it has – perhaps the next edition of the Mekong Review will set me right).

And much more. Mekong Review is available on paper at Monument Books (which also has The Sympathizer – $15) and online as pdf.

 

The ashes shrine

Ancestor shrine, Kampong Phnom village, Neak Leoung 1_DSF7371.JPG“Rean dam-kal teat” (phonetic spelling), “shelf to raise up the ashes”, or the ashes shrine. I’ve seen this in villages before (never in cities), but in the village of Kampong Phnom in Kandal province, where I went to a wedding last week, every house had one.

The shrine holds the ashes of departed family members – usually mother/father grandfather/grandmother, but I’m told it can be any family members. Traditionally these ashes are taken to the monastery and kept in the sala chan (monks’ dining hall), where they’re protected by the merit of the monks (protected from evil spirits, that is) and gain merit themselves through “participation” in major village festivals involving ritual meals for the monks.

So putting them in special shrines outside houses is a major departure from tradition. I’m told this is a fairly new practice, only a decade or so old. The ashes shrines of Kampong Phnom have driven out the traditional tevoda shrines, so as they spread through the country there’s likely to be asignificant change in religious practice – what will it mean for the poor tevoda, those heavenly messengers who are present at weddings and funerals as the intermediaries between men and gods?

Traditionally, one of the things that happen at weddings is that the ancestors (the meba) are offered a portion of food to include them in the ritual meal that unites the two families (weddings are more between families than between individuals). This offering is simply thrown on the ground. At the wedding in Kampong Phnom the offering was made nicely plated up on the plinth of the ashes shrine. Much more satisfying, I’m sure.

The architecture of the shrine is a little unclear to me – there’s the tiled plinth, which is utilitarian (it’s for kneeling on while praying and for leaving offerings); more or less in the centre is a small pond, mostly circular but not always (the circular ocean that surrounds the world?); and the shrine itself in the form of a room that mimics the sala chan of the monastery, or at least I think that’s what it’s meant to look like. It has glass doors which are normally locked (the ashes are highly important, after all) but opened when the ancestors are present at family occasions.

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Achar (the man in the white shirt, a specialist in ritual, and the equivalent of a priest – monks are not priests) makes the ritual offering of food to the ancestors at the ashes shrine.

 

 

The case of the missing shoe.

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Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. This comes from Stephen Leather’s blog – as you doubtless know, SL is the author of the wonderful Inspector Zhang mysteries, and is also a big wheel in the thriller world.

What this is about … well … it’s about a gent called Asghar Bukhari, who complains that his shoe has gone missing. He complained on social media (Facebook – I’m not on Facebook, having never seen the attraction). He said, to be precise, that Mossad had stolen his shoe. Most people (on Facebook – don’t they have lives?) either didn’t believe it, or made fun of him, or both.

Ah, but that’s just what Mossad wanted. Here’s a critic of Israel behaving like a loony. Perfect. So score a big One-Nil win to Mossad.

How credible? here’s where Stephen comes in.

But I can tell you one thing with absolute certainty. Things like this do happen. They happen in this country. And sometimes it is Government employees who make it happen.

How do I know this?

Because many years ago I met a man who did exactly that. I kid you not. For a time it was his job to, as he put it, ‘destabilise bad guys’.

So SL says – but no, go read it yourself.

Free-Shipping-Wholesale-Red-And-Black-Cartoon-Spy-Lycra-Spandex-Zentai-Suits-LD-SN-146-Dropship.jpg_350x350This groovy superspy outfit is yours for $60.