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

Divine architecture

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Photo by David Lazar

Preah Ket Mealea, who was the son of the god Indra and a human mother, spent his childhood on Earth, but when he reached the age of twelve his father invited him to visit heaven. On the summit of Meru the boy gazed in wonder at the palaces of the gods and the flower-filled gardens where apsaras danced and divine music played. His father told him that, as he was to rule over Cambodia, the greatest of kingdoms on Earth, he would need the greatest of palace.s “Look around you,” Indra said. “If there is any palace here that pleases you, tell me and I shall have the architect of the gods build it for you on Earth.”

The prince was a modest young boy, mindful of his place as both a child and a mortal, and even though the offer was a generous one he did not want to offend his father by seeming to set himself on the same level as the king of the gods. And so he declined a copy of Indra’s own palace, or the dining hall of the gods, or even any of the minor pleasure pavilions set aside for music and dancing. No, instead of these he chose the least of all the buildings in Meru – the palace stables.

Indra expressed his pleasure at his son’s choice and sent Preah Pisnukar, architect of the gods, to oversee the work. Preah Pisnukar did not build as men build, but molded the structure out of mud and then coated it with a magical coating so that the mud hardened into stone. How else could such a building be built? Some say that Angkor Wat was constructed by the tevodas (the minor gods), and that their fingerprints can still be seen as holes in the stones, but this, the legend of Preah Pisnukar, is the true story.

Center-Vishnu-asuras-L-and-devas-R-apsaras-and-Indra-above-01Churning of the Ocean of Milk, Angkor Wat – Vishnu centre, Indra and apsaras above

The Story of Angkor

angkorSilkworm Books has recently (September) published The Story of Angkor. It must define the idea of a “slim volume” – just 134 pages.The author, James DiBiasio, blogs here: he has some quite fascinating entries on books both fiction and non-fiction.

Intended as an approachable, entry-level history of ancient Angkor for tourists, Story of Angkor presents the revolution in scholarly understanding of ancient Cambodia that’s taken place over the last decade or so. No visitor to Angkor, and no one interested in Cambodia, can afford not to read it.

Here are some excerpts from an article he was invited to write for New Mandala recently (full article here). He notes that the paradigmatic understanding of the subject was laid out by the great George Coedès in the first half of the 20th century:

“Coedès … argued that Southeast Asia represented a ‘Farther India’, a land of gold that was conquered and colonized by waves of Indians from around 200 BC through 400 AD. His work also gave us the basic timeline of the kings and therefore the monuments. He helped lay out a narrative of a pre-Angkor Cambodia trapped in a dark ages. He and other scholars documented wars between the Khmers and the Chams that defined the rise of Angkor’s first Buddhist king. The shadow of Coedès stretches so long because the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese invasion and destructive poverty have kept international scholarship at bay. Only in the 1990s did meaningful work on Angkor resume.”

Coedès research remains relevant, but “his conclusions seem fanciful. … Most scholars today argue against the idea of Indian colonizers … others suggest that Indian ideas came from Malays and other travellers visiting India and Sri Lanka, rather than from Indians actually settling in Southeast Asia.”

On Angkor, Coedès “believed an early Khmer-speaking civilization grew up around southern Vietnam, based on a port called Oc Eo and a nearby city called Angkor Borei. This fell into disunion and chaos, and was assaulted by enemy invaders, perhaps from Champa or Java.” This is what we read in every guide book and history of Cambodia, but  there’s no evidence to back it up. “The evidence is going the other way, actually: the epicentre of Funan may have not even been where Coedès believed, [but] further west in the Menam Basin.” I don’t think my Cambodian friends are going to like that idea – though perhaps they’ll see it as yet further evidence that the wicked Thais are a bunch of brigands.

My friends will like this: “This year, scholars announced the discovery of a city, Mahendraparvata, on Mount Kulen, some 50 kilometers distant from Angkor… a vast urban civilization on par with the biggest pre-industrial societies of China or Europe.”

The final surprise for me is this:

“Even the dating of the Bayon and Angkor Wat are now under fire. The chronicle of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese visitor in the 13th century, makes so little account of Angkor Wat that some scholars question whether it was even built until after Zhou’s visit – which would completely upend our understanding of it. So the story of Angkor turns out to be far more fluid than the stone remains suggest, and the history of pre-modern Southeast Asia is still up for grabs.”

Story of Angkor should be available from Monument Books, but if you can’t get there, here’s the Amazon page.

(Update: now available on Kindle, $9.99)