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.

Holiday in Cambodia

6a00e0097e4e688833019affb48262970d-250wiLaura Jean McKay will be launching her short story collection, “Holiday in Cambodia”, at Monivong Books on Norodom on 19 October 2013.

Most of the 17 stories of “Holiday” (title from the 1980 Dead Kennedys song) are set in the modern day, with a few between 1951 and 1994. Individual stories are linked by more than just the Cambodian setting – the 1951 vampire-Lolita of The Deep Ambition of Rossi, scheming her way into Prince Sihanouk’s bed, blood dribbling down her chin, reappears as the modern-day Susan from Australia, syringe in her pouch, in Vampires from Cambodia; Le Cercle Sportif, the chic colonial in-place of Rossi, crops up again, shabby and down on its luck, as the neighbour of a modern-day massage parlour-cum-brothel in Massage 8000; clueless characters from the appallingly but appropriately named NGO, Suffer the Children, crop up across a number of  stories. The links form an ironic supra-narrative, so that a story about the murder of a union representative trying to get better conditions for workers in a T-shirt factory (Holiday I Love You) casts a shadow over another in which a tourist observes that bar-work must be better than a T-shirt factory (Taxi). Each story stands alone, but a slow reading will bring out this extra layer of texture.

The themes of Holiday are sex and death. Three backpackers and an urchin in “Route Four” are bound for execution on the train to Kampot; the unnamed expat girl in The Expatriate (yet another employee of the ubiquitous Suffer the Children) comes face to face with meaningless death; in Coming Up we wait for a body to surface from the bottom of a lake, while yet another of the ladies from Suffer the Children reveals her inability to understand or communicate with the Cambodians (though her mother’s doing just fine). Alongside this is the search for the real Cambodia, sometimes bizarrely funny (A Pocket Guide To Phnom Penh), sometimes just bizarre (The Real Cambodia, which introduces the image of the apsara/Real Cambodia as destroying vampire).

McKay writes with a great economy and precision, and clearly has a special empathy for this country. Cambodia occupies a special place in the collective Western imagination, one defined by drugs, easy sex, and senseless violence – “See Cambodia and Die” is a slogan I’d advise the local tourist authorities not to consider. It has become the emblematic “other”, the place where the rules end and chaos begins. “Holiday” has been praised for its “Hemingwayesque snapshots,” but what while that’s true in its way it fails to capture the spiritual essence of the book: what springs to my mind more Paul Bowles, the nothingness that lies behind the sheltering sky.