Hunters in the Dark book cover

I am an avid reader and except for the occasional context of the Vietnam War I really haven’t read a book that is set in Cambodia. Of course, I read a couple or so written by Cambodian authors but they always dealt with the Pol Pot era and its aftermath. Although one would have to understand that the aftermath of that era is still continuing. As an expat having lived here for 4 year in the early 90ies and now for 8 years I can attest to that. One encounters the intrinsic consequences of that era daily.

I once tried one book that was written by a British expat but that was so lame and badly written that I stopped it after about 20 or 30 pages.

Recently, however, an expat forum pointed out a few websites that would have mystery books set in Cambodia. So I downloaded a few of them, one of which had the a. m. title.  The author is Lawrence Osborne, a British expat living in Bangkok. This author is of some acclaim and his books are well-worth reading. I just finished reading this book.

There is this 28-year-old English teacher who comes to Cambodia on his summer break. He comes by land from Bangkok via Pailin. He is hard-up and promptly wins $2,000 on his first night in one of the many casinos dotting the border towns in Cambodia. He then hires a driver who takes him to see the local sights where he meets an American fellow nicely decked out in a white suit and a pair of expensive shoes.

The American invites him to his house to stay there so he wouldn’t have to sleep in one of the dingy hotels in town. I don’t want to spoil it by giving out too many details but our nice young Englishman meets with a few surprises there that he could have done without.

He also copes with those surprises in a most unlikely fashion borne out of a premature world-weariness. Arriving in Phnom Penh he is looking for a job so he can support himself and luckily he finds it right away, practically on the same day. A doctor is looking for a tutor for his 25-year-old daughter. She is a medical doctor who studied in France and happens to speak English quite fluently. The need for a tutor is quite superfluous but the doctor wants her to improve her English anyway. The doctor is so nice that he even gives him $500 on that first meeting. The young people go out together and promptly fall in love ending up having sex the first night. The father is quite wealthy with a mental clinic for depressed people. Of course, in Cambodia only the very rich can afford such a treatment and the book is a little short on detail about that but it appears as if the rich tend to send their spoilt offspring there, getting them treated for the ills boredom causes. Otherwise, mental illness is a somewhat unexplored field in Cambodia to begin with. You can hardly find psychologists or psychiatrists. One can read almost daily about some horrendous crime, murder, rape of small children, etc., that one wonders whether they even recognize that there may be some form of mental disorder involved there. They just stick them in a prison cell, and you never read about them again.

The father is a former Khmer Rouge doctor who doesn’t fail to state that he was forced into this unless he wanted to die. Even the Khmer Rouge needed doctors. The daughter, obviously a pretty thing, is heavily influenced by her time and studies in Paris where she also had a French lover, in other words, a fully enlightened young Khmer girl.

 There are some more twists in the whole story which I won’t divulge here as it would really spoil it for any future reader.

This book is well written and got a rave review in the New York Times, in fact, it is so well written that one wants to keep reading it in one sitting. However, as an expat in Cambodia who has traveled the breadth and width of the country, who has lived in a Cambodian, not expat, environment all this time, having a Khmer wife of impeccable background, speaks, though cannot write, the language, I would like to point out a few, let’s call them, implausibilities. One could say it is about the transformation of a respectable young English teacher into a drifter.

Would a young man get plastered and do drugs with a fellow Westerner whom he just met, never mind the nice clothes and his educational background? The American is a Yale man, you know, but a conman nonetheless.

The doctor is really generous and it appears he is also of Chinese descent. It is hardly likely that he would advance the young man $500 just because he liked the young man’s looks and demeanor. Equally unlikely is that he would hire a tutor for a daughter who speaks the language fluently already. The foremost thought in Khmer parents’ minds is to get an equally well-situated husband of superior standing for their daughter. A fly-by-night English teacher hardly fits that bill. He gets invited to family dinners, which is not unusual as the Khmer people are very hospitable, but such an invitation is nothing but a courtesy. Sometimes Khmer educated people would like to discuss life in the West with an educated foreigner, but that’s the extent of it.

Although the girl has some Western experience she was raised as an upper-class Khmer daughter and would be very conscious of her reputation. By ostentatiously cavorting with a foreigner she would certainly harm that reputation among upper-crust Khmer society of which she undeniably is a firm member. Of course, it happens that some rich Khmer girls do have flings with foreigners but this is usually carried on in secret or in another city. After all, Khmer husbands still value their future wives’ virginity very highly, so as to make a union almost impossible if he were to find out that she has been sleeping around. Sleeping around is only for the lower classes and the poor girls who can only gain from a relationship with a foreigner, or so they believe. Sometimes, there is a rude awakening, though. Young beautiful Khmer girls get a rich Khmer husband – they have the choice of many suitors. Poor, less beautiful girls seek out the naive, often older Western man who can’t find a young woman in the West for exactly what they lack to get a nice beautiful Khmer girl – money.

The writer published the book in 2015, so probably researched it two or three years before that date. He clearly was in Cambodia before the 2013 election. There were quite a few demonstrations at that time and he mentioned some violence in Freedom park near the place the young man was staying. A lot has changed in the meantime. The last 5 years have seen a tremendous development in Cambodia and life has become a lot more consumer-oriented. Political life has come to a virtual standstill. A few of the locales were not described quite correctly but that does not affect the overall book. After all, most of the readers would not know anyway.

The American fellow travels up to a mountain lodge and encounters youths with guns guarding a bridge as if they wanted to extort some money from him for being able to cross. Despite his fear he just pushes through. In Cambodia those youths could have been in their early twenties as Khmer people look very young with teen-like face until their thirties. It is quite common that private companies hire them as guards and they do sometimes carry AK-47s but in general are quite harmless. The writer made it appear very dangerous to travel on country roads in Cambodia. It is not. It was different in the 90ies but if it is one thing authoritarian regimes know how to do is bring security to the roads, if not safety, judging by the many traffic fatalities in Cambodia. So it is very unlikely that people would get held up on the roads as opposed to Phnom Penh where bag snatching is still very much present.

There is one distasteful character in the book that is very aptly described. He is a policeman on the make. This type of people is still around and one best not get involved in any shape or form with them, be it as perpetrator or a victim of a (even petty) crime or even in the context of a traffic accident with injured or even dead victims.

He also depicts the down-and-out foreigners in Cambodia quite well. Many a native English speaker with a TOEFL certificate comes to SE Asia, or all of the underdeveloped world for that matter, to teach English as a second language as they usually wouldn’t qualify for anything else. They often just scrape by on their $7.50 to $10 an hour in one of the many private schools, of which the majority would not make the cut anywhere else. Getting a gig as a private tutor for a few well-heeled clients would get them in the range of better pay but it is too unreliable to be based on as a long-term solution. It is true that Khmer people usually regarded Westerners with some sort of amazement about their behavior and with some curiosity, sometimes even admiration. The Westerners, despite their sometimes grungy looks, surely  must have some money. How else could they afford to come to Cambodia? Later on the influx of the dirty, drug-consuming, sex-starved detritus of the Western world changed their perception dramatically. Now they look down on them with mild amusement or detest them outright. If you are a businessman, dress accordingly, their approach differs hugely and is usually quite deferential – nobody should be fooled by their nice smiles, though.

Reading the papers I am really surprised by the many young foreigner deaths from overdosing. So his description of one of them floating down the Battambang river every month or so doesn’t seem exaggerated at all.
There is a lot of introspective ruminating, sometimes to the point of being depressing, but it distinguishes this book from a mere crime novel making it a very thoughtful read. One thing is absolutely true – the belief in ghosts and the afterlife is omnipresent in Khmer society.

I was not quite happy with the ending, especially concerning the Khmer girls in the story. I don’t believe either one would act or react that way, especially the daughter after a very distressing experience towards the end.

Despite all this, it is eminently readable.

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