Since there is not much to report about life in Cambodia, or at least nothing that hasn’t been in the papers or online social networks I am going to review another book that is set in Phnom Penh. It’s not that I don’t read anything else; since my last posting I read two other books but they didn’t deal with Cambodia.
The Hearts and Minds – Roland Joffé
This is about an English guy working for an agricultural NGO who has been in Cambodia for seven months feels somewhat detached from it all. So he does what most NGO workers do they hang out in bars catering to those well-paid foreign NGO staff. They are a prime target for bar girls who like nothing better than to relieve those sex-craved barangs of their undeserved dollars. He just broke off his relationship with his girl friend back home and pines for a foreigner beauty he regularly sees in that watering hole. His female overweight fellow NGO worker had fallen in love with him but this love was unrequited. He finally gets a chance to meet up with the purported Brazilian beauty who persuades him to engage in some nefarious business. Meanwhile his lady boss runs over the pining and at that time drurk, overweight chief account with her SUV who then needs to be evacuated to Bangkok for treatment, but not before whispering into her boss’s ear something about double dipping. So much for the contents – I won’t divulge the ending for obvious reasons.

This story is very well-written and very much believable. It could have happened in reality. Great novela.

The Fires of Forever – James Grady
James Grady is a fine writer but in my opinion this story does not do him justice. This is too much of an American-style hard-boiled crime novel the locale of which just happens to be Phnom Penh. The writing style is not my cup of tea; it’s too much in telegram-style. Again, here too this reminds one of James Elroy who obviously influenced many – not only – American writers.

The story itself is a little far-fetched with an IT-guy managing to hack into his employer’s computer stealing the source code for financial transactions that can make hackers rich or get them into prison. Far-fetched inasmuch as you wouldn’t expect this kind of hacking to happen in Phnom Penh of all places, at a garment factory at that. He wants to sell this code but doesn’t know how to go about it. Therefore, he asks the main character to help him with that for a cut of the proceeds. A meeting is set-up with a buyer who wants to re-sell it for bigger bucks. The ending is typically noir as one doesn’t expect it. Our minds are too much tuned to more favorable endings.

Love and Death at Angkor – John Burdett
Now this is the weirdest story in the context of noir fiction I have read in a long time. Here is a guy who acts as a guide to a friend who is on a SE Asian sojourn. In Siem Reap on a visit to Angkor they meet a group of 3 ethereal European beauties accompanied by an Oxford-educated Indian lady in a sarong and her elderly assistant. I won’t go into detail but there is a lot esoteric mumbo-jumbo with regards to reincarnation achieved by the ultimate sexual pleasure. This insinuates that those pleasures can only be achieved through immersion into Asian philosophical thinking and at a particular spot near Angkor Wat. There are scenes of explicit sexual description that border on the pornographic. Sexual scenes can convey deep romantic feelings but there was no feeling whatsoever in that description, especially if you call a vagina a cunt in this context. This is not a literary work like ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover”. His friend who fell under their spell was tragically killed by a guard for entering Angkor Wat in the dark. The main character wants to find our more about that insidious group which he somehow connects to his friend’s death. He gets further info from an MI6 operative in Bangkok while sleeping with her. He knows her from way back when. He goes back to London and visits this sect’s, I guess you could call it that, address which he connects to a particular street by absolute miraculously deductive thinking. That sect or group was formed in late 1800s. He promptly falls under the same spell and travels back to Angkor Wat to participate in the same ritual to find the ultimate sexual fulfillment which will later lead to a propitious reincarnation.
I am averse to things religious and spiritual, especially when they are so far-fetched and contrived to be utterly ridiculous as this story. I don’t know what this writer thought he would achieve when writing this weird story. It may have been inspired by the author’s readings of D. H. Lawrence but is nowhere near that. This story does not belong in this anthology.
Reunion – Christopher G. Moore

This is more of journalist’s account of a boy named Rith Samnang, or Sam for short, who survived the Khmer Rouge, a refugee camp and hard years in the U. S. Like many young Khmer without education he ran afoul of the law in California and was convicted of armed robbery and attempted murder in a gang-related case. He served 7 years, which he also survived more or less intact. The U. S. deported him back to Cambodia after his release as he had not obtained U. S. citizenship (like many before him). Here he reinvented himself and became a translator for the U. N. Tribunal for War Criminals. Nothing spectacular about this story as expats forums and newspapers cover those stories extensively. One rumor or possibly fact, if you will, got some exposure early on in the story. The Khmer kid claims to have been forced to eat human liver by his superior cadre. After his return he locates this cadre who is now a restaurant owner. The journalist is invited and they eat the restaurant’s signature soup. Sam says to the journalist, “Eat this it will make you a man”. This is the same sentence the cadre told Sam at the Khmer Rouge camp so many years ago. The journalist is disgusted and leaves the restaurant, not knowing whether cannibalism was really practiced or was it just a make believe story to frighten people.

Broken Chains – Kosal Khiev
This is more or less in the same vein as the previous story. However, it was written by a Cambodian young poet who had suffered the same fate and once back in Cambodia became a writer/poet.

Darkness is Faster than the Speed of Light – Prabda Yoon

I couldn’t make head or tails of this story written by a Thai author who sets it in the Olympic stadium in Phnom Penh. A young Thai lady is taken there by a tuk-tuk driver who thinks this is a must-see sight for tourists. The young lady observes some weird scene at the stadium that makes her leave it in fear. There is also some insinuation of some foul play in her hotel room she left that morning. However, this is not really explored and fleshed out with more details. An altogether unsatisfying read.
Dark Truths – Bopha Phorn
The author is Cambodian and worked for the now defunct Cambodia Daily. Obviously she is the editor in the story. If she actually wrote it herself we really have to commend her as the English is perfect. The story itself is about pedophiles for whom Cambodia exerts a magnetic pull for reason we all know. Finally, the 72-year-old accused is indeed sentenced to 8 years in prison. He had a very long record but always managed to be acquitted, whether by bribing the judge, the police, or whoever, remains unclear. The journalist, Mark, covering the court case is ambivalent about all this. It is a well-known fact that child protection NGOs sometimes do trap innocent men making headlines and thereby securing their continued funding at the same time. Mark has a history in the U. K. where he was accused of pedophilia as an accessory himself because his room mate was a pedo. He was acquitted but something always sticks. He becomes so uncomfortable to cover a new case that he decides to excuse himself for a 3-day sabbatical and then actually leaves the paper for good without giving notice. Subsequent internet searches reveal his history to his colleagues who are left flabbergasted or revolted by such a deception.
Surely, there are dark truths in many people’s lives; this could well be a true story.

Play with Fire- Giancarlo Narciso

The initial chapters reminded me of The Postman Always Rings Twice, only set in Cambodia with the characters switched around and a somewhat changed plot. It follows the same pattern with the one difference that the main character gets lucky in the end. Not too bad.
Orders – Christopher West
The author is not an expat but demonstrates intimate inside knowledge of the way Khmer society works. He uses the police to depict both the righteous and the indifferent, both complacent in their way of life but still with a keen sense of what will serve their ultimate purpose. One is the police captain and the other one is a police inspector. Both understand what their place is in this post-Khmer Rouge society without rubbing anybody the wrong way. They each play their role the way it is expected of them by their superiors. This way people in Cambodia survive and some even prosper. Nobody has the will or the desire to rock the boat. Well-being comes before convictions. It may and probably will change but in the meantime this is the way life is in Cambodia.
Sabbatical Term – Richard Rubenstein
Art Pepper is on a research trip to the Khmer Rouge governed Cambodia. An avowed communist he wants to see how the transformation to an agricultural society without money, without personal property, without any freedom progresses. He is coming from China where he had seen the results of the failed Cultural Revolution. Art Pepper meets with the Minister for Social Welfare, a woman who is also married to the Minister for Interior Affairs. At this occasion is also introduced to a small man who turns out to be Pol Pot.
He is then taken on a tour of a new irrigation system in the province and meets a cadre there who does  not hesitate to speak openly about the inner workings and failings of the system. His minder, a beautiful Khmer lady with Indian ancestry, appears also a little disillusioned with the system by now. He goes back to his lectures in the U. S. with a different view of the Khmer Rouge experiment.
It is a well-written inside account as it is known these days – nothing new to people who are familiar with Cambodia and its history. These people might want to skip this story in the book. Others, less familiar, may well like it.
Hell in the City – Suong Mak
This story is recounted by a young Cambodian writer. This is not a polished narration of events but a realistic account of tragic events that happen almost daily in Cambodia. It might be fiction but at the same time it could be true. A look in Cambodia’s papers will confirm this. A worthy read.

Khmer Riche

The defining statement of this story is: “Cambodia had swapped the Khmer Rouge for the Khmer Riche.  The Elite had turned the entire country into a huge tribute system. So much money was concentrated in so few hands.”

A fixer is hired by a rich Khmer son, who inherited his fortune from his father. A foreigner partner in the business has disappeared. He is though to have stolen something valuable and the fixer is charged with finding him and with it the lost item. What the item is first remains secret. He is accompanied by one of the Khmer’s bodyguard who happens to be one of the Cambodian returnees the U. S. sent back after they ran afoul of the law in the U. S. Eventually they trace the disappeared foreigner via the death of a fortune-teller and the story runs its course with a typical noir ending. Great read.

A Coven of Snakes – Bob Bergen

An analyst of all things is asked to look into the death of 7 foreign tourists in the Siem Reap area with fresh eyes. Cambodia is known for its attraction to pedophiles and the 7 (with the exception of the one woman who was into kinky sex) were reportedly after underage kids. So far so good, but then this story takes a turn that really makes the whole plot ludicrous. There is a place near Angkor Wat where certain rituals are performed by Khmer Apsara dancers with a sexual twist. They enthrall the foreigners with their nubile bodies shedding their veils so they stand naked in front of the men. Once the men try to touch the bodies they meet with their sudden death by means of a severed spine executed from behind. Remember, these are pedophiles being seduced by naked female dancers? Give me a break!!!

Rebirth – Neil Wilford

Another implausible story dealing with a barbaric General, also ex-Khmer Rouge of course, who impregnates a girl and wants to keep the baby. Certainly, the country is full of superstition but this story just takes it a little too far. The girl does not want to have the baby and seeks refuge by a down-and-out foreigner looking for an abortion. Eventually, the general’s goons dig up the hiding foreigner who had fled after discovering the girl butchered to death, her fetus ripped from her womb and otherwise mutilated. The general keeps these fetuses in his belief of a multiple after-life (what?) He then frames the foreigner placing him in his room with a bag of white powder and the girls bloody panties. The ending is noir but the story is just plain asinine. Sometimes I wonder whether the writers get off on these stories themselves.
KROM – Christopher Minko

I am not much for poems. Some of them are good, some less so – in my humble opinion. Read for yourself.

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