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Vaddey Ratner: In the Shadow of the Banyan

Raami is seven years old at the beginning of this novel, clearly based on Ratner herself, when she was five. The Khmer Rouge are attacking Phnom Penh and the sound of shelling can be heard all too often. Raami lived with her family – father, Ayuravann Sisowath, mother, Aana, and younger sister, Radana, as well as maid, nanny and gardener – in a nice house in Phnom Penh. Her father – the name she uses is, in fact, Ratner’s father’s real name, is a descendant of King Sisowath, both in the novel and in real life. They are clearly of the upper class and, in fact, have royal blood. Raami’s father is a poet and does not appear to work, though he had been a university professor of literature. When the Khmer Rouge finally do win, her father is pleased because it means the end of the fighting but also the end of Cambodia’s feudal ways. However, he will soon change his mind. A young man in a black peasant’s outfit turns up at the house. Raami is very disappointed that he is not in a fancy uniform decorated with stripes and medals and stars. He orders them to leave the house and head for the country. Where? Anywhere. They have to leave because of the risk of bombing by the US.

However, everyone is trying to leave the city, driven out by the Khmer Rouge. The Sisowaths have a BMW and the car edges slowly along through the throngs of people leaving on foot, on bicycles and in carts. The Khmer Rouge soldiers are directing people and, in some cases, are being quite brutal. Eventually the Sisowaths get away and meet the rest of the family at their country house. The rest of the family is Big Uncle, Ayuravann’s brother, his wife and twin sons. They stay there for a while, till they are again driven out. This time they have to abandon the car and many of the things they have brought with them. Along with many others, they are taken by packed and decrepit boats and then a lorry to a remote place in the country. Raami sees her first dead body, floating in the river. From there, things get steadily worse. They just seem to be settling in one place, when they are moved off elsewhere. The family is separated and we focus on Raami and her mother. The revolutionary fervour of the Khmer Rouge guards gets stronger and stronger, as their prisoners are urged to work harder and are ruthlessly treated if they do not obey.

This could just have been an account of the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge and a catalogue of their cruelties but Ratner is such as good writer that she makes it much more. Yes, Raami goes from hope to total despair but she frequently surfaces from her despair to think about her father, to whom she was devoted, and his words of wisdom, to think of her early life and to think of the myths and legends of Cambodia, which, as a child, she has read. In the first place they stop, after being taken away, her father meets the guardian of a nearby temple, whom he had known earlier, and he shows Raami and her father around, both feeling strongly the power of the temple and its role in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge, of course, are totally opposed to religion and the guardian will be one of many driven away from his home. The aim of the Khmer Rouge is to have everyone devoted to the Revolution which, at first, means getting rid of the intellectuals and the bourgeois of the past and later means resisting the Vietnamese who invade Cambodia. By moving people around the country, as happens all too often to Raami and her mother, and by breaking up families, they aim to prevent any opposition forming. When they spot any opposition, real or imagined, it is brutally expunged, as we see on several occasions.

We know that Raami and her mother escape, as she has written this book but, at times, you wonder how they possibly could do so. It is, in many ways, an unpleasant book, as it is hard to imagine that people could be as cruel as the Khmer Rouge, even though we now know of the terrible crimes committed by the Pol Pot regime. However, Ratner tells her story very well and mixes in the good things – the occasional kindnesses, the family closeness and the thought of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge took over, not to mention the hope that, one day, the horror will end. While this story needed to be told and I am glad to have read it, I look forward to a novel from Cambodia that shows the country in a more positive light.

Publishing history

First published in 2012 by Simon & Schuster