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Oum Suphany: ក្រោមតំណក់ទឹកភ្លៀង (Under the Drops of Falling Rain)

When you have suffered the way the Cambodian people have suffered under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, there is really only one topic for literary works. This book is presumably autobiographical. On the back cover, it says that it is a novel and on the front a non-fiction story. In an afterword, Suphany gives us not only her real name but the real names of her family and her husband and, as these differ from the characters in the book, we can take it that there is some fictionalisation.

The story actually starts in 1983, post-Pol Pot but Khun, the narrator, soon takes us back to the Pol Pot era. She and her family lived in Phnom Penh but, while she is visiting her sister in hospital, the Khmer Rouge empty Phnom Penh and she and her sister are separated from the rest of the family and she never sees them again. (In the postscript, Souphany says that her four of her six sisters and her parents died during this period.) She and her sister are gradually herded out to a remote village and then are separated as Khun goes to a work camp, where her reminiscences of this period start. She has to do heavy work, carrying mud for earthworks, which she finds very difficult. At night, they sleep close together in a hut which, while it has a roof (in bad repair,) has no walls and the wind and rain come in. Her neighbour, Da, sleeps but she cannot. During the night, soldier from what Khun calls the secret army come and arrest Da (apparently she had dared to speak to a young man from the village) and she is take away and never seen again. The next day Khun collapses while working and is taken to the hospital. Her sister later arrives from the nearby village and is in very bad shape. Khun struggles to get her food – there is not enough food for anyone – but the sister seems unable to eat.

After her release from the hospital, she goes back to work but learns that there is to be compulsory marriage for all women over twenty-five, which Khun is. It seems that people are deliberately paired with people who are different from them – the good-looking with the ugly, the tall with the small and so on. Khun is paired with a man five years younger than her, Pichet. That night, she makes it very clear to him that he must not cross the boundaries but he warns her that if they do not seem to be procreating they risk being shot and, indeed, those couples where one or both refuse to be part of the couple are taken off for further study, i.e to be shot. Khun and Pichet play their part so well that they are hailed as a model couple. Khun seems a very nice man and he helps her get food for her sister and is very supportive of her. Gradually she grows very attached to him. Then he is suddenly removed to be taken off for an army patrol, to deal with the incursion of the Vietnamese and does not return. Khun is devastated. The situation is made worse when she learns that her sister has died. Meanwhile, news is creeping out that the Vietnamese have taken Phnom Penh. One day all the guards suddenly disappear. They decide to escape the village and we are given a description of a harrowing journey, where they steal food, are almost bombed by a plane, meet Khmer Rouge guards who move them out of the way so that they can fight the Vietnamese and who warn them that the Vietnamese are vicious torturers.

The 1983 part, which is interspersed with the earlier part, is far less interesting. Khun is the only woman, among a group of twelve, whose role is to go out to more remote parts of the country and persuade the locals of the benefits of the new regime. Apart from eventually meeting a group of renegades, who include Pichet, much of it is fairly bland and straightforward, not least because they meet relatively little opposition. This is, of course, not surprising as the new regime is a huge improvement on Pol Pot’s murderous regime but it makes for less interesting reading, though if you enjoy a they all lived happily ever afterwards ending, then you might appreciate it. However, the earlier part does show the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and, however much we may know about it, a personal story brings it home much more.

Publishing history

First published in 1997 by Oum Suphany
First English translation by Boeng Tonle Sap Publisher in 2011
Translated by Ingrid Muan