December 7, 2012 6:15 pm

The sound of silence

A rare novel about the Khmer Rouge terror

In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner, Simon & Schuster, RRP £12.99/$25

 

For the past 30 years, Cambodian writers have chosen memoir as their way to understand and bear witness to Pol Pot’s terror. A few survivors of the genocide have written about their experiences but the scarcity of first-hand accounts of life under the Khmer Rouge remains striking. One can’t help but hear the silence pressing in against the words.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is the debut novel of Vaddey Ratner, who escaped to the US with her mother in 1981, when she was 11. As one of the first novels in English by a survivor of Pol Pot’s regime, it is a landmark book. But it is also a profoundly literary work. Its child narrator, Raami, is our touchstone as we descend into an increasingly callous world. With her, we join the residents of Phnom Penh, ordered at gunpoint to vacate their houses and travel to their ancestral villages. Some 1.7m people, including Raami’s father, would never return home.

The Khmer Rouge leadership demanded absolute loyalty to “the centre”. All other attachments – including mother to child, husband to wife – were treason. “Forgive me,” Raami’s father says, “that I will not be here to see you grow up.”

When her father is taken away, Raami enters a world of pok thor koan thor – having to learn to love people whom she had not expected to love. At the same time, Raami cannot abandon the dead, who give shape to her “as air to balloons”.

Ratner’s language is alive with Cambodian ideas, rituals and poetry, drawing from the Reamker, a Cambodian variant of the Hindu Ramayana, as well as other eastern classics. These tether Raami to her lost father and act as ballast against the slow, painful erasure of self. But as the killing fields envelop more and more Cambodians, a cocooning silence becomes Raami’s fragile barrier against hunger, loneliness and the terrible guilt of survival. As a storyteller, she is at once omnipotent and utterly powerless.

Ratner shows us the destruction but she also shows us the life – the unnerving, bountiful life – that persists. The vividness of Ratner’s writing and the richness of her story, presented through unashamedly Cambodian eyes, mark this novel as an extraordinary literary achievement.

Madeleine Thien is the author of Dogs at the Perimeter (Granta)

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