Saturday, 31 October 2009

Cambodian Books

When I'm travelling, I like to browse the local bookshops to see what's on offer. Books are not big in Cambodia. There are one or two second hand european bookshops in Sihanoukville, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap offering books that tourists left behind as well as guide books obtained in the same way. They also sell locally printed books - some of these are Cambodian and some are clones of books copyrighted elsewhere. The covers look the same, but inside they are badly printed on cheap paper and you know that the authors aren't getting a penny from these sales. The Cambodian books have titles such as 'They killed my Father First' - this is a country that markets genocide as a tourist attraction.

The best book to make sense of Cambodia's traumatic history is by William Shawcross. 'Sideshow' is the story of how Kissinger and Nixon destroyed Cambodia and lied about their actions. Cambodia was a neutral country during the Vietnam war having only recently made a delicate peace with Thailand and Vietnam. It had its own troubles with insurgents which it naively thought the United States would help it to control. The Cambodian leader Lon Nol had no idea of the real agenda. Neither did Nixon and Kissinger's colleagues at the White House and the Pentagon. Their duplicity and the subsequent cover-up led eventually to Watergate. Kissinger - whose actions re-define the word Machievellian - was clever enough to off-load blame onto Nixon. Kissinger survived; Nixon didn't, and neither did Cambodia or several million innocent Cambodians massacred in the carve-up. In the light of more recent history - George Bush and Iraq - 'Sidehow' is a chilling account of the abuse of power.

'Stay Alive My Son' by Pin Yathay, is available from every street seller in every tourist location, though I doubt that the author makes much money from the poorly produced copies. The book is beautifully written by a high-ranking Cambodian engineer who first welcomed the Khmer Rouge as liberators and then suffered the consequences. His first hand account of the expulsion from Phnom Penh and the way his family were forced to march out into the countryside alongside hundreds of thousands of others, is utterly compelling to read. The villages, growing rice for subsistence, couldn't support the huge numbers imposed on them by the Khmer Rouge and starvation became widespread. Pin Yathay escaped to Thailand, walking through the rainforest, but 17 members of his family died, including his children. They became his reason to survive. 'Only through my survival would their lives have continued meaning ..... And there was another reason to survive - I wanted to tell the world what had happened, to testify to the Cambodian holocaust, to tell how the Khmer Rouge had programmed the death of several million men, women and children, how a beautiful, rich country had been demolished, plunged into poverty and torture.'Cambodia's ancient history and archaeology should have generated a mass of books, but there are surprisingly few, apart from the guide books, and they are all expensive - prices start around $50. I started reading with the first diarists who visited the Cambodian court. A chinese emissary called Zhou Daguan was sent to Angkor by Kubla Khan in the 13th century and his account of what he found, 'The Customs of Cambodia', is the best guide to how the civilisation functioned and what the buildings looked like in their original state. By the 16th century the cities and temples were in ruins and Cambodia was being fought over by its neighbours and the big colonial powers. A Spanish Dominican Friar, Gabriel Quiroga de San Antonio, (A Brief and Truthful Relation of Events in the Kingdom of Cambodia) reported on its potential for conquest in 1598 to Philip III of Spain. Despite the kingdom's reported wealth, it's people, he noted, were 'miserable and deserving of pity'.

There were several travellers tales published in the 17th and 18th centuries, recording the glories of Angkor Wat, but no one seems to have taken much notice until Henri Mouhot went there in 1859, recording his observations in journals and drawings - published posthumously by his wife. On the country itself he wrote 'The present state of Cambodia is deplorable, and its future menacing.' When he was taken to see the ruins of Angkor Wat he could not believe that he was in the same kingdom, but 'transported as if by enchantment' and presumed the temple had been built by a lost civilisation. 'What became of this powerful race, so civilised, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works?' The temple itself he thought 'a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michael Angelo .... is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome, and presents a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged.' Mouhot died in Laos, where he wrote 'insects are in great number and variety, musquitoes and ox-flies in myriads. I suffer dreadfully from them, and am covered with swellings and blisters from their bites'. His last diary entries were written in a shaking hand. '19th Oct. Attacked by fever'. '29th Oct. Have pity on me, oh my God ......'

Mouhot's book 'Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos and Annam', began a craze for the 'lost temples'. The French sent a research team out in 1866 to survey the sites, followed by archaeologists, keen to excavate. A Scottish photographer John Thomson also travelled there, publishing the richly illustrated and almost unobtainable 'Straits of Malacca' , and a young American recorded his impressions in 1872 - Frank Vincent's 'Land of the White Elephant'. Cambodia was by now a French protectorate, so most of those who wrote the records were French.
In 1916 Henri Marchal, the 'father of Angkor' became the curator of the temples after his predecessor was murdered by bandits. Marchal loved Cambodia and describes its landscape with passion: It has an 'unrivalled charm...... either in the morning hours, when the sun begins to pierce the forest, or at twilight when shadows spread mystery over the palm-trees and the water gathers the last rays of the sun'. He spent almost the whole of his life there, dying in Siem Reap in 1970. But it was Maurice Glaize who wrote the famous guidebook 'Les Monuments Du Groupe D'Angkor' first published in 1943 and subsequently updated. It's available on the internet in English translation at

Sunday, 4 October 2009

The Poetry Challenge: Owen Sheers, Skirrid Hill

When I committed myself to reading one collection of poetry a month, I promised to read some new poets and not just old favourites. Owen Sheers was born in 1974 in Fiji, but brought up in Wales at Abergavenny where his family have roots.

The cover of his collection Skirrid Hill promises 'one of the most exciting new talents around' - a quote from Carol Ann Duffy and 'A gorgeously elegiac volume' - The Guardian - as well as other examples of suspicious hyperbole. Are any other readers put off by 'over-quoting' on the cover?

Owen Sheers, like the Cumbrian poet Jacob Polley, is writing out of a particular cultural identity, rooted in a particular landscape. This seems more and more common these days - once to be a 'regional writer' was a term of abuse and poets and authors were encouraged to be 'universal'. But now, as the world of writing gets more crowded we seem to be trying harder to seek ways of making ourselves different - separating ourselves - from all the others. I suppose a strong cultural identity is one way of marking us out. For a Welsh poet, this must be fraught with pitfalls. Just as Jacob Polley has to write in the shadow of William Wordsworth, Owen Sheers has to write looking over his shoulder at the two big T's - Dylan Thomas and RS Thomas.

Both Owen and Jacob were involved in the recent series of programmes on poetry made by the BBC (and well worth watching). Jacob's poem 'Honey' was used as a trailer and Owen was the presenter of the Poets and Landscape programmes. I liked his approach enough to want to read his work.

Both Owen and Jacob have published novels recently and I wonder if there's a feeling that you can't be a real writer unless you've had a work of fiction in print? Is it not enough to be a poet? (Very tempting to put a 'just' in there, so I suppose that's the answer.) I read Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town (see earlier review), but I haven't yet read Owen Sheers' novel Resistance - just watched the interview on YouTube.

Skirrid Hill, published by Seren Books, has been around since 2005 when it won the Society of Authors Somerset Maugham Award. It is now on the schools' poetry syllabus, quite a coup for such a young poet. The poems express Owen's sense of place - in a poem Inheritance (after R.S. Thomas) he acknowledges not only his poetic ancestors but his genetic legacy:

From my father a stammer
like a stick in the spokes of my speech.
A tired blink,

.....From my mother
a sensitivity to the pain in the pleasure.
The eye's blue ore,

I'm always intrigued by the criteria poets use to put together a collection - is it a snapshot of what they're writing at the time? Or is it thematic? Some of Owen Sheers poems have no obvious linkages. There are war poems, perhaps sparked off by research for his novel, - mentions of Robert Capa, Manetz Ridge - that sit alongside memories of blackberrying on the way home from school, an account of his mother's death, an Indian marriage, the breakup of a relationship.

There are poems that remember childhood - a gentle rural childhood, on the bare bones of the Welsh hillside, where he helped his grandfather with the sheep, detailing the things we do to animals to turn them into a food crop without sentimentality or accusation. It brought back memories for me of helping my own father with the sheep.

It made me feel like a man
when I helped my grandfather
castrate the early lambs -

picking the hard orange O-rings
from the plastic bag
and stretching them across the made-to-purpose tool,

This is the landscape that RS Thomas portrayed with such exactness and no compromise. Owen Sheers inclines more towards the romantic. He uses images brilliantly - an obsolete steelworks lies 'A deserted mothership/becalmed on the valley's floor.' A flooding river is 'bleeding through the camp like ink from a broken cartridge', Swans on a winter lake float like 'icebergs of white feather'.

But there are also surprising poems, including a sensitive account of breast cancer.

She hears the words he uses
and is quietly surprised by how language can do this:

how a certain order can carry so much chaos,
and how that word, with its hard C of cruelty

and soft c of uncertainty,
seems so fitted to the task.

I understood the references in the cover quotes to elegy - things past and passing haunt the poems. Two lovers look back at the ground under the trees where they have lain and see:

a double shadow of green pressed grass, weight imprinted.
A sarcophagus, shallow among the long stems
and complete without them.

Through all the poems the image of Skirrid Hill recurs, a feature in the physical landscape of Owen Sheers' home country, which also refers back to a tiny quote on the title page. 'Skirrid: from the Welsh Ysgyrid, a derivation of Ysgariad meaning divorce or separation.' - So, now I know the theme that links them all.

It's very strange reading such euro-centred poetry in an environment so un-european it can scarcely be imagined. Context really does alter our readings of things. If I was homesick, (and I'm not yet) then this book would be a solace, talking to me about the hills and green places I count as home. The elegiac mood also resonates here in Asia where you do get a sense of things lost and terrible events just beginning to heal over. But the Asian setting - which is so extreme - also made the poetry seem just a little insipid.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Woman Who Drew Buildings by Wendy Robertson

Readers often have the idea that authors decide their own covers. Not so - it's usually the publisher and we get little say in it. Covers are so important in attracting the right kind of reader and I did wonder who Hodder had in mind for this one. It's a very contemporary novel, with a back story in the nineteen eighties, but the cover seems to suggest a forties, maybe even a thirties atmosphere which doesn't honestly represent the character of the book.

I was intrigued by the title of Wendy Robertson's new novel The Woman Who Drew Buildings - and even more by the story of how she came to write the book (which she posted on her blog) about an elderly woman who gave Wendy- "a box of materials about her travels and experience in Poland in the 1980s.

"Mary knew I was interested in the idiosyncrasies of letters, notebooks, images and ephemera that I used to inspire my novels. I was, she said, to use them as I wished. We had long talks about her experiences and the dilemma of using them as inspiration, for what I knew would be - in fact -pure fiction. It has taken me some years to develop my imaginative take on on all this material and all these ideas in order to allow the novel to emerge of its own volition. It became more fluid - easier - when my purely imagined characters got to grips with the material of their true to life inspiration.

The Woman Who Drew Buildings is ...... about a mother and her grown up son - Marie and Adam Matheve - who are estranged; about the romance of buildings; about the world here and now, and the world in the 1980s when Poland was under the unravelling Soviet domination; it’s about out-of-body experiences; it’s about the rejuvenating circles of redemption that can come out of crisis. And it’s about the long-kept secrets and the different kinds of love that glue our lives together."

I found it refreshing that the book was not about the terrible events of the second world war in Poland, but about more recent events in that troubled country's history - the impact of Russian oppression and the rise of the Solidarity Movement. I remember cheering Lech Walesa on whenever he appeared on the television news, his huge drooping moustache making him look like someone's grandfather - the kind of bloke you might meet down the pub, rather than an astute political operator who was going to influence the future of a whole area of europe.

The novel features a group of very different people - Marie Matheve, a detached, self-contained woman with a gift for drawing and a passion for historical buildings. Adam, her bewildered, angry, rather too self-sufficient son. Sharina, Marie's feisty teenage-single-mum neighbour, and the Polish family Marie met on her visit to Poland in the nineteen eighties.

Adam suffers from never having been told who his father was, and also from his mother's lack of ability to bond with him. When the novel opens he hasn't seen his mother for 2 years and on the day of what was to be their reunion, he finds her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. Like John Banville's Infinities, the heroine lies in a coma, hovering in no-man's land, while those around her try to piece her story together and make sense of their relationships. In her flat, Adam finds a box of diaries and drawings and he begins a journey that will lead him towards his own identity.

The book is beautifully structured to create suspense, while delivering just the right amount of back-story. Wendy keeps the reader guessing until the final 'reveal' at the end. The character of Sharina was wonderful! But I would have liked more information on Marie herself - we're given only a glimpse of her own austere upbringing and I would have liked more so that I could have understood better why she found it so difficult to love and be loved.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like the way Wendy sets her books so subtly in the North East - not in some gritty, Catherine Cookson territory peopled by alcoholics and violent abusers - but a softer, contemporary community where neighbours still look out for each other and kindness hasn't been completely forgotten. Wendy doesn't avoid the realities of modern society - what she gives is a balanced view. I like the way her work as a creative writing tutor in prisons informs her understanding of her characters and the fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) glimpses of 'life inside'. Wendy's books are - to quote Pat Barker - 'A blend of accessibility and total sincerity'.

'The Woman Who Drew Buildings' was published by Hodder Headline in September 2009. As part of the Durham Book Festival, Wendy will be on a panel discussing the benefits of original writing for women in prison, on October 27, at the Gala Theatre, Durham.