In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

I primarily read what I’d qualify as “Speculative Fiction”. Lots of things fall under that category. I’m too lazy to define it so I’ll let Wikipedia do it for me:

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term encompassing the more fantastical fiction genres, specifically science fiction, fantasy, horror, weird fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history in literature as well as related static, motion, and virtual arts.

Mostly I read for entertainment, but I also regard the “idea” of reading, books, and literature as a thing almost sacred as religion. Certainly a good book can move my spirit and bring enlightenment. But to truly pay homage to this “idea”, I feel that sometimes I have to go beyond the comfortable and familiar and reach out to experiment with the unfamiliar. I thought I would be doing that with Shadow of the Banyan because of its foreign setting, characters, and references. Shadow of the Banyan is not a Speculative Fiction novel, although it incorporates lots of wonderful references to folklore and religious elements that almost make it seem, at times, like a story about ghosts and gods and demons. It is a fictionalized account drawn from the real life experiences of the author who was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia in 1975. Here is a summary from Goodreads:

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as she endures the deaths of family members, starvation, and brutal forced labor, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival.

As I said, I thought I was stretching my literary senses by choosing this book. Turns out I didn’t. It was comfortable, even in the horrible moments, because it’s something like the stories I’ve heard before in WWII books like Thanks to my Mother by Schoschana Rabinovici , and Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Despite the foreignness, the author had the knack for making the characters easily identifiable and empathetic. The dialogue, at times, was formal and poetic, but I don’t know enough about Cambodian culture to say this isn’t a fair representation of how people really talked or how it would sound if translated into English. What surprised me most was, although it was somewhat autobiographical (the author is careful to say it’s not a memoir), it was never a dry liturgy of facts. It was often poetic and full of imagery, but the story moved at a steady clip. I read it quickly and it gripped me from the beginning.

In reading Banyan, two books I’ve read in the past kept coming to mind: 1984 by George Orwell, and the Che Guevara biography, Che Guevara, A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson. Those aren’t the only books I’ve read on autocratic and/or communistic regimes, but they are the ones that I found myself comparing and contrasting too, over and over. The Big Brother style of management in 1984 closely resembled the Khmer Rouge’s deep fear of subversion and desperate need to strip its society of memory, identity, emotion, attachment, and autonomy. I found little in the Khmer’s behavior to compare with what I understand about Che, even though the Khmer and Che would have both called themselves communists and both revolutions came out of the jungles, primarily fought by uneducated, pastoral soldiers. Whether I agree with him or not, my understanding of Che includes his empathy for people, his personal adhesion to his ideals, and his dedication to researching and fully understanding what it was he wanted to. By comparison, the Khmer seemed uniformed, unprepared and downright crazy. They went beyond idealism into mania and paranoia.

In the Shadow of the Banyan isn’t a political analysis attempting to provide a collegiate understanding of a government system’s rise and fall. It’s a personal story full of bright characters sharing their hopes and tragedies. It has moments of horror, but it’s obvious Ratner had no intentions to shock and awe. She wrote the book as a tribute to her father and her family, and it is a lovely memorial, indeed.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Elizabeth
    Sep 14, 2012 @ 15:21:54

    I read a memoir about Cambodia a few months ago, First They Killed My Father. It was pretty moving, the Khmer rouge was crazy and just destroyed this young girl’s family. This sounds like it might be an interesting complement from the fiction side of the aisle.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: