Portraits of ancient Khmer kings

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Faces representing nearly 700 years of ancient Khmer history (6th-14th centuries AD)

Six hundred years of Khmer kings disguised as gods. All were done during the lifetime of the king. They represent the king as devaraja, god-king, so that the king could be represented as Shiva (the god with a third eye in the middle of the forehead) in a statue in a Shivaite temple, Vishnu (four arms) in another temple, and as Buddha in Buddhist temples (Buddhism was not regarded as a distinct religion).

Devaraja statues had two purposes, to identify the king as the legitimate source of power, derived from the god, and, through copies set up in temples throughout the kingdom, to mark his domains. Hence the need for recognisable portraits – they were identifying individual kings. If the kingdom fractured, as it sometimes did, rival claimants to the throne would set up their own statues, but these would be destroyed when the kingdom was reunified.

The devaraja cult lives on today – the king is still an incarnation of the god Vishnu, which accounts for the popularity of the Vishnu shrine on the Riverfront in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Source:

Portrait Statues of the Ancient Cambodian (Khmer) Devaraja or Divine Kings, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, 8 January, 2009 (pdf file)

 

Angkor Tears

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 9.18.23 AM.pngSteven W. Palmer’s latest Cambodia thriller is out. The subject is child trafficking, and the story is fittingly grim. It has a likeable hero (a Khmer cop) and an evil villain who – well, let’s see if anyone puts a hand up. Steven Palmer himself is a well-known figure around Phnom Penh, a leading light of the growing Cambodia noir movement. Kevin Cummings has an interview with him which is worth reading, and a very useful word-snapshot:

Steven W. Palmer is a Scottish expat currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has been living in Asia since 2012 and currently works as Managing Editor for three magazines published in Cambodia. His previous working life has seen him work in diverse roles from drugs counselor to social worker to DJ and promoter. He has self-published two previous novels; ‘Angkor Away’, the first in the Angkor series which introduced Chamreun to the world, and ‘Electric Irn Bru Acid Test’; a coming of age story set in 1980s Scotland and part of the planned ‘Glas Vegas’ trilogy. Palmer is part of the thriving South East Asian Noir movement, which spans literature, poetry, art, photography and music.

The book is available now on Kindle and on smashwords. I understand there’ll be a print version in Monument in a few weeks. There’s also a nice trailer on You Tube with atmospheric images and a gutsy soundtrack from Krom, Phnom Penh’s own noir blues band.

Lord Jim at Angkor

peter+essaie+2.jpg“Lord Jim is a silly book; it reads like a story in Boys’ Own” – Graham Greene.

Joseph Conrad wrote : “If you want to know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm. But what storm can fully reveal the heart of a man ? Between Suez and the China Sea are many nameless men who prefer to live and die unknown. This is the story of one such man. Among the great gallery of rogues and heroes thrown up on the beaches and ports, no man was more respected or more damned than … Lord Jim”.

P15.jpgPeter O’Toole, fresh from Lawrence of Arabia (no one does dying duck in a thunderstorm better), came to Cambodia to make the movie version. The year was 1964. Screenwriter/director Richard Brooks had bought the rights for $6500 in 1958, and was in love with the story. You know how it goes – Jim, English mate on a merchantman carrying Asian pilgrims on the Haj to Mecca, disgraces himself and so must seek redemption through death in the wild Malay islands.

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Peter O’Toole with Dahlia Lavi

What’s Angkor doing in Malaya? Never mind, this is Hollywood. Cast and crew stayed at the Auberge Royale des Temples, built in 1909 in front of Angkor Wat where today the tourist busses and tuk-tuks park. Brooks spent well over half a million dollars building new air-conditioned rooms. “That hotel!” raged O’Toole in an interview afterwards. “More expensive than Claridge’s! Ten flaming quid a night [$28] and a poxy room at that. Nicest thing you could say about the food was that it was grotesque.”

The stars included James Mason (“Lolita”) and the Kurt Jürgens (“The Spy Who Loved Me”). The heroine was Dalia Lavi, just 16 – she got into the movie business through Kirk Douglas, who spotted her in the street when she was ten and offered to adopt her and take her off to live with him. Her parents declined, but he gave them a generous donation that allowed her to study ballet in Sweden. Director of cinematography, Freddie Young, the cinematographer on “Lawrence of Arabia”, shot scenes in the Bayon temple and Preah Khan (the HQ of the movie villains), at the South Gate of Angkor Thom, and in the surrounding jungles and rivers. And from the look of this very atmospheric still, on the moat at Angkor.

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The temperatures were over 40º Celsius and there were no bars or good restaurants in Siem Reap, Pub Street being still a muddy alleyway (as indeed it still was when I first visited in 2001 – how time flies), but there were lizards and bats and mosquitoes, and dysentery and heat-rash, and snakes hanging from the branches of the trees. One of the crew members was bitten by a cobra and died. The local cops were unpleasant and the officials expected bribes.

There was also Prince Sihanouk, growing ever more anti-American over US support for anti-Sihanoukist rebels. Spontaneous demonstrations were scheduled in Phnom Penh for the second week of March 1964, and a mysterious Frenchman advised the movie-makers to get out early. Brooks rushed the project through, shooting 18 hours a day, and left just before 10,000 people marched through the streets of Phnom Penh shouting the usual slogans and attacking the US and British embassies. Sihanouk himself denounced the recently-departed film-makers as capitalist invaders. As a royal spokesperson later explained:

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For a film producer, even one of real talent, what is Cambodia? The ruins of Angkor… and that is all. So, a run-of-the-mill script is hurriedly written, one or two flashy stars are hired, one adds a mixture of eroticism and violence, advance promotion dwells on the same hold hackneyed themes (…scorpions lurking in boots… the poverty of the people… etc.) and the whole plot is put in motion.

Graham Greene would no doubt nod. Let’s let Peter O’Toole have the final say:

If I live to be a thousand, I want nothing like Cambodia again. It was a bloody nightmare. I really hated it there. How much so you can judge by the fact that after six months in the Orient I hadn’t picked up a single word there, whereas after nine months in the desert on Lawrence I was speaking Arabic pretty well.

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Sources:

•  Andy’s Cambodia

• Dahlia Lavi recalls the making of Lord Jim

• Stills at A Day for All Nights cinema blog

 

 

 

Pierre does Angkor

pierre-loti-sit-like-an-egyptianIt’s a little difficult to take Pierre Loti (1850-1923) seriously. No: it’s bloody near impossible. His life was a bundle of weird. In 1904 (for example), in Constantinople, he was drawn into a plan to liberate a Turkish concubine from the harem; the plot was discovered, the woman died in purdah, and Loti, distraught, wrote a novel about it. (Les Désenchantées, 1906). A heartbreaking tale – except it emerged that the lady was neither dead nor Turkish, but a Frenchwoman who had taken the romantic chump for a ride because she’d thought it might be amusing, and faked her death when Pierre got a bit too much.

Pierre was always a bit too much. He loved costumes. He joined the navy as a common sailor and dressed as a Turk, and when he became an officer he dressed as a sailor. Richard Burton, of course, had done likewise, but nobody laughed at Burton, not unless they wanted an impromptu appendectomy; Loti, au contraire, was unkindly called “a dressed-up organ-grinder.”

pierre-loti-arabHe was, nevertheless, one of the most wildly successful authors of his day. Far-away, romantic places were his thing. He would travel, produce a book, and sit back and wait for the spin-offs. His Tahiti book, Le marriage de Loti, lies behind Delibes’ opera Lakme, and Miss Saigon can trace its ancestry via Madam Butterfly to his novel of Japan, Madame Chrysantheme.

How could a man like Loti resist the lure of Angkor? He first saw the liana-tangled towers as illustrations in a colonial review at the impressionable age of 15, and got there, a well established as a man of letters, in 1901. The result was Pilgrimage to Angkor (1912):

I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile, again, on another stretch of wall; then three, then five, then ten. … They smile under their great flat noses, and half close their eyelids, with an indescribable air of senile femininity, looking like aged, discreetly cunning old ladies.”

Not everything was so overwrought, thank God. Here he describes the little apsara dancers:

They twist like snakes, these little slender beings, who are so supple and seem to have no bones. Sometimes they stretch their arms like a cross, and then the serpentine ripple begins in the fingers of the right hand, ascends successively by the wrist, the forearm, upper arm and shoulder, passes across the throat, continues,on the other side, follows the other arm and dies away in the finger-tips of the left hand, covered with rings. In real life, these exquisite little ballet-dancers are carefully guarded children, often even princesses of the royal blood, whom none may approach or behold. Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.33.17 PM

After Loti there could be no turning back; he was the Paul Theroux of his day, and he put Angkor on the literary travel circuit. He defined a way of seeing it and feeling it, feminine, dark, inscrutable, through the books of professional traveller to Somerset Maugham and beyond. He’s the grandfather of Angkor gush.

He became the youngest member of the Academie Francaise, beating out Emile Zola for one of the strictly rationed chairs, and on his death was awarded a State funeral. His house in Rochefort, preserved as a museum, contains in its thirty rooms a mosque (including a small fountain and five draped coffins containing desiccated bodies), a Japanese pagoda, a medieval banqueting hall where guests were required to converse in Medieval French, and renaissance, Arabic and Turkish rooms. His own bedroom is like a monk’s cell, but mixing Christian and Muslim objects, the aesthetic, as ever, overwhelming the point.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.14.22 PMSources:

• Michael Freeman, Cambodia (2004)

• Pierre Loti, The Sacred Drama of Cambodia (Mask magazine, 1913, translated by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy).

• Wikipedia, Pierre Loti

• Loti and the Turkish lady

• Loti’s costumes

The soul of Comrade Duch

comradeduch1.jpgIn 2008 Duch, commandant of the Khmer Rouge torture centre at S-21, was interviewed by two psychologists. Their conclusion: We could all have been Duch, given his opportunities.

His childhood was marked by hardship, but not by trauma. He was poor, he suffered from chronic skin lesions and diarrhoea – perhaps he was suffering malnutrition. His father was deeply in debt, and this seems to have been the root cause of the family’s poverty. When he was older he came to understand the lesson: if life is suffering, it is because society is unjust.

He was an outstanding student at school. He changed his name to Guek Eav, alias Duch. Standing stiffly to attention with his arms tight at his sides he explains the meaning of the name Duch: “The schoolboy who stands up when the teacher asks him to stand up.”

He discovered mathematics. He loved mathematics. In the world all was in disorder, but in mathematics  every problem had its solution, and the solution was always beautiful.

He fell in love with a girl. She was studying French literature. He tried to persuade her to take up mathematics instead, but she left him for a boy from a richer family. He was devastated.

He found inspiring teachers who introduced him to communism. Like mathematics, communism was beautiful. Its explanations held the answer to Cambodia’s poverty and social injustice, the poverty that had dogged his father and the injustice that had destroyed his hope of love. He embraced it.

He rose to become head of S-21. At first he was enthusiastic and diligent, but gradually he realised that the Organisation was arbitrary, vicious, and heartless. Anyone might be arrested, tortured, executed, despite their demonstrable innocence. The deaths of children he found inexcusable. Long before the end, he lost his faith in communism.

He found Christianity. His motive, he said, was the love of God. Also, Christianity is the most powerful organisation in the world today, for see how Christianity defeated communism in Poland. And like mathematics and communism, it was from somewhere that was not Cambodia.

Karma is impersonal, it holds out no hope of forgiveness, just an eternal cycle of sin, suffering, and death, in life after life after life. Duch doesn’t deny his sins: “I have done very bad things before in my life. Now it is time for the consequences. (…) My unique fault is that I didn’t serve God, I served men. I served communism. (…) I feel very sorry about the killings and the past. I did not take any pleasure in my work.” Duch has no hope of forgiveness, and wants only peace. Duch-007.jpg

Duch is intelligent,  obsessive, diligent and punctilious, with a keen capacity for analytical thinking. These qualities permitted him to be a brilliant administrator of S-21.

He has a great need to believe and belong. His ability to express emotion is extremely limited, and his ability to empathise with others, to imagine another person’s point of view, is almost totally absent.

He lacks a centre. He has sought certainty, first from mathematics (representing France and science), then communism, finally Christianity. He loves Cambodia and justice and hates lies (mathematics never lies). The flip side is that everything has to be clear-cut, black or white, right or wrong. When he was a communist he was right, and all those who differed from him were liars and traitors.

His advice to the youth of Cambodia: “Making a decision takes a split second, but the suffering lasts a lifetime. My life is filled with regrets. At first I thought the communists were capable of saving my country … Deciding takes a split second, (but) decisions have to be made. They must be very careful in the decisions they make.”

At the end he made two requests of his interviewers: first, a Khmer-French dictionary, French being the language of intellectual discovery; and second, the opportunity to be reunited with the girl he loved in his youth.

 Source: Psychological Assessment Report Concerning Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.

Francoise Sironi-Guilbard and Sunbanaut Ka, for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

War: The Afterparty

America has been almost continuously41ji+HhnucL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg at war since Pearl Harbor. This is in defiance of America’s founding fathers, who believed that the army should be kept small and that the country should not get involved in the affairs of other nations, for war is expensive, expense justifies taxes, and taxes create tyranny.

Since 1942 a quite different ideology has taken over, which Brian Gruber summarises thus:

  • War is cheap;
  • War is perpetual;
  • War is entertainment.

War is not, of course, an entertainment for those involved, but since Vietnam most Americans are not involved. But if not for entertainment, then what have all these wars been for?

America’s bombing of Cambodia began in 1967. America bombed Cambodia into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, then backed the KR in the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia. So America played a role (not the exclusive role) in bringing ordinary Cambodians over two decades of misery. This was one of the little wars.

Gruber’s chapter on Cambodia, like the rest of the book, is a mix of history (accurate so far as I can judge), travelogue (a description of a visit to Tuol Sleng, the KR torture centre), and interviews. I found the interviews the most interesting part. They include Youk Chhang, founder and head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (D-CAM for short), three Western newspaper editors, and Elizabeth Becker, who covered Cambodia before it fell to the Khmer Rouge and interviewed Pol Pot in late 1978. The interviews are partly about personal experience, and partly about the role the American bombing played in driving the rise of to the Khmer Rouge. This is still a controversial matter, but the balance of opinion seems to be that the bombing helped the KR by allowing them to depict the war as one against foreign aggressors in the heavens and their lackeys in Phnom Penh. I found the interview with Becker interesting, and that with Youk Chhang enthralling.

Did America accomplish in Cambodia what it set out to do? The first part of the bombing campaign was aimed at denying supplies to the Communist forces in South Vietnam, and it failed. The second and shortest part was to help prop up the Lon Nol government, and that also failed. The third part, the diplomatic war (if war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, then the converse is also true) supporting the Khmer Rouge in the UN, was largely to pique the Russians and the Vietnamese, and succeeded. A great deal of misery for nothing.

And what was the cost? In the early 1950s and 1960s Cambodia was doing very well in comparison to other Southeast Asian nations. By 1992 it was in ruins, more like Africa than Asia. Only now is the economy getting back to where it once was.

I can highly recommend this book.

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Brian Gruber and friends in Kabul

 

 

Robert Bingham: Lightning on the Sun

lightning.jpgRobert Worth Bingham IV was graced by the malice of God with good looks, great wealth, and impeccable connections. To balance these he was born into a summary of Southern Gothic plot-points – father killed in front of him by an errant surfboard, uncle electrocuted while stringing up party-lights, grandfather suspected of murdering second wife, grandmother’s last words a wish for “a big pink cloud to come down and take me away,” which it did, on the spot.

Success came early and easily:

 [He] was published in the New Yorker at twenty-six and co-edited the most important literary magazine of the nineties (Open City). He was a nightlife persona, throwing parties in his downtown loft that brought together New York’s hippest film stars, musicians and writers. His story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, was lauded as the voice of a generation…

Then he went to Cambodia. Just why, I do not know. Was he suddenly overcome by the emptiness, rocked to the core of his being by the inauthenticity of the unexamined life? I think not. But he was obsessed with death:

 He would joke nervously about carrying on what he called the ‘family curse’. In a 1997 interview in New York magazine, he claimed that ‘the odds aren’t on that I’ll get nailed early because they’ve been used up’.

The Binghams who had not fallen victim to a violent end had a propensity to succumb to drink. Shuffling around a house stacked with pizza boxes, broken furniture and a television set that was never turned off, [Robert] Bingham spent the final years of college wearing rags and swigging Jim Beam straight from the bottle.

When sober, Bingham was a complex man: often abusive, occasionally violent, but also kind, clever and generous with his wealth (he funded one friend through film school and footed the bill for countless other projects that caught his attention). When he was drunk, the ugly side to his character was exaggerated, and even his wildest friends learnt to keep their distance.

In Phnom Penh he played tennis on the courts where Lon Nol’s cabinet were executed and hung out with the other death-seekers at the Thanatos Bar. Sober, he was great company, knowledgeable about Cambodian history, witty and charming; drunk, he began to scream and spit and the scary animal came out. He developed a heroin addiction, wrote for the New York Times, and helped start the Cambodia Daily. He was recklessly fearless, even pulling a gun on a Cambodian official extorting money at a roadblock. Out of it came a novel, Lightning on the Sun.

The plot involves aimless young Asher and his girlfriend Julie (no second names) who come up with a plan to smuggle a large quantity of high-grade Cambodian heroin into America. At the American end is a Julie’s boss at the strip-club where she works, and whom she double-crosses. At the Cambodian end is a Khmer loan-shark who Asher double-crosses. Asher and Julie are clearly not going to end happily ever after, and the end of the line is Kampot.

”Lightning on the Sun” cuts deepest when Bingham lets his wicked sense of humor wield the knife. … Cambodia is more expensive backdrop than truly engaged terrain. But, paradoxically, Bingham’s writing is at its most alive when it is most nihilistic, when he lets the devils play. Crime by crime, none of them committed for any good reason, he constructs for each character an anti-résumé. … Against privilege, he asserts haplessness. Against conscience, a faintly ridiculous stupor. In its way, it’s wonderfully anti-American.

 

 Sources

Chapter 1, Lightning on the Sun

Stacy d’Erasmo, review in the New York Times, April 23, 2000.

Amelia Hill, review in the Guardian, 1 July, 2001

Samantha Gillison, review in Brown Alumni Magazine, July/August 2000

Bob Wake, review in Culture Vulture, 7 July, 2006

Adam Wilson, The American Reader