Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The King's Last Song

The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman
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's review
Mar 24, 2011

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bookshelves: 2011, fiction, historical-fiction
Read in April, 2011 — I own a copy

The King's Last Song tells two parallel stories, the first set predominantly in 2004 (with flashbacks to the 60s and 80s) around a great find at an archeological dig at Angkor Wat: a book of golden leaves, a hundred and fifty-five leaves of gold inscribed with the personal story and history of one of Cambodia's greatest kings: Jayavarman VII, a Buddhist who brought the Path to all levels of Cambodian society, built great temples and other structures, and treated the lowliest of categories (castes) as well as the noblest. The leader of the UN dig team, a Frenchman who grew up in Cambodia, Professor Luc Andrade, goes with the army - led by General Yimsut Vutthy - to airlift the precious find to Siem Reap, there to be restored, translated and displayed. The move is kept secret because chances are high that the treasure will be stolen and sold off in pieces, but on the way to the airstrip the worst happens: a gunfight breaks out, Luc and the General are taken captive along with the book, and whisked off to a small, smelly boat where they're kept locked up in the hull.

The Professor made friends among the Cambodian locals, and while the army, the Patrimony Police and APSARA, the organisation that protects Cambodian artefacts and monuments, handling tourist agencies and art thieves, all launch into investigation mode, two of Luc's friends and helpers - William, a smart and charismatic motoboy who works for the UN dig team, and Loak Tan Map, an ex-Khmer Rouge killer who now works for the Patrimony Police, start their own investigation to find their friend.

The other story is interwoven between the present-day story and tells a fictionalised history of Jayavarman in 12th-century Cambodia - the author's notes at the end explain which parts are based on known fact and which he took liberty with to create the story.

While I did find Jayavarman's story interesting, I felt much more detached from it and found it hard to follow at times - the people and place names are tricky and I could have used a map of 12th century Cambodia (and modern-day Cambodia too) to understand the movement of armies and invaders and alliances. The modern-day story I found more compelling, more tragic and more ... humanising.

Despite the lack of maps which really help me orient myself and the characters within the story, there is a fantastic sense of place here. Sure Cambodia is completely foreign to anything I've lived in, including Japan, but it's more than that - it's the fine details and the care Ryman takes to share the beauty of the land and the poverty, the resilience, the innovativeness of the people. The modern-day story goes into the heart and hearth of people and their homes, their histories and their cares and their culture. I really don't know much about Cambodia, and my understanding hasn't really improved for having read this, despite all the detail and no doubt honest depiction of the people - I can only ever really see them through my white colonial eyes as long as the only voice I'm hearing is a white colonial one, but that doesn't mean I can't be sympathetic. The parts of the modern-day story that really resonated with me were those that grasped the larger context, the tragic modern history, and showed a people yearning to be whole again.

Where the novel disappointed me was in the writing. Ryman was often able to render a scene or a character's feelings or thoughts into a kind of abstract visual art, yet more often than not the prose was needlessly vague, unconnected and confusing. It was not a cohesive narrative by any means, and it gave me the impression of an author who's not in complete control of his craft. The words were mastering Ryman, instead of the other way around. This impression isn't helped by the poorly copy-edited text, rife with typos, missing adverbs, and a weird mishmash of Canadian and British English spelling that did my head in.

(Also, it did strike me that even when the characters are speaking their native language, Khmer, to each other, we're getting it in English - broken English, which makes them all sound a bit stupid. There's no need to drop articles if they're speaking in their own language, even if it's written in English. It seemed a bit patronising.)

There was also the issue of trying to follow events - not just the general plot, which was mostly straight-forward if confusing because of the difficulty in keeping track of some minor characters; but Cambodia's recent political past. Through the character of Map, we get a vivid example of what it was like back in 80s with the Khmer Rouges running rampant. But I have no idea what was going on, I couldn't follow the political structure (of government and rebels) at all, the Vietnamese equation only seemed to worsen my confusion, and because there was no map of the region I couldn't tell up from down. Passages like this (from the 80s section) attempt to give some context but fail miserably:

Cambodia was at war and not at war. Every day five or six things happened: a city would be shelled, land mines would explode, or someone would be kidnapped. Prince Sihanouk's rebel force, the ANS, had an agreement with the government's army not to shoot each other. But the Sihanoukists still fought the Vietnamese. On April 13, perhaps to celebrate the start of New Year, the ANS had blown up the Vietnamese gas depot in Samrong. (p.118)

Which is then followed by one of Ryman's vivid descriptions:

Phnom Penh town was in worse shape than anyone had told them. Many buildings still had no roofs. The roads were lined with rusty hulks, cars that had been abandoned thirteen years before. There were no streetlights. At night it was pitch black and dangerous. You'd hear people peeing, crying, fighting, shouting abuse, and see nothing. It smelled of rotting leaves, rotting fruit, and excrement. The children's clothing hung in strips. Hungry eyes followed them, and even Map and Veasna walked closer together, guns at the ready. (p.118)

But when I could follow the political machinations, the revelations were astute and made me wish I knew more. Towards the end, one ex-Communist leader has this to say about the war:

"Pol Pot, he's got the Vietnamese fighting with him! Four divisions show up to make him king. But Pol Pot is crazy, out of his mind, so in 1971 the CPK Congress names Vietnam..." Pich has to stop and draw a long breath. "And these are the actual words, 'the long-term acute enemy'! Saloth Sar kills about a thousand trained, sensible, politically aware, intelligent Cambodian Communists because, only because, they've lived in North Vietnam. And he passes ... oh! ... passes the party over to twelve-year-olds. And he wins! But only because the Americans were SO STUPID. He takes over the country. He's so incompetent; he kills a million people without even knowing he's done it! How do you kill one million people by mistake and not know?" Pich is shouting. "And now nobody, nobody in all Southeast Asia, wants Communism ever again. They don't want socialism ever again! They don't want liberalism ever again. It all smells of death to them. So who was dumb and who was smart and who won? The Americans!" (p.337)

Even if I only get some of those references, the meaning is still clear, and makes me remember just how little I know about the region's history. In fact, it's not all that popular a topic of study, is it. I didn't know Cambodia was caught up in the Vietnam war, for instance - which is what I deduce from the above. Australia went to war for America in Vietnam, but it doesn't get taught much in schools. It's sad: we're more likely to study (because it's offered) the Tudors and the French Revolution than arguably more important conflicts, on both political, ideological and geographical fronts, that occurred not so long ago and not so far away either.

I haven't said much about the characters, and that's mostly because the main character is Cambodia itself, but William the motoboy and Map definitely carry their parts of the story well. Luc is interesting but more of a plot device, fleshed out but only in service to the plot. There are other characters, some more subtly portrayed than most, but there are so many you get a sea of Cambodian faces in your head, and they start to blur together. The 12th century story was less dynamic, and the characters were both more simplistic and harder to follow, especially when dealing with the Chams (who I think are now called Vietnamese?) and all the numerous princes. Though I did like the creation of a character who didn't really exist, the king's deformed son by his consort, who gave a more human and bitter perspective of Jayavarman. Even heroes have flaws and make bad decisions.
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message 1: by Trice (new) - added it

Trice sounds fascinating!

Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship Thanks for an amazingly in-depth and helpful review!

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