Sunday, March 19, 2006

Notes heard on the wind: The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman

Memories are curious things, especially cultural ones. They create strange echoes which have decreasing coherence the longer they carry on, the less coherence they have to the listener, creating greater space for interpretation of the original message. Yet they linger, often tantalisingly, awaiting some body to re-discover them and give them a new lease of life.

Cambodia's memories, a shadow play depicting its former glory, are accidentally dug up by Luc Andrade, himself a fish out of water as a French man born in Cambodia but still very much part of the West, when he discovers a book made of gold leaves. The book depicts the life of Jayavarman, the last king to fully unify Cambodia and give it its sense of self worth. Before being a great king, he learned about the servants and became close friends with one and travelled through the country. He learned about his land whilst discovering how to gain its sense of pride and not be a pawn in regional superpower games.

Luc is kidnaped by an ex-Khmer Rouge who asks him to begin translating the book into vernacular so that it can be understood. Meanwhile he is given a heartbreaking riddle which he understands immediately. Its answer is perhaps part of the wider problem: everybody concerned, barring one or two transgressors, wants the book buried, claiming it is the Cambodian way. The past is a foreign land but travellers need to step into it to understand its relevance.

Luc's friend and guide, Map, works on rescuing him but to do so he needs to atone for his own actions in his land's recent past. As a former soldier he has killed people and taken part in the wars which have left his country vulnerable to the West. He shows hope though, knowing the such atonement may well leave him in jail or worse, as he rebuilds his life and tries to make small changes to his own environment. His use of a mobile phone shows how technology can be used to improve lives in the developing nations by enabling them to carry out their tasks and trades. It is nowhere near as strange and potentially catastrophic as Air, leaving behind small networks of users. It has less to do with giving aid than aiding development through the tools of the trade.

There is a network of voices that develops, each with its own vision of the country, from the recent destructive past to the seemingly distant peace and prosperity. Those who look to listen to each narrative are doomed to the fate of the golden book. Ryman calmly keeps the reader interested in the tapestries even though we know the outcome in all its frustrations.

The echo has been heard but few take time to listen it properly.

Aust Gate Amazon


Anonymous Andy Brouwer said...

Wonderful book, bringing to life the glories of the king of kings, Jayavarman VII, and the legacy of Cambodia's recent bloody past. I loved it.

Visit The King's Last Song review page at:

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Andy Booth said...

At last a book which brings alive the mysterious temples of Angkor.

So many visitors gaze in awe at the monuments and wonder what they would have been like in their day.

10:18 PM  

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