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Book Review

A sweeping historical novel set in Cambodia

By Julie Wittes Schlack
October 16, 2008
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The King's Last Song
By Geoff Ryman
Small Beer, 352 pp., paperback, $16

At a press briefing in the midst of the Tet offensive in Vietnam, a US Army major said of a town that had just been razed by air strikes, "We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it."

Partially set in the Vietnam War era, Geoff Ryman's brilliant new novel, "The King's Last Song," is permeated by the theme of salvation through destruction. In parallel narratives, Ryman reveals the (imagined) memoir of 12th-century ruler and Cambodia's greatest king, Jayavarman VII, and presents the history of 20th-century Cambodia, a story of endless and eviscerating civil war. In so doing, he vividly creates a portrait of individuals whose souls are fused with that of their country, both ravaged and beautiful.

Map, a Cambodian policeman who patrols the grounds of Angkor Wat, and William, a young "motor boy," both work for French archeologist Luc Andrade, who has discovered a manuscript etched on gold leaf telling the life story of Jayavarman VII. When Andrade and the manuscript are kidnapped by a small band of Khmer Rouge loyalists, Map and William launch their own, semi-freelance attempt to find him. Meanwhile, in captivity and racked by malaria, Andrade feverishly reflects on his own past as he translates the writing on each leaf.

Jayavarman VII is best known as the ruler who expanded and unified the Khmer empire, finally defeating and annexing the territory of Champa - modern-day south and central Vietnam - after 22 years of war. However, his legacy is not as a military conquerer, but rather as a spiritual leader and builder. Under his regime, Mahayana Buddhism supplanted Hinduism as the prevailing religion, and a network of temples, roads, residences, and hospitals was built, making Angkor (the territory composing contemporary Cambodia) the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.

This king struggles to be a warrior who heals, a ruler who aligns himself with the slaves, who writes after conquering the Cham in a horrific battle and retaking Angkor's capital, "I saw the faces of my burnt people wandering through their burnt streets. They could only rustle like leaves in the wind. They could only stare as they have always stared: hungry, bewildered, and angry."

And his bloodiness, his compassion are paralleled in the tortured soul of Map. A Khmer Rouge soldier since the age of 12, a killer who witnessed the death of his family and of his simple dreams, he reflects on his country's past and present. "Map wanted to weep for his people and their children," Ryman writes. "They wait all day in the sun to sell the beautiful cloth that is spun on bicycle wheels by people with no legs. They get up at 4:00 a.m. to buy tins of Coke and bottles of water and they carry the ice four kilometers and they are six years old."

Practically every passage in this mesmerizing novel is as heartbreaking and beautiful as this one. Ryman - best known as a fantasy writer but one who proved his power as an author of nuanced, rich historical fiction in the unsung novel "Was" - has not so much created as revealed a world in which the promise of redemption takes seed even in horror.

Julie Wittes Schlack is a Cambridge-based writer and facilitator of online communities.

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