” It took me a few seconds to recall what they were—Radana’s anklets. I hadn’t seen them since we left Phnom Penh. It was now 1977, the camp leader had said. I didn’t know what startled me more now—that there was a specific time, a month and a year, to this perpetual darkness, or that a life and a world I once knew had vanished entirely in the span of only two years. ” (Ch.28, p.285-6)
On April 17th 1975, the Khmer Rouge stormed into Cambodia’s capital city, Phnom Penh, and declared a new government, a new way of life based on Communism. From 1975 to 1979, as the Khmer Rouge leaders attempted to realize their vision of a utopian society—one of the most complete social transformations in modern history, reminiscent of military totalitarianism in Burma and proletarian cultural revolution in China,—families were separated and put into work camps, systematically starved, purged, and executed. It’s against this historical miasma Vaddey Ratner sets her autobiographical novel.
To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss. Under the rules of the Organization we were reduced to this dictum. How was I to live such words? With so many carted away on the tiniest pretense, how could any child believe she would live beyond this day, this moment? How could she hope for tomorrow? (Ch.29, p.296)
In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of (a rather precocious) 7-year-old Raami, who struggles to survive under the Khmer Rouge. Her family is under tremendous threat because her father is a poet of an aristocratic descent. Educated abroad, Sisowath Ayuravann has become disillusioned with the corrupt Cambodian government and is initially sympathetic to what he believes are the ideals of the Khmer Rouge. It’s too late to realize that revealing his royal heritage had been a fateful mistake. The revelation of the privileged background ensues in separation of family. After Sisowath was arrested, Raami and her mother and younger sister are separated from the rest of the family and repeatedly displaced across an increasingly impoverished countryside. Told in Raami’s first-person narrative, it’s through this perspective of a girl, who witnesses atrocities, famine, death of her sister, that the nightmare of Cambodia is unveiled.
In countless instances, we’ve seen family members being separated . . . they keep us fearful and helpless by destroying our most basic sense of security—separating is from family and preventing any connections from being formed. All the more reason to stick together. (Ch.8, p.92-3)
Ratner bears the witness to the unyielding human spirit. Raami, who has been afflicted since infancy with polio, is stricken with a profound and abiding guilt over having revealed her father’s true name to the soldiers. She will spend the rest of the story grieving over his loss, but coming to terms also with her mother’s love, for she always reminds her that silence is conducive to survival. The book becomes more lyrical and the writing more assured as Raami begins to seek refuge in tales and legends drawn from Buddhist tradition, which inspire in her a kind of rapture and sustain her during hardship. This solid debut is a celebration of the resiliency of human spirit and a tribute to the lost.
322 pp. Simon & Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]