Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Cambodia Book of the Dead – About a Sinister and Cynical Book

I was intrigued by the first book in a Cambodia setting so I went on to read another one that had a few good reviews on This one is by a German author named Tom Vater who wrote his novels in English. He studied English literature in England where he got his English language skills. His German language background shines through with the occasional literal translation of German sayings and similes. Native speakers might sometimes be wondering at that but in general it does not diminish the book’s overall readability. His style of the first few pages is reminiscent of some classic American noir writers like James Elroy. He doesn’t come even close to the dry style of an Elmore Leonhard or the sarcasm of a Carl Hiassen.

The story is set in 2003 in the seaside town of Kep. Maier, a former war correspondent turned private detective, was hired to bring back the wayward son and heir of a rich German family who bought into a dive shop in Kep to get away from the constraints of a staid Hamburg upper class family. Vater narrates a lot of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge history and the fact that many old Khmer Rouge fighters and generals are still very much involved in the daily running of affairs in Cambodia at that time. In Kep it is a general Tep who seems to be styled after a notorious Khmer Rouge general named Tak who in the 90ies after the UNTAC-sponsored elections attacked a train and took three Western young tourists hostage and later killed them. In fact, former Khmer Rouge are still very much present in today’s Cambodia too but the number is slowly decreasing on account of natural attrition. For the most part they have turned into self-styled, often very successful, rich capitalists. Stone-age communism had never been part of their lives, now, had it?

He depicts the desolate and depressing life that some Western expatriates led at that time not only in Kep but almost all over Cambodia. Cambodia, because of it lawlessness at the time, was a haven that attracted social outcasts from Western society and lured many a Western backpacker into the life of drugs and cheap sex – which even to this day is motive enough for quite a few young Western people to settle in this country. The writer of this blog lived in Cambodia from 1990 until 1994 and part of 1995 and had traveled to Cambodia many times after 2002, has been living here since 2010, and is very familiar with the events that took place during those years.

The author’s historical excursions are mostly correct. However, his description of the old Bokor casino is pure fiction. Apart from a few hardy young tourists hardly anyone ventured up that potholed broken path of what was left of a previously fine paved road. The casino was inaccessible for fear of collapse. The walls were pock-marked with bullet holes dating back to the time this mountain served as a hideout for the Khmer Rouge. Guards prevented tourists from entering.

The scene of some occult celebration in the casino and Maier’s being clubbed unconscious there seems a little far-fetched. His German quarry and he rode up to Bokor on their mopeds all alone with not a soul in sight but then, all of a sudden, you had quite a few people populating the scene, the guards, a Russian expatriate, the policeman he had met in Kep had shown up at the casino out of nowhere, not to mention the mysterious Khmer beauty and the general’s son who partook in that occult scene.

There was a lot of talk of investing in a golf course in the national park there, which in 2003 may have just been a rumor but there were no active plans under way at that time. Nobody really thought of investing in Cambodia at that time to begin with. After the 1997 coup d’état by Hun Sen and the grenade attack on the opposition leader and the 2003 riots against Thai property the country was considered unsafe for any serious investment. Only some fool-hardy adventurers tired of their Western dreary life used what little money they had to open a (oftentimes girlie) bar or a small restaurant there.

Of course, now in 2018 we know that the rumors were not without foundation as the road is now paved and there is indeed a new casino, hotel, a golf course, etc. There was no involvement in the development of Bokor Mountain by former Khmer Rouge members. It has once again become a popular destination not only for tourists but for Khmer people on holidays and weekends.

Tourism in Cambodia did not develop on a larger scale until 2008. There were no hotels on Rabbit Island. Backpackers slept in fishing families’ homes, not in cheap guesthouses like nowadays. There was one major hotel in Kep at that time – the Beach House, which was run by an Australian lady with her Khmer husband. Of course, you had the odd bar in a wooden shack run by some run-down Westerner. A lot of them knew how to tell a tall tale, like the bar owner of that expat bar, a Vietnam vet who told of Vietnamese soldiers who had syringes filled with heroin strapped to their arms and when they were killed the heroin was used by the GIs to shoot up. Come on - give me a break!

The first part of the book deals mostly with the description of Kep and its strange assortment of people, both local and foreign. The second part of the book takes you on a wild ride. The private eye meets up with the sinister and powerful former Khmer Rouge general. Following a dinner invitation to Rabbit Island Vater is received by black-clad Khmer Rouge girls with AK47s, and sitting down with Tep he is unexpectedly and incongruously interrogated by a character called White Spider, who turns out to be a former German SS-officer. This German suspects he is some sort of spy working for whichever secret service, out to destroy the little nest he has built for himself there. Vater is subsequently drugged and inexplicably ends up some 550 km north in Siam Reap. As the story develops it movers farther and farther away from the original quest he was charged with, getting that son home. Instead he gets drugged repeatedly, has some life-threatening encounters with the SS-man’s thugs, uncovers a secret project by the SS-villain to train young gullible orphaned Khmer girls into assassins. There is also a Khmer lady with a German passport who obviously hired a contract killer. Who she want to have killed  is never revealed. On her trip to Cambodia she herself gets killed by people unknown, which is also never clearly revealed. There are a few of these holes in Vater’s story.

 It is not worth going into further details as the story is so wildly unbelievable that it verges on some fantasy horror novel. Of course, the author is German so it might appear only logical to him to paint the two mean characters as survivors of two genocidal regimes of the 20th century.

It seems that after the first part the author ran out of ideas how to create a mystery plot out of the search and attempt to return that wayward son, after he found him, saw that the son was in trouble already, and was deeply in love with a prostitute. So what could follow from that? Maybe a kidnapping with a demand for ransom might have been more logical but would have been too much run-of-the-mill stuff? The Khmer Rouge and SS-angle seemed to be too tempting for the author. Of course, all of these evil characters end up dead as the title suggests.

I am sure there are readers who will like this book. I am not one of them.

A few pics from scenes described in the book.
 Sambo -the only elephant alive in Phnom Penh at the time that tourists could ride.

2012 – Sihanouk’s Retreat on Bokor mountain
2003 – The casino ruins

2012 – The casino being renovated

2018 - Bokor Palace

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