The grisly titbits at a country's dark heart

Cambodia
July 9, 2004

It would be hard to write a dull travel book about Cambodia. A culture that could produce both the marvels of Angkor around the 12th century and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge's killing fields in the 20th century is undeniably fascinating. Then there is the mysterious way in which the Khmers absorbed and transformed Indian religion, scriptures and iconography into their own while also being influenced by the second great eastern civilisation, that of China. Add to this the fraught relationship between the Khmers and the Thais over some six centuries, their violent struggles with the Vietnamese, and the French mission civilisatrice in Cambodia dating from the mid-19th century - and you have a lot to reflect on.

Michael Freeman, a British photographer and writer who has visited Cambodia since 1989, writes absorbingly on all this in his contribution to a now-substantial series, Topographics, with the additional bonus of some distinctive photographs by himself. This series avoids depending on a journey to supply a plot and instead aims to "mingle analysis with anecdote, criticism with original expressive writing, to explore the creative collision between physical space and the human mind".

Cambodia is decidedly not academic, unlike Freeman's photographic book on Angkor with a text by the French scholar Claude Jacques (or Michael Coe's recent Angkor and the Khmer Civilization ); but neither is it superficial.

The only major error I noticed relates to the Thais' claim that they invented their script in 1283 rather than borrowing much of it from the older Khmer script. Freeman rejects this as typical Thai arrogance towards Cambodia on the grounds that Thai "would be the only language in the world to acquire its script in one go". Yet that is just what happened when Korea invented its alphabet, Hangul, by royal edict in 1443-44, not to speak of the invention of the Cherokee alphabet in 1821 by Sequoya.

There is plenty of history in the book, but we never lose sight of contemporary Cambodia. In fact Freeman has a talent for intelligent integration of the past and present. Talking of cuisine, for instance, and the recent Cambodian taste for deep-fried tarantula - which made me feel queasy - he points out that this cannot easily be linked to the hunger of the Pol Pot years, as a Western journalist suggested, because the spider species has been known as the "edible tarantula" since as long ago as 1882.

More important, he links the cruelty of an old ritual practised in the time of Angkor's greatness, in which the gall bladder was harvested from victims at night for the benefit of the king, with the behaviour of Cambodian government soldiers during the Vietnam War period, who would cut out the livers of dead Communists and eat them in the heat of victory. Such ferocity does not explain the killing fields of 1975-79, Freeman agrees, but when taken in conjunction with the general destruction of society by the US bombing of Cambodia, it is significant.

On the other hand, despite devoting a whole chapter to this grisly period and its aftermath, Freeman shows rather little curiosity about the motives of the killers. He refers to Francois Bizot's recent riveting account of his imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge, The Gate ; but ignores its portrait of the regime's chief torturer, Douch. He visits Tuol Sleng, the torture centre in Phnom Penh; but makes no reference to the gripping, landmark documentary about this place by the Cambodian director Rithy Panh, S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine , in which former guards are persuaded to talk about maltreating prisoners. Admittedly, this documentary was completed only in 2003, yet there are references in the book to events in Cambodia last year; and Freeman is clearly interested in film, since he devotes many pages to the less gripping feature film The Killing Fields and other movies about Cambodia, such as Apocalypse Now .

A whole chapter, the most original of the book's five, describes the looting and faking (in Bangkok) of Khmer art, which Freeman has observed at first hand. It has proved difficult to protect even the site of Angkor from looters working in collusion with powerful supporters in the Cambodian government and military, and impossible to stop looting in the more inaccessible parts of the country. In 1993, there was an armed assault on the locked Angkor Conservancy, in which the robbers made off with several of the best pieces. And, of course, "officially sanctioned looting" began in the 1870s - which is why the Musee Guimet in Paris has the best collection of Khmer art outside Cambodia.

Anyone visiting Cambodia today who digs even slightly below the touristic surface cannot but sense the trauma of recent decades and wonder how long it will take the country to recover intellectually and artistically. I recommend Freeman's book as a sensitive, observant and attractively produced companion to a lovely but troubled land.

Andrew Robinson is literary editor, The Times Higher , and author of The Story of Writing .

Cambodia

Author - Michael Freeman
Publisher - Reaktion
Pages - 197
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 1 86189 186 5

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