A remarkable as-told-to memoir of survival, combining frequent reveries regarding the fragile beauty and traditions of Cambodia with an often horrifying narrative of the genocidal reign of the Khmer Rouge.
Relief worker Lafreniere indicates in her prefatory note that this book evolved as “a literary account of a personal experience told by one person and written by another.” She first met Daran Kravanh, a Cambodian refugee, in 1992 at the Refugee Assistance Program of Tacoma, Washington. Her account of Kravanh’s sufferings and exile sacrifices neither immediacy nor authenticity in its telling; Lafreniere’s clean prose captures the lilt and fragility of Kravanh’s voice. Their collaborative prose is graceful and clear, firmly anchored to an enduring cultural history reliant upon an abundance of natural spiritual metaphors, Buddhist roots, and the prominence of familial roles in determining larger social bonds. It is perhaps partly on account of the very gentleness of the Cambodian people (a trait reflected in the voice of Kravanh’s narrative) that the Khmer Rouge were able to come to power in the first place. Though the nature of their regime is well known, Kravanh is able to offer fresh perspectives, tracing how the faction broadened its reach gradually and insidiously during the early years of its rise, and he even arrives at difficult insights regarding his countrymen’s susceptibility to this particular evil. The tale of Kravanh’s endurance is not pretty: over the years, he is shifted between various communal projects where hunger is enforced and infractions against Angkar (the Khmer state) bring summary execution, and he eventually loses most of his family (beginning with his father, a highly regarded police official) to the bloodthirsty regime. His survival comes through startling, seemingly foreordained means: early on he finds an abandoned accordion (an instrument he had learned to play as a child), and he is frequently saved from execution or otherwise rewarded by Khmer soldiers who wish to hear him play. This provides a subtle commentary on the loneliness and need underlying the most bestial of human impulses.
Despite the nightmarish undertones of violence and despair, a nimble, probing, memorable story that ought not be overlooked among recently published, higher-profile Khmer-era Cambodian narratives.