Copyright The Wall Street Journal
ByÂ HOWARD W. FRENCH
For evident reasons, stories about genocide tend to be drenched in violence and death. That quality was reflected in the very title of the best-known work on the Cambodian genocide, the 1984 film “The Killing Fields.” Nearly 30 years later, novelist Vaddey Ratner, a Cambodian survivor of her country’s descent into a maelstrom of self-destruction, has taken a markedly different approach. For a tale about genocide, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is unexpectedly quiet. Death is present, but its occurrence on a mass scale is only hinted at late in the novel.
During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year rule, in 1975-79, Cambodia’s radical communist regime killed between 1.2 million and 2.4 million people, perhaps half of them via execution. But instead of a tableau full of slaughter, Ms. Ratner offers an intimate account of the destruction of a single family during the Khmer Rouge’s hold on power.
Ms. Ratner’s tale is told through the mind and eyes of a young girl, Raami, who is 7 years old when the Khmer Rouge radicals sweep into the capital, Phnom Penh, and seize power. There are brief, elegiac moments at the outset, conveying the cozy, privileged life of Raami’s family, which is descended from a princely lineage. Then suddenly, with the approach of artillery fire and the arrival of the victorious rebels, their world comes to a crashing end.
“In the Shadow of the Banyan” follows the wanderings of the girl and her family as they and other families are driven from one place to another, like cattle, by the revolutionary army. Between re-education sessions and farm labor, the families are divided and redivided as the Khmer Rouge constantly work to weed out “class enemies.”
Raami’s father, a noble-spirited poet, is among the first to be revealed through this process, his name unwittingly surrendered by Raami to a soldier who demands it. Afterward, her extended family argues over whether letting the regime know about his identity is a good thing (“They will realize soon enough who we are and give us some respect,” a relative says) or an invitation to calamity. “Finally, Papa said, ‘You didn’t know.’ His palm brushed my hair in that gesture he reserved for forgiveness when I’d done something wrong. ‘It wasn’t your fault.’ ”
In the Shadow of the Banyan
By Vaddey Ratner
(Simon & Schuster, 322 pages, $25)Soon after, he is led away along with others who are presumably marked for elimination. This grim turn of events sounds one of the book’s most endearing themes: 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, recalling his words and their love, and searching for him in glimpses of strangers. She begins to seek refuge in tales and legends drawn from Buddhist tradition, which inspire in her a kind of rapture.