By Paul Dorsey
The Nation Weekend
CAMBODIA-BASED writer Steven W Palmer has just recently released a remarkably elaborate crime yarn that mingles historical fiction with police procedural. It contrasts the gleaming-chrome, gung-ho bustle of modern Phnom Penh with the horrifically evil, soul-darkening four-year horror of the Khmer Rouge era – which began with that same capital being so ominously and systematically emptied of all inhabitants.
The juxtaposition has tremendous potential for a work of absolutely stunning storytelling, but unfortunately, “Angkor Cloth Angkor Gold” has overreached and lags behind expectations.
Anyone familiar with recent Cambodian history and with Phnom Penh (and Kampot) will enjoy the ride because Palmer ticks all the events and sights as he unspools an ornate tale that spans decades. In fact, he shares a great deal of background facts about the Khmer Rouge period with which most readers will surely be unacquainted.
This in itself can be considered reward enough. Fans of pure fiction get a bonus, though, because a much bigger surprise awaits in the telling, and it’s a very clever knockout punch.
“Angkor Cloth” entails the hunt for a serial killer of unusual species, a refined and well-educated psychopath who happened to be born of high class, just as Jack the Ripper is sometimes surmised to have been.
This individual was among the milieu of Khmer intellectuals in 1960s Paris, including Saloth Sar (the nom de guerre “Pol Pot” is never uttered), but once back home, the complex creature who’s in our focus became yet another victim of the Khmer Rouge.
We get to know this taker of lives, and exceedingly well, through the entries in a daily journal, which the killer “narrates” in chapters that alternate with progress reports on international police efforts to track down someone who’s become an alarmingly prolific murderer. The journal begins in 1980 in Khao-I-Dang, a camp for Khmer refugees on the Thai border.
On the hunt for a maniac in late 2016 are Army Brigadier-General Hoem Chamreun, attached to the Interior Ministry, and Second Lieutenant Sopheak “Sophie” Chang, educated in and newly returned from the US – and, sure enough, not hard on the eyes. (Chamreun and Sophie inevitably get around to some mutually respectful smooching as the story progresses.)
The gulf between the years in the to-and-fro storytelling eventually narrows. “Angkor Cloth” is like a tapestry being woven from its two ends, in different places and times.
The effect is a variation on the tension-building format that Truman Capote perfected with “In Cold Blood”, in which alternating chapters bring predators and prey closer together at a menacingly slow pace, but here, because the investigation is taking place 36 years after the original murders, there’s a wasteful disconnect.
As well, the more we get to know the villain, the more our empathy grows. This is a devout Buddhist, well read in Western philosophy, whose rationale for killing is heartfelt and not incomprehensible.
In Phnom Pehn and as far away as France and Italy, the hunt is on for a serial killer haunted by the "phantom smell of spilt blood" and for whom the "shadows grow hungry and impatient".
At the crux of the novel is an old Khmer proverb, “Men are gold. Women are white linen.” Thus, women who allow their purity to be “soiled” by engaging sexually with non-Khmer must be “cleansed” – by men who remain untainted by such behaviour because they’re made of gold.
For our killer, the cleansing can only mean dispatching a soiled woman to another lifetime. Palmer makes no direct connection to the appalling practices still reported in some patriarchal South Asian and African societies, though the Nazi theory of a “master race” lurks spectrally.
“What separates us is far greater than anything that we have in common,” the mad one affirms of differences in culture, even as the readiness of foreigners to provide salvation from the awful camp is acknowledged – particularly a Polish volunteer who has a death camp number tattooed on her forearm, in which the killer reads kinship.
The main problem with the meticulous Bayeux Tapestry that Palmer has attempted to weave from two ends at the same time – or perhaps more pertinently the Angkor bas-relief he has sculpted – is that most of the imagery filling the space is mundane.
Historical fiction can pose pitfalls – the weave has to be as aesthetically pleasing as it is precise. Palmer is a talented embroiderer, but too distracted by minutiae and too often neglecting the central thrilling theme. The history could have been allowed to bleed more into the foreground to set the pace and tone, rather than reams of inconsequential information about the casework.
Police procedural doesn’t work as fiction unless all the tiresome gumshoe detective work is distilled down to a selection of interesting clues or possibilities.
But here, repetition joins thick clots of detail in smothering the suspense. Every fresh murder in Phnom Penh involves a tour-guide’s itinerary of streets, the same questions posed at the scene, the same phone-slamming aggravation when nothing’s adding up. Similarly, every killing is much the same unholy ritual.
Fiction set in a real place among well-known landmarks can feel like a travelogue, and in a crime novel there’s nothing intrinsically interesting in that. Meanwhile protagonist Chamreun is described repeatedly by himself and others as “a man of action”, yet he dithers over love and his career and is involved in no action whatsoever, other than fast driving.
Steven Palmer has built a broad, tall edifice in 340 pages and there is much to admire. Almost lost in the tedium is an interesting segue between two chapters, so slight as to almost seem accidental.
The killer has completed another “cleansing” in the refugee camp and drifts into “a surprisingly peaceful sleep”. Then Chamreun realises that the complexities of the case before him have unexpectedly resulted in him “sleeping better than he had for months”. Both characters, separated in time by decades, are tortured by immediate events, by doubts over their shared Buddhist faith, and yet both are finding rest in their unwitting proximity. This is good stuff.
But Palmer’s towering edifice is short on architectural finesse and its functionality fluctuates, to the deficit of an otherwise rich, original and interesting crime novel.
Angkor Cloth Angkor Gold
By Steven W Palmer
Published by Saraswati Publishing Cambodia, 2018
Available at Amazon.com, US$6 (Bt188, Kindle)