Four years ago, I encountered one of those life-changing books that made me want to travel so much that it became viscerally painful not to.
It began as a love-hate relationship. I used to read a lot, at least three hours every day, and more than two-hundred books a year. When I turned fourteen, my father decided to introduce me to the novels that had changed his life. He brought me a pile of books, all of which smelt old, with their yellow pages and damaged spines after having been open too often. All of them were from different authors – except for two. These were written by former journalist Loup Durand, and my Father instructed me to read ‘Daddy’ first; and then, ‘Jaraï’ – which translates into ‘The Angkor Massacre’.
I loved the first one. It immediately reached a good ranking into my Top 10 Favorite Books Ever. The second one gave me such a headache by its endless explanations that I would have given up on it, were it not for my absolute rule to always finish a book. I don’t know why, but I read it again. And again. And again, and again, and again, until it became as essential to me as breathing, and my second favorite book ever.
There are as many summaries of the book as there are readers of it. The maelstroms of locations, characters and events, in a period of almost ten years covered by the story, make it almost impossible to objectively define who the main character is and what the book is really about.
The only thing I’ll say is that it takes place in Cambodia in 1969. Most of Indochina is still under the French colonial control while the Vietnamese war is tearing the world apart. Everything begins when Jon Kinkaird, a young American soldier, deserts and disappears. Financially supported by her grandfather, his sister Lisa flies from the US to Asia with the fierce will to find him and reason him. And there, she meets Lara – a plantation owner that her grandfather used to vaguely know, who he contacted from the other side of the world to help her.
‘Lara nodded, his heart aching with crazy love for the small country. Few men had loved or used to love Cambodia as he loved it; even fewer were able to survive all of its events. None was more determined to stay there no matter what happened.’
But as the French Denoël edition very clearly and relevantly states: “‘this is neither a story nor a war novel. It is first and foremost the story of Lara, the last White, and of his crazy love for a small country with the unimaginable sweetness of life, Cambodia, which today is almost dead; it is the story of Lisa, Ieng Samboth and Roger Boues, O’Malley, Charles and Madeleine Korver, all of whom have existed under other names; it is even more, perhaps, the story of Kutchaï, the giant Jaraï, with strange and silent laughter. And it’s upsetting.’
It’s upsetting, because in the frame of a Cambodia at the dawn of one of the most horrible genocides that has ever been committed, we follow the story of two young men, soulmates and almost brothers, who embody the two sides of the broken country. On the one hand, Lara, White and eighth-generation heir of colonizers; on the other hand, Kutchaï, native khmer who will join the khmers rouges. In 1969, when the story begins, the Vietnamese war is about to spread to Cambodia like a mortal disease. In unstable Indochina, the balance of powers is upset between the French colonial administration, the American imperialism, the indigenous revolts, the declining authority of Cambodian King Norodom Sihanouk, and the rising influence of the Khmers rouges who, from 1975 to 1979, will seize power in Cambodia and kill 1/3 of its population in a genocide that left the country ‘almost dead’.
But from this cruel and grotesque environment, emerges the sublime light of a story about solidarity, love, loyalty, and friendship. ‘The Angkor Massacre’ is about a fantastic network of absolute mutual aid, federated around the character of Lara. In this book, a person from one side of the world only has to speak a word for other people he has never met and doesn’t know, to mobilize all their resources to help beyond their means. ‘The Angkor Massacre’, is about friends from China, French Corsica, Cambodia, Thailand and many others, rising to help an American deserter, because his grandfather happened to have met Lara eleven years ago. All of these people are friends of Lara. All of them owe something to him, and he owes something to all of them. And what is beautiful about this network is its openness and the absolute confidence of all its members in each other, because all of them are incredibly far better off trusting than remaining on their own. While this network goes far beyond Lara, and works because every individual within it is ready both to give and to receive, this man remains its keystone whose name can trigger marvelous achievements.
‘Had it been announced to Roger Boues that Lara had just left with two or three men to conquer China while annexing the Tonkin on his way, he would have immediately packed his bags – ‘in fact, I only have one’ – to go and wait for him in Beijing’
To me, this network is the main character of the book. And what I love even more is that us, the readers, cannot help but believe in it because of the delicateness of Loup Durand’s unique writing. Every time I read it, I would forget that it was a book, because its characters are not realistic, but real. Not credible, but incredible. They shine even outside of the pages. I can only read ‘Jaraï’ (I do not like the English title – how can such an enlightened and positive story be called a ‘massacre’?) when I’m alone, ready to be touched and moved, to smile and to live along with these characters. I can only turn the yellow pages with deference and almost veneration, because ‘Jaraï’ is far more than a book printed on paper – the smell of its paper is enough for me to leave this world and join Lara, Kutchaï and all the others within a story that gives me a fantastic amount of hope and trust towards the world.
This whole book is a marvel and sometimes, its moments, sentences, and words are such a breathtaking slap that we cannot help but close the book for a while, close our eyes, turn our head back and breathe in deeply. Still, this is not enough for us to leave Cambodia.
Besides becoming one of my favorite stories ever, ‘Jaraï’ also made me fall in love with the ‘small country with the unimaginable sweetness of life, which today is almost dead’. I would not call it an obsession, exactly. I only watch every TV show related to it from near or far, and I only buy books without looking at the content because there’s ‘khmer’ in the title, and I only instantly notice every word written anywhere on it, and I only crave to go there one day. I feel like going to Cambodia would be, somehow, like going back to my roots – because ‘Jaraï’ played such an important role in my Father’s life and in mine, that I need to see this country with my own eyes.
Cambodian inhabitants could feel insulted by me saying this – after all, I do not know anything about the reality of this land besides what I have read. I know nothing about Cambodia. But that is the inevitable irrationality that falling in love necessarily contains. I need to go there, would it be to discover that everything I thought I knew on this culture was wrong.
It is difficult to write about a masterpiece because we’re always afraid we won’t find the words to do so. Eventually, I’ll let you make your own opinion about it. I just want you to know that I read this book once a year now, during holidays in my paradise on Earth (the southwest of France); that last year, when I finished a series of months working on highly selective application contests, the first thing I did was read it again; that once I decided to write every quotation I particularly loved on a notebook and that I stopped after realizing that if I continued, I would have had 751 quotes; and that eventually, to me, it is both a story that always manages to make me smile and cry and be crushed under the power of its words, and an inspiration that is part of me now.
So please trust me. Please read it – it is not very easy to find, as all hidden treasures. Allow this book to change your vision of life and mutual aid as much as it made mine evolve. And next time a letter from the other side of the world will ask you to help the friend of a friend, don’t even think about it. Life becomes strangely easier when we let ourselves trust.
‘ “There’s nothing in the world like Angkor”, said Lara. “Angkor moves your skin and your blood. Angkor is to be breathed, as much as it is to be seen.” ‘
MY TOP 10 FAVORITE BOOKS EVER (Today – that may change tomorrow)
- ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, by Edmond Rostand
- ‘Jaraï’, by Loup Durand
- ‘Harry Potter’, by J.K. Rowling
- ‘Daddy’, by Loup Durand
- ‘Here, there are dragons’, by James A. Owen
- ‘I’ll give you the sun’, by Jandy Nelson
- ‘Airman’, by Eoin Colfer
- ‘Emma’, by Jane Austen
- ‘Hygiene and the assassin’, by Amelie Nothomb
- ‘The Trojan War Will Not Take Place (Tiger at the Gates)’, by Jean Giraudoux