Published: Aug 06, 2012
I used to think physical torture was the worst that could happen.
But there’s worse: when a man with a gun tells you that you are no longer the person you’ve been all your life.
That happened with horrifying regularity in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge seized total control and made their first priority the eradication of “decadent” urban culture. If you wore glasses or could read, you were sent to the fields. If you ever had a thought, you suppressed it. You surrendered your identity or you died. Or you surrendered and died — in just four years, the Khmer Rouge executed as many as two million of their countrymen.
Vaddey Ratner was born into the Cambodian elite. Her father was a poet and a prince. Their hands alone betrayed them. No way could they pass as illiterate peasants when a man dressed all in black forced his way into their home and gave them just minutes to leave. “GET OUT OF THE CITY!” voices shouted through bullhorns. “THE AMERICANS WILL DROP THEIR BOMBS!” There were no Americans, no bombs, just Cambodians gone insane.
Vaddey Ratner was just five when her family was sent to the rice paddies. In her first novel, ”In the Shadow of the Banyan,” she calls herself Raami and adds two years to her age. She changes most names, compresses events. Don’t be fooled — this is not fiction. It is fiction-plus, a memoir of a novel, written in blood and dreams. Indeed, it barely feels like a book; you read it in a state of suspended animation, drunk on the beauty of the writing and terrified for Raami and her family, who are, one by one, broken by the Khmer Rouge, until only Raami and her mother are left. As she writes:
There’s not an ordeal she faces that I myself didn’t confront in one way or another. The loss of family members, starvation, forced labor, repeated uprooting and separation, the overwhelming sense that she’s basically alone but also the tenacious belief that there’s a spirit watching over her — all this I experienced and felt. Raami had polio as a baby. I had polio also when I was still an infant.
The year’s only half gone, but several critics have already put “In the Shadow of the Banyan” on their list of 2012’s best. I agree. So, I suspect, will you. No way around it — this is a magnificent book, astonishing on every page, thrilling in its outcome. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
When the Khmer Rouge were routed, Vaddey Ratner and her mother walked out of Cambodia. Vaddey knew no English when she arrived in the United States; she graduated high school as the valedictorian. Summa cum laude from Cornell. A couple of writing classes, but no formal training to speak of.
What she had was this: the example of her father, who was taken from his family early in the madness and never seen again. "When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly," he tells his daughter. "I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything — your name, your title, the limits of your body, this world’s suffering."
It is for him that she writes. “Every page was a struggle,” she says. “I labored and labored, from a single word to a sentence to a paragraph. Each ordeal that had broken my heart when I was a child broke my heart again as an adult writing it. There were moments when I spiraled downward, to a depth I didn’t think I could come back from. It was a painful story to write, to relive.” [To read an excerpt, click here.]
To hear her is to know this is literal truth:
The Khmer Rouge told its victims: “To keep you is no gain, to kill you is no loss.”
Vaddey Ratner writes: “While all else will vanish, love is our one true eternity.”
The vast reach of evil. And what it cannot touch. Not many books give you both. Few are as credible when it comes to the proof of love.