L’Anarchiste — Soth Polin (1967/1979)
Setting: Cambodia before the genocide; Paris during it.
What it’s about: A dark novel about dissolute youth in a society primed for genocide.
Written in two parts with two decades in between. The first part was banned in Cambodia, and the writer Soth Polin became a refugee in Paris. He was a taxi driver when he wrote the second part, as is the narrator who tells most of his tale to the dead body of a client who dies when he crashes. That part of the story is disjointed as if its told over a cab driver’s shoulder.
It begins with trip to brothel interspersed with bland, increasingly rant-y, political reflection (“Every politician is deeply religious but he kills.”). The protagonist displays a brutal, violent ennui, picking on a old woman on the side of the road with philosophical detachment, then musing:
A respectable history teacher with hundreds of pupils, just kicked an old Vietnamese woman who did nothing to him.”
His parents ask him for money but instead he uses all his savings to print and distribute an article denouncing the government, then flees into exile. The article has no impact but it ruins his father.
The book ends with a grotesque, over-the-top, finale. It’s not a great novel, but in-between it is strong on presenting the survivor guilt of the refugee hearing terrible news from home, telling of how the entire staff of his newspaper have been “liquidated”.
Read this if you liked: It has the same brutal energy as a Martin Amis (e.g. Money). The Anarchist is very similar in structure to The Outsider. Split into two parts: it starts with the protagonist spending a day in dissolute philandering and insouciant, misogynist violence (which is a little too glorified). Like Meursault and his pimp friend Raymond, the characters visit a brothel and go for a swim, with their story interrupted by sudden inexplicable acts of violence. Part two is a sharp contrast, finding the autobiographical protagonist in very different shape, more prone to melancholy and meditations, yet immune to reason.
As my project goes on, I am already seeing how certain kinds of books find their way into translation in different languages. In French, for example, you can find quite a few phallocentric books like this one.
The definitive book from Cambodia? There is very little Khmer literature available in either French or English. Is it more of an oral story-telling culture? I don’t think so: there seem to be plenty of books in Khmer. Another factor might be that the book blurb says there were 200 writers in the country before the Khmer Rouge, but only four survived the genocide. Sadly, Polin himself ended up driving a taxi in California.