There have been many gruelling accounts of the years from 1975 to 1979 when the Khmer Rouge subjected Cambodia to the ruthless logic of what they believed would bring about a country "liberated" by extreme, agrarian Maoism practically instantaneously. (Even the Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai, advised his revolutionary brothers not to proceed so swiftly; but they thought they knew better.) The resulting genocide wiped out up to a third of the Cambodian population and resulted in 10 years of effective occupation by the Vietnamese and their puppets, and then a bitter civil war: a legacy with which the country has only come to uneasy terms by not delving too deeply into it.
Vaddey Ratner, only five when the Khmer Rouge came to power, would have been well placed to add to this grim library. She and her family, belonging to a branch of the Cambodian royal house, were prime targets. Her father, aunts and cousins all perished at the hands of the Angkar – the "Organisation" – as the Khmer leadership was known, while her uncle hanged himself, and Vaddey and her mother endured forced labour, nearly starved, and had to witness the death of the baby of the family from malaria when they were exiled to the countryside.
But Ratner has written something different and rather remarkable. Her book is based on her own experiences (and knowing that, one shudders at what she underwent), but draws on them as opposed to recounting them. The result is labelled a novel although, such is the lyricism of her writing, one might consider much of it not to be a prose poem but poetry in prose. She manages to convey the appalling inhumanity of the regime while retaining a sense that the spirit of the country and its culture remained, even amid all the cruelty.
That Ratner's novel manages to do this makes it a very important addition to the literature relating to Cambodia. Anyone who visits that beautiful country and its stunning antiquities cannot fail to be struck by two things: the genuine warmth of its people, and amazement not just that such a catastrophe could have afflicted them, but that so many of them (or rather their forebears) could have enthusiastically participated in it.
Ratner strikes a counter-note. That was not all Cambodia was during that period, she seems to say. It was a tragedy, but the greater human values survived, and later even thrived, just as she did, eventually, after moving to America after the fall of the Khmer Rouge. But never mind the history lessons. In the Shadow of the Banyan is a fascinating, moving work that offers a powerful leitmotif of optimism. Even when death is all about, there can be dreams, and these dreams – stories, poems, legends, call them what you will – may be precisely what one needs to survive while all that you hold dear is torn asunder. They saved Vaddey Ratner. Her dreams are now her gift to us.