Advanced Reader’s Copy courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore
by Lawrence Osborne
Aimless and Feckless are not just cows in Cold Comfort Farm…they are also an accurate description of this novel’s hero. Innocent abroad Robert Grieve is drifting through Thailand, on holiday from a teacher job he hates, when he decides to drift through Cambodia. Everything around him changes–but he doesn’t.
He has a fairly simplistic view of the country one wealthy doctor describes as a “genocide museum” for tourists. His fatal mistake, after winning some money at a Cambodian casino, is to trust a fellow English-speaker instead of his Cambodian taxi driver. The local boy knows more about the American than Robert does, of course, with predictable results.
Not Graham Greene (Thank Goodness)
The Sunday Times compared this author to Graham Greene. I’m so glad they were wrong, because I never got on with Greene’s novels. And I’ve tried plenty, since Graham Green and Nadine Gortimer were practically the only authors in the tiny English-language section of the University of Janus Pannonius in Pecs, Hungary when I was an exchange student there. I guess they had a couple tired Wodehouse novels as well.
Things DO happen in the novel, albeit very slowly. Cambodia seems to be on non-capitalist time even if people are anxious to forget the atrocities of the past and to improve their living standards. As a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, Robert misses the subtle air of menace pervading the country. An echo of the past, perhaps? A legacy for the future?
The Innocent Abroad
The Cambodian policeman we meet is utterly corrupt–in fact, he tortured people for the Khmer Rouge. He is utterly ruthless in pursuit of his daughter’s future, at the expense of anyone else. The same people who perpetrated the atrocities of Cambodia’s recent past are the same people who cling to power now, under different names.
But here is what Robert sees:
“…a giant wall of coral through which thousands of mutually ignorant fish swarmed night and day going about their secrets and evasions. There as no surveillance here, very little police presence and almost no puritanical curiosity or disapproval. The Khmers, thankfully, didn’t seem to be driven by a tormenting and malicious need to know everything about their curious visitors, the barangs whom they found faintly ridiculous but undeniably lucrative. The core occidental principles of nosiness and constant outrage were not their thing…”
It’s a kind of “noble savage” mentality, when in fact, the Khmer are watching the barang all the time and know every little detail. The taxi driver, for example, knows what Robert does not: That the American is a drug dealer. But Robert ignores his warning.
Rating: 3 Cartons of Lychee Juice
I did enjoy this book in a 3-star kind of way: there were enough Cambodian bits for me to feel I was getting some of the culture (Robert’s and Simon’s girlfriends are Khmer). I also enjoyed the twisty menace of it, paired with the slow pace, an oddly 3rd World pairing which I experienced in person on my solo bicycle trip around Thailand. Do not get attached to the characters in this novel, as Osborne seems to have taken a few writing lessons from George RR Martin!
Note: Interesting that in two French-speaking countries, the word for foreigner is slightly different.
- Cambodia: barang
- Thailand: farang, meaning Frenchman. Applied universally to Westerners.
- Also in Hungary, kufoldi, and in Japan, gaijin.