Saturday, November 10, 2012

A Deeply Moving Remembrance - Heartbreaking and Gorgeous: "In the Shadow of the Banyan" by Vaddey Ratner

Vaddey Ratner has turned the nightmares of her girlhood in Cambodia into a novel of epic impact.  Using a poetic voice that makes the pathos of her subject matter all the more poignant, she tells of the years when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in the 1970's.  The unfathomable suffering of her family - a distant branch of the Cambodian royal family - is told through the eyes of 7 year-old Raami.

The author, as part of her reaction to post-traumatic stress disorder from all she had seen and experienced at the hands of the oppressors, lost her ability to speak.  Fortunately for the reading public, as an adult she has found her speaking voice and a remarkably elegiac writing voice. The result is a novel that is both eye-opening and heart-breaking.

Here are some brief tastes of her writing style in this novel, "In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree."  Raami is sitting and speaking with her Papa, the poet and prince:

"He pulled me to him and, resting his chin on my head, murmured, 'Once, in a journey's dream, I came upon a child bearing my soul. . . '

'Once, in a journey's dream,' I replied, knowing well the routine, the game we'd often play with the verses he'd written, tossing them back and forth, testing them aloud, 'I came upon a reflection of myself.'

A frog jumped into the pond, and the water rippled again, undulating under the sky that had darkened now to the color of despair.  A father's bruised conscience.

'Words, you see,' he said looking at me again, 'allow us to make permanent what is essentially transient.  Turn a world filled with injustice and hurt into a place that is beautiful and lyrical.  Even if only on paper.'" (Page 106)

With these few words, the author has shared with us her reasons for capturing her distant memories in the pages of this novel - capturing in the amber of language that which would otherwise have been transient and forgotten, which now takes up permanent residency in our minds and hearts.

This next passage illustrates the rich imagery with which Ratner uses words to recreate the lost world of her childhood:

"The wind gave a long, drawn-out sigh, and from the giant banyan by the temple's entrance, a flock of birds flapped their wings, echoing the exhalation.  A new day's radiance greeted us from every direction as we made our way across the temple grounds.  Water lilies and lotuses threw splashes of color - yellow, purple, pink, indigo - across the verdant landscape.  Gold and silver flashed off the roof of the prayer hall and the giant dome of the stupa, turning the temple into a miniature bejeweled kingdom.  Above us the sky stretched high, blooming with the thick white clouds, like a wide blue sea cradling floating gardenias.  I marveled at how the sky imitated the earth and the earth imitated the sky.  Pockets of rain dotted the ground, and each held in its reflection the possibility of another world much like the one welcoming us now." (Page 116)

This is a book that gave me a much clearer sense of the insanity that gripped Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge sought to empty the cities and create a new and agrarian Democratic Cambodia.  This book will stand as a masterpiece of recollection and a way of honoring those who did not survive.

Enjoy - and learn.


No comments: