The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman
In a review column written in 1960, James Blish recounts a story from the previous year's Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference. The gathered writers were polled on whether they were working on any writing projects outside science fiction. Every hand went up, as they had done the previous year and would do again the following year, yet the promised work never appeared. Blish became skeptical:
But I think many of those hands were raised only because the boys and girls were worried about the state of the market, and because they felt that they should be developing a few sidelines. I don't believe that they were. In fact, if you ask yourself how many writers science fiction has had in its whole history who wrote other kinds of fiction as competently, or tried to, you will not be forced to take off your shoes to reach a total. (“The Issue At Hand,” 140)
Forty years later, something has changed, and writers are moving around more; it's not exactly a bandwagon, but it might be a trend. Plenty of people have commented on the increasingly common and proficient ventures of so-called "mainstream" writers into the primordial soup of genre. Margaret Atwood; David Mitchell; Philip Roth; Kazuo Ishiguro; take your pick. What hasn't been so widely noted is the number of writers going the other way, up onto the beach of literature. William Gibson and Neal Stephenson are high-profile examples, of course, probably not least because their books have sometimes been reviewed as adapting the techniques of sci-fi to mimetic stories. But you can also point to more complete transitions, such as Michael Marshall Smith's move from sci-fi horror to dark crime, or Elizabeth Hand's forthcoming venture into New England noir, Generation Loss. Or, Geoff Ryman's switch from the near-future fantasia of Air (2004) to the reality of present and past Cambodia in his latest novel, The King's Last Song. It is a book about a land, a people, and a history; and one that is, in the end, committed to the investigation of the world on its own terms.
On with the story. "You could very easily meet William," is the first thing we're told, and it's clear this wouldn't be a terrible fate. William is young, enthusiastic, compassionate, and naïve; he helps us with our bags and with everything else a new arrival might need. But why are we here? Whatever the reason, it doesn't go down well with the second character we encounter: "You would meet Map easily as well. Or rather, you would not be able to escape him." Map is damaged, driven, perhaps somewhat deranged. He is also a patrimony policeman, responsible for guarding Cambodia's cultural inheritance from those who come to claim or steal it. From, in most cases, tourists; from people like us.
And then, on 11 April 2004, UN archaeologist Luc Andrade and his team uncover a book: one hundred and fifty-five gold leaves, inscribed in Sanskrit with the words of Jayavarman, the Buddhist king, the bringer of the new way. Quickly enough the book is stolen, and Luc kidnapped along with it. Map is charged with finding them; William helps him out; Luc gets to know his kidnapper; and a version of Jayavarman's eight-hundred and fifty-year-old life chugs along in the background, occasionally contrasted with one or more translated leaves. Events unwind meticulously.
There are two things to talk about here. One is certainly a problem, one might not be.
The problem is that the book's soul is in the past but its heart is in the present. Jayavarman's life is told in formal cadences. It is a story-shaped life, full of grand events and meaning, carried out in a world which seems less crusted-over with the detritus of living than ours, and closer to the country of myth. Returning from exile, for instance, Jayavarman and his wife "walked into night and a different history;” a few pages later, they are confronted by a palace guard:
"I could strike you down," said the guard.
Jaya's voice was as gentle as wind in the reeds. "No, you couldn't."
The guard discovered that he did not really want a fight.
For a moment this provokes the somewhat dissonant image of a 12th-century Cambodian king played by Alec Guinness. Jayavarman, however, does not have magic powers -- but he is protected by destiny. What we are reading is not history unfolding, but a retelling of a story whose ending is never in doubt. It's clear, too, that the king is touched by divinity, and possessed of an inexhaustible generosity of spirit. Early on, his elderly predecessor laughs that the young Jayavarman's heart "is a kingdom; it could contain everyone." He is almost too good to be true. There is a reason for all this -- to paraphrase one of the characters in Alasdair Gray's Lanark, I think Ryman is inviting us to live imaginatively in the Cambodia he is creating, and to achieve that he has to give it legends, and more than that, to give it soul -- but it gets wearing at times. Perhaps it is too plain to be truly resonant. Previous Ryman stories -- from The Warrior Who Carried Life to "The Last Ten Years in the Life of Hero Kai" -- have had a similar storybook feel, and similarly archetypal characters, but were also exuberantly fantastic. They burned themselves into your memory.
In particular, Jayavarman’s life seems tiresome when compared to the exhilarating mess which the present-day characters have lived through, and continue to live in. Take Map, who is probably the most thoroughly-developed character; specifically, take the sixty-odd pages in which he remembers his life in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. Essentially a novella within the novel, this section describes Map's search for his family and the consequences of finding some of them. It is a brutally specific portrayal of a land and a people who are "at war and not at war." The people Map meets are hollowed-out: they have faces like skeletons, or eyes like deep dry wells, or cheeks caved in like rotting fruit. The places he goes have fared no better.
Phnom Penh town was in worse shape than anyone had told them. Many buildings still had no roofs. The roads were lined with rusty hulks, cars that had been abandoned thirteen years before. There were no streetlights. At night it was pitch black and dangerous. You'd hear people peeing, crying, fighting, shouting abuse, and see nothing. It smelled of rotting leaves, rotting fruit, excrement. The children's clothes hung in strips.
The language here is direct, detailed, and pitched in such a way that the extremes of joy and sorrow that Map faces do not seem sensational, or cheap; they feel, as they should, like the aftermath of an almost unprecedented national trauma, rendered with astonishing power. Compared to Jayavarman's life of noble endeavor -- and again, this is probably deliberate -- we are left wondering which of the stories is really set in a Dark Age.
The search for Luc is no less attentively detailed or compelling, but it's here that the second issue, the maybe-problem, comes in. To be blunt: The King's Last Song is not our story. Ryman highlights the pitfalls of this sort of project early on, in a section describing Luc getting to know his first love, Arn:
Very quickly, as they buzz past buses and women in stalls and lunchtime workers on their way back to the bank or telegraph office, Arn lifts himself up onto his knees, turns around over the back of the seat, and pecks a kiss on Luc's cheek.
He plainly could not help it. Luc doesn't blame him. Arn was overcome. But Luc does not know what to make of it. In the end, he decides to pity. His friend could not help it, but he got over-excited, he is from a different culture, and you have to be aware of imposing Western meanings. It was a familial kiss...
No it wasn't.
As it happens, Luc's gut instinct is right. But Ryman puts himself in a position that invites such misunderstandings. The King's Last Song is a book that would speak for a nation; it forces the (presumed Western) reader into the role of an observer, a tourist. For the most part this works: Ryman ensures we never forget that we're (inevitably) placing our own interpretation onto the story, even as he makes it clear just how responsible such tourism is for Cambodia's current state. This is a novel, then, that instead of focusing on individual responsibility for historical atrocity explores -- often brilliantly -- how a society can be twisted, and how in turn it can twist its members. Sinn Rith, a corrupt general, is essentially right when he argues to himself that his corruption is necessary to support his family. Similarly, Map is absolved of responsibility by a new government for his Khmer Rouge-era crimes and classified as a "misled person." These are not comfortable thoughts. If you like, both characters are condoned by their society -- but both are haunted, unable to deny their actions, or their consequences. Looked at in this light, Ryman's novel is in some ways reminiscent of Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace. That book explores the fate of the Jews of Northern Italy in the second half of World War II; like The King’s Last Song, it is a dark story, but one that has almost unwavering faith in the fundamental decency of human beings. Neither book denies atrocity, but neither pretends that atrocity is the end of the story. Like Russell's Nazi deserter, Werner Schramm, Map has done many questionable things; and though his soul may be damned, his heart is not.
But Russell is not telling her story as an outsider. Ryman is, and therefore surely risks misinterpreting a familial kiss. Compassion, the inheritance of Jayavarman, guides the characters, but at times seems also to distort Ryman's vision. It's a trap -- making the characters just a little better, just a little more honorable, than is truly believable -- that Air could easily haven fallen into but didn't. The result this time around is slightly less certain. The book sometimes rings false; sometimes feels balanced on the edge of being patronizing.
In the end it steps away. In part this is simply because Ryman is so clearly aware that the trap of excessive empathy is there. For example, Luc, the only Western character in the book, is arguably doomed because he loves Cambodia too uncritically. But in addition, the sly positioning of the story as a moment in time makes it clear that absolution is not guaranteed, whether for Map or for the country as a whole. Jayavarman's book is found "on 11th April, in a version of 2004," and by the end the tale it contains, and with it ownership of Cambodia's history, has been gifted to all Cambodians as common knowledge. It is a luminous reunion of heart and soul, moving and honest. It never happened. So The King's Last Song is not a prescription; it's a wish, and we should be glad Ryman had the freedom to write it. Have hope, it says, face forward. Things can change.
The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman