In the Shadow of the Banyan

  • Vaddey Ratner
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 336 pp.
  • August 7, 2012

A family endures the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime in this author’s debut novel.

Reviewed by Patricia Griffith

Vaddey Ratner was five years old in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. Now an adult living in the United States, she tells the story of her family’s experience in her novel In the Shadow of the Banyan. It is a novel rather than a memoir, she explains, because she wanted to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art. And a work of art it is, elegantly written, moving and filled with closely observed life and compassion even in the dreadful circumstances when the Khmer Rouge was responsible for one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

The story begins when seven-year-old Raami, who lives a comfortable life with family and servants in Phnom Penh, is suddenly forced, along with her family, like all Cambodian city dwellers, to flee the city to take part in the social engineering of the Khmer Rouge’s agricultural reform. The Khmer Rouge forced around 2 million people from their homes in order to create a purely agrarian communist society, eliminating any suspected capitalists, including professionals and almost everyone with connections to foreign governments. These “reforms,” as the Khmer Rouge referred to them, eventually led to widespread famine and what is commonly referred to as the “killing fields” — the vast burial grounds outside Phnom Penh where millions of bodies were discovered.

Rammi’s description of the forced removal of the city’s inhabitants is riveting: “Soldiers pushed and shoved anyone in their way, not caring who was old and who was young, who could walk and who couldn’t.… At the entrance to a hospital, a sick old woman clung to the arm of a young man who looked as if he might be her son. A young nurse in uniform wheeled a patient out on a hospital bed, adjusting the intravenous bag above the patient’s head as she went. Nearby, a doctor ripped off his surgical mask, gesturing emphatically, as if trying to reason with the soldiers. One of them put a gun to his forehead, and the doctor stood suddenly still as a statue, arms raised in the air, his latex gloves smeared with blood.”

The family’s departure from Phnom Penh is only the beginning of their forced movement across rivers, to farms and work camps and eventually backbreaking labor, building useless embankments when they face starvation and are forced to consume roots and insects.

This story is wisely filtered through the slightly unsophisticated eyes of an intelligent young girl and softened somewhat by her warm relationship with her father, a well-educated man of royal heritage, a noted poet who tries to shield her as best he can and interpret the decline in their fortunes. “ ‘Life is like that.’ Papa turned once again to the Mekong. ‘Everything is connected, and sometimes we, like little fishes, are swept up in these big and powerful currents. Carried far from home …’ ”

It is in some sense a coming-of-age story for Rammi, in the most difficult of circumstances. While she describes the horror of the world around her with the honesty and innocence of a child, her intelligence and the strength of her cultural knowledge bolsters her throughout her ordeal. Cambodian stories and myth enrich her world and provide the reader with a fascinating look at Cambodian culture, which is both instructive and a pleasure to read. “Words, you see,” her father says, “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.”

Still, her father can’t shield Rammi from witnessing the horror around her. “Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether unreal, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.”

Eventually, Rammi’s family is separated and she is left with her mother and younger sister. Towards the end of her years under the Khmer Rouge, after suffering starvation, near execution and witnessing the horror around her, Rammi is struck mute by her experience

Ratner’s engrossing presentation of this tragedy is a remarkable achievement. This is one of those novels that lead writers like me to believe that real truth is best found in fiction. In 1981 Vaddey Ratner and her mother arrived in the United States where she ultimately graduated summa cum laude from Cornell University. While In the Shadow of the Banyan deals with a horrendous experience of human suffering, it nevertheless is a beautiful novel filled with valiant and loving characters.

Patricia Griffith is a novelist and a playwright who has recently been commissioned to write a play about Margo Jones, the instigator of regional theatre. She is an Associate Professor at George Washington University.

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