.bought @Blossoms, Bangalore (2015)
Books also follow fashion. Just like a wide leg or a low-rise pair of jeans, a certain author becomes fashionable and all the book reading public must read him. At such times, book shops and libraries are flooded with titles by the author. Once the craze subsides, just like shopkeepers who would not stock bell bottoms on their shelves, the once popular books vanish off the book shelves and readers wanting to get their hands on such books are left looking for them in vain.
Somewhere in the 60's Han Suyin became very popular. She wrote candidly about her experiences as a half Belgian half Chinese girl growing up in China. I was lucky that my stepmother, who came from USA, brought several books by Han Suyin along with her. I read several books by her during the 70's and 80's. I even owned a copy of And the rain my drink, an excellent, fictionalized account of the time Suyin spent in Malaysia.
Despite the merit of her works, Suyin has gone out of fashion, and her books are no longer readily available. Some old copies are up for sale in USA via Amazon, but that is it. Such is the tragedy of the publishing world, and of most businesses. They are so driven by pre-configuration of profits that they sometimes kill ventures that could be profitable in the long run. I was lucky to procure some of her books from Blossoms, the celebrated second-hand bookstore in Bangalore.
This book by Han Suyin was published in 1963. It is not the best book by her. Yet it is full of her signature themes. The tussle between Capitalists and Communists. A small Asian country reeling under the war between these two that is taking place at their cost.
This time the country is Cambodia. A group of authors have gathered here to take part in a conference that examines the merits of being 'neutral'. Cambodia has no intention of being aligned with either the Communists or the Capitalists. Ulong Serap, a venerable Buddhist monk and a Prince is organising this conference. He is also famed for predicting the past.
The conference is full of a cast of varied characters, Gion, who is returning to Cambodia to get another look at Angkor Vat and also attend the conference. His cousin, Sumipoon, is attending with her husband and a brood of children. She is related to Ulong Serap. She is a writer of several successful romance novels.
Sheila Manley is a there with her father and stepmother. Her father is an economist, come to conduct a study in Cambodia. Her stepmother Eliza is a famous model and is being photographed against the monuments.
Gion and Sheila fall in love with each other but carry too much baggage to admit it. Gion is too wrapped up in himself to try and understand Sheila. He finds himself becoming aloof and jealous every time she talks to another man. When the real test comes, he finds himself treating her like an object, just like the other men around him.
There is a rich cast of characters in the novel. Mary Faust is an aggressive activist who likes riding roughshod over others. Chandra Das is an erudite Indian who is in the thrall of Mary. Mary's mousy secretary, Mabel Despair who must come into her own if she has to survive. Apart from them there are several others, the Frenchmen, Lederer, Paulet and Jean Deroulede. some Pakistani and American authors that make the gathering international.
In this heavily intellectual backdrop, the characters often pontificate on the merits of being communist or not. "Meeting at such porridgy places as congresses are philocide," exclaims a character in the book.
Sheila becomes involved in passing drugs unwittingly. It puts her life in danger at the hands of drug dealers. There is a threat of a coup as well. Then there is a stolen artifact. On top of all this there are some mysterious disappearances and some deaths. These are the four plots running parallel to each other. Suddenly an innocent conference turns sombre when all this things start happening.
Gion, who has long been inactive and passive to things around him, finds he has to pull his weight and act if he has to save his beloved Sheila.
This is not the perfect murder mystery. It is too bottom heavy. There is a surfeit of action in the last few chapters. The early chapters are full of explanations about the many characters. Despite these flaws, it is a unique look at the world of Intellectuals who talk much and act less. Han Suyin has satirized some existing intellectuals of the time. If the murders that take place in the book were not so grim and tragic it could be seen as a light-hearted satire.
"The only constant is change" says Han Suyin at a point in the book. I feel, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The drug dealing that fuels wars and coup in this book now fuels terrorism. Drugs destroy the place it is sourced from. The growers and locals are ruined by its use and trading. No one seems to benefit by such things but some well-muscled big countries.
Shiela stands for all that is innocent in this world, she is merely looking for laughter and love. Gion stands for the youth of the world, apathetic and useless. He refuses to act even though he understands how the world works. His apathy causes more damage than the machinations of the evil.
"Each one of us a Bayon, a tower of many faces, eyes staring blindly towards the world, but actually only preoccupied with our own reflection." This quote from the book puts a finger on why our relationships fail. It is because we are too preoccupied with our own self.
As a thriller, the book may contain flaws, but it scores heavily despite it because it makes you think.