In the Shadow of the Banyan
“There will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree…”
“Mama was right. Love hides in all sorts of places, in the most sorrowful corner of your heart, in the darkest and most hopeless situation.”
It’s difficult to imagine what might have passed through the mind of a young child when her family, like many other Cambodians, were rounded up from their homes in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and forced to endure years of sudden and frequent relocations to far-flung villages and often sub-par accommodations, backbreaking physical labor under horrific conditions, gnawing and persistent thirst and hunger, and inconceivable loss. How might that five-year-old girl who has already suffered from polio as an infant make sense of her father’s disappearance and the execution of most of her relatives before she’s even 10 years old? What happens to that irrevocably scarred person as an adult? In debut author Vaddey Ratner’s case, she writes a masterpiece of a novel filled with so much raw power and beauty, it’s a miracle such a story that surely must’ve been difficult to write could find its way out at all.
"...a masterpiece of a novel that’s filled with so much raw power and beauty, it’s a miracle such a story that surely must’ve been difficult to write could find its way out at all…. It’s a resounding testament to what happens when hope and ideals are laid to waste in favor of might, invincibility and greed."
Not a memoir, but a closely mirrored fiction to Ratner’s harrowing reality, IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN is, in a word, dazzling. Told from the perspective of seven-year-old Raami, the atrocities that occurred between 1975 and 1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge’s revolutionary socialist movement unfold in painstaking detail. As Raami and her relatives are forcefully moved around from place to place, each hamlet less recognizable than the next, their misfortune reflects the displacement and fear on a national scale. Possessions are confiscated. Families are separated from each other without rhyme or reason and put to work “for the good of the Organization.” Anyone loyal to the old order or capitalism, including Raami’s father (a prince), is “sent away” --- presumably to be executed. As for the survivors, they’re left in shambles and broken, wondering what kind of God would allow such barbarism to lay waste to a nation of essentially peaceful people.
The story of what happened in Cambodia during this time period of mass killing has been told before in movies, memoirs and historical texts. But what makes Ratner’s version of events so breathtaking is that they are seen through the eyes of a child, and a painfully innocent one at that. Take Raami’s initial conception of the Khmer Rouge: “people, with their bodies painted bright red, invading the city, scurrying about the streets like throngs of stinging red ants.” Or her description of a work camp in which she, her mother and uncle are enslaved toward the end of the book: “bright orange flames dotted the broken landscape, illuminating the endless lines of black figures digging and carrying baskets. Buriers of dragons, I thought. Diggers of graves. Up and down. Up and down. They looked like ghosts. Ghosts burying ghosts.” Raami’s aunt Tata puts it best when she says, “The problem with being seven --- is that you’re aware of so much, and yet you understand so little.” In fact, she’s still at an age where she thinks it’s possible to grow up and make sense of everything. To her, her family’s suffering is finite. But we readers know better.
IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN is foremost a novel about genocide and injustice. It’s a resounding testament to what happens when hope and ideals are laid to waste in favor of might, invincibility and greed. As Big Uncle says to Raami’s father, the leaders of the Kampuchean Socialist Revolution “are not the same men [he] studied philosophy and history and literature with in France. Nor are they people whose daily struggles and aspirations [he] tried to capture and convey in [his] poetry. They are children who’ve been given guns --- power beyond their years.” An estimated two million Cambodians lost their lives over the four years in which this novel takes place. Their stories aren’t that far off from Raami’s own --- or Ratner’s.
But despite its upsetting subject matter, what gives the book its heart is Ratner’s unrelenting focus on love. It’s the umbilical cord that ties Raami to her mother. It’s the unbreakable bond Raami shares with her father --- and her father shares with Raami’s mother, even after he’s gone. It’s the respect Big Uncle shows for his slain wife and twin sons when he shaves his head in their honor. And it’s the extraordinary lengths each brother travels to protect his family, even in the face of certain death. In scene after scene, Ratner proves her gift as a writer by allowing love and beauty to peek through every tattered crack. Through her words, we can witness the divine: “No matter what ugliness and destruction you may witness around you, I want you always to believe that the tiniest glimpse of beauty here and there is a reflection of the gods’ abode…. You have only to envision it, to dare to dream it. It is within you, within all of us.”
And with love comes its inevitable B-side: sorrow. Fair readers, this is perhaps one of the most waterworks-inducing books you’ll ever have the pleasure of reading. When Raami’s father turns himself over to the Khmer Rouge in order to protect his family, when he asks Raami’s forgiveness for not being there to see her grow up, or when Raami screams in return, “You’re my papa --- I want you here! Tell them. Please --- one last story. Please, Papa!” it’s enough to drive a stake through your heart. But it’s a testament to Ratner’s talent that none of the dialogue here or elsewhere sounds canned or heavy-handed. At one point, she describes Cambodia’s monsoons as “that period of the season when the rain [comes] in a steady drizzle throughout the morning, then [wails] inconsolably in the afternoon, before it [softens] to a sob that [is] to last through the evening and sometimes well into the night.” Such could be said for my experience reading her book.
When she was a young girl, Raami’s father told her stories to give her wings, so that she would “never be trapped by anything --- [her] name, [her] title, the limits of [her] body, this world’s suffering.” He gave her those wings so she could fly, no matter what was going on around her. With IN THE SHADOW OF THE BANYAN, Ratner follows the lead of her protagonist. In truth, she not only flies, she soars.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on August 9, 2012