Tse Hao Guang 謝皓光 reviews a new ‘adventure story for the backpacker age’, discussing dangerous representations of ‘mysterious’ Indochina and the postcolonial issues surrounding even the most contemporary East-West clashes.
Sam Ferrer, The Last Gods of Indochine (Signal 8 Press, 2016), 271pp.
Many have praised Sam Ferrer’s novel The Last Gods of Indochine as a book that overturns the exoticizing tropes of the colonial adventure story, making the novel succeed where many have failed (and often failed terribly). Yet, for this reviewer at least, this may not be entirely right. The Last Gods of Indochine’s primary difficulty is that it tries to be both a work of historical fiction as well as a story that derives its power from reincarnation. It sets up a tension and contrast between the ‘scientific’ and the ‘mystical,’ mapping this tension a little too neatly onto ‘West’ and ‘East’. In the course of its narrative it seems to reconcile the two through the romantic relationship between two central characters, Jacquie (the mysterious lady) and Victor (the man of action)— with no surprises as to which represents the ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ worldview.
The setup of the novel is interesting: in 1921, Jacqueline Mouhot, the conveniently half-British and thus English-speaking granddaughter of the famous French explorer Henri Mouhout, decides to retrace his steps to Angkor Wat. Along the way she dreams of a boy named Paaku. The book alternates between her story and Paaku’s (600 years prior in 1294), who is an orphan thrust into the centre of Khmer Empire court intrigue when he fulfills a prophecy by bending a spear. The drama of the book rests almost entirely on the reader trying to figure out the precise relationship between these two characters and their time periods—how will they meet, if at all? why do they seem to have this spiritual connection? Why does there seem to be an age-old curse on Jacquie? At this point the novel seems set up to undermine this supernatural setup.
Jacquie’s story is built up gradually, with her journey from Paris to Singapore to Saigon to Siem Reap taking up almost a quarter of the book, interspersed of course with flashbacks, her grandfather’s journal entries, and Paaku’s chapters. Apart from pacing, Jacquie’s characterisation often frustrates. She is, we are given to know, not entirely sold on her own journey, full of doubt and second-guessing. However, this manifests in her taking an almost entirely passive approach to her explorations. She moves through the world of the story allowing things and people to happen to her, and she never acts on her doubts. One of the joys of the adventure novel is, precisely, the spirit of adventure, and Jacquie is a strangely uncurious quester, both in her physical journey to Cambodia and her inner ‘spiritual’ journey. She moves through the world as a tourist might (her only real skill is taking photos) rather than an adventurer.
In comparison, Paaku’s narrative hurtles forward—by the first of his chapters we are introduced to a whole pre-modern society and its religious-political dynamics, the two Khmer boys Paaku and Jarisi are sketched through their reactions to women bathing in the river, and a rescued wounded monkey sets the stage for future conflict with a mysterious white tiger. I felt myself resisting the urge to skip over Jacquie’s diary entries and frustrations with non-English speaking Orientals to get to the next part of Paaku’s story. The major conflict is introduced in an almost throwaway fashion: “Let’s see who is trying to bend Balarama’s Spear!” Jarisi says, and Paaku ends up actually bending it, suggesting that he might be the incarnation of the deity Balarama, throwing the court into disarray. From this point, a ‘Chosen One’ narrative emerges, and Paaku’s arc involves him having to choose between his own natural desire to be an everyman, or embrace his special powers and destiny, putting him and his loved ones in danger.
Jacquie’s arrival at Angkor, at the l’École Française d’Extrème Orient (EFEO), the research institute which invited her, is slightly bathetic:
She was confounded as well; as far as she could see, EFEO was not a set of austere academic edifices. There weren’t spectacled expatriates swarming over the day’s discoveries. The French School of the Far East was merely, and quite unromantically, a handful of adults sitting around a bonfire. (149)
This is a potential launching pad for introducing complex characters, but in the end the EFEO people melt into each other, their motivations muddy, representing the idea that colonial enterprise is much less exciting than it seems. Victor is introduced: he is aforementioned driver, pilot, and detective: “I want to solve one and for all the mystery of how this empire declined and tell its story through its characters” (232). He stands in for the reader, who by now is waiting for answers.
Meanwhile, Paaku gets an audience with the Queen, makes enemies with the King and his Chief Priest (who is Jarisi’s master!), and by no fault of his own, precipitates a kingdom-wide religious and political rift. His friends are tortured and he finds out some gory aspects of his past. All this to say that the stakes of his story are high, and it is fascinating to watch the ‘real-world’ effects of a supernatural event. In the world of the Khmer, the natural and supernatural are one. The reader is encouraged to buy into this supernatural world to experience Paaku’s story. Jacquie’s, on the other hand, hinges on the tension between whether there is more to the material world or not. However, because of the interlaced narratives, we already know there must be reincarnation in the world of the book very early into the story.
The final act, when the two narratives crash, is the highlight of the narrative, though it also contains what remains the sticking point for this reviewer. . It was well-paced—I was turning pages fast as I could – and the twist comes as a genuine surprise. At its crescendo, the novel should be praised for being both gripping and well-constructed. Yet in bringing together ‘East’ and ‘West’ in the way it does, the book seems to re-enforce those categories, as well as assumptions about what each of those worlds represents. As such, The Last Gods of Indochine reenacts rather than refutes ideas of the ‘East’ as a source of mysticism and spirituality, with a Western protagonist leaving her world of comfort and science to find herself. Sure, here she is inadvertent, well-meaning oppressor rather than savior, but what keeps readers is the exotic world of Paaku. The book leans too close to being an adventure story for the backpacker age.
Tse Hao Guang 謝皓光 is the author of Deeds of Light, shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize. He edits e-journal OF ZOOS and critical resource poetry.sg, and is a 2016 fellow of the International Writing Program.