There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
First published in England in 2006, Geoff Ryman’s novel The King’s Last Song balances stories about the lives of four characters: a 12th-century Cambodian king, an archaeologist working for the United Nations, a young “motoboy” who chauffeurs tourists on his motorcycle, and a former Khmer Rouge loyalist. There is no irony in the novel, little humor, no verbal pyrotechnics, and, despite the full cast of characters, few intricacies of plot; instead, Ryman has crafted a solid historical novel with an authentic feel for both ancient and modern Cambodia and, mercifully, none of the arid expository expanses that sometimes make historical fiction a chore. Naturally, the Khmer Rouge’s staggeringly vast genocide looms like a ghost over the story, though the infamous killing fields are only alluded to. One character, a Communist and kidnapper, gives perhaps the most trenchant assessment of a Khmer Rouge leader and the devastation that Pol Pot’s regime caused: “[He] kills about a thousand trained, sensible, politically aware, intelligent Cambodian Communists because, only because they’ve lived in North Vietnam.…He takes over the country. He’s so incompetent; he kills a million people without even knowing he’s done it! How do you kill one million people by mistake and not know?” Those tragedies are embodied in Map, an ambiguously sinister Angkor Wat policeman. He’s guilty of unspeakably grisly crimes as a Khmer Rouge cadre—his scars mirror the wickedness he perpetrated. Yet he suffers, too: His family has been killed, and he’s tormented by hallucinations of his victims. His story is intertwined with tales of other contemporary Cambodians and of the medieval king Jayavarman, a notably egalitarian ruler. In an afterword included in this, the first American edition of the book, Ryman notes that little is known about Jayavarman except that he was a Buddhist, a builder, and a great leader. Within the novel itself, however, Jayavarman’s elaborate biography easily constitutes half the book. Ryman imagines him given as a child hostage to a king by his noble family, his capture in battle, his strangely peaceful and satisfying stint in slavery, his return as king, his successful battles, and more. His dazzling achievements hint at what Ryman clearly believes Cambodians could accomplish again. But modern Cambodia, portrayed here, is still a wreck, beset by memories of mass murder. Like William the motoboy, everyone concentrates on escaping poverty and rising above their station. Surprisingly few, though, dwell on vengeance; there is a new generation, Ryman seems to say, capable of the stratospheric feats of the country’s legendary royalty.