I’ve just finished reading Laura Jean McKay’s terrific new short story collection, Holiday in Cambodia. What follows is not a review — more an initial collection of thoughts and reactions.
These stories are all set in Cambodia, including late French colonisation, the Pol Pot period, and the messy (still messy) decades that have followed. There’s also a very funny virtual Cambodia (see ‘A Pocket Guide to Phnom Penh’). McKay doesn’t overshape the material by trying to mould the individual stories into some false cohesive whole: the collection is neither too unified nor too disjointed. Reading Holiday in Cambodia quickly as a single (though disparate) work — that is, allowing the different stories, characters and eras to meld into each other — offers greater rewards, I think, than dipping into the book, than separating the stories out.
For me, the standout story is ‘The Deep Ambition of Rossi’, which tells the story of the ‘UNESCO 1951 Bathing Suit Competition’ and in the process captures quite deliciously the politics and the play of the high end of town. It also contains a terrific cameo by a youngish King Sihanouk: ‘The King had a number of publicly recognised concubines, but he wasn’t yet married and took his time greeting the girls. He held Dominique’s hand slightly longer than the others and when he gave it back, it was as a present for her’ (198-99). I also particularly liked ‘Breakfast’, set in 1969 in a hotel/resort where a smattering of French people descend for evening drinks and to be captivated by an unlikely singer, while trying to ignore the evidence of rapidly escalating war (which lingers in the air like a hard-to-pin-down smell). Unlike ‘The Deep Ambition of Rossi’, ‘Breakfast’ seems a little jammed up: there’s a much longer story — a novel, even — straining to get out. But it’s still excellent. (And in contrast, most of the other stories benefit from the ‘snapshot’ treatment that McKay gives them.)
While there are no duds in the collection, political scaffolding now and again shows through. One example: ‘Holiday, I Love You’, about a garment factory, is a little forced, important though the topics of dodgy factories and persecution of unionists are. Several scenes, in different stories, explore Western men’s behaviour towards Cambodian women (prostitutes or otherwise) in compelling and yet somewhat familiar fashion.
Overall, McKay’s achievement is that she has managed to ‘feel’ Cambodia. I’m not saying that her Cambodia is (or isn’t) authentic or ‘true’ (and, anyway, it’s fiction). I’m not suggesting that she’s somehow wriggled her way into the locals’ collective soul: only somebody who knows Cambodia and Cambodians much better than I ever will could accurately comment on that.
But what I think she’s done particularly wall is to tap — in creative and diverse ways — into some of the ways Westerners react to Cambodia. Post-Pol Pot, Cambodia has the capacity to evoke simultaneous delight and horror (as well as being a haven for various types of deeply unpleasant ‘tourism’). For the historically aware visitor, it’s easy, indeed it’s kind of comforting, to tap into this dichotomous reaction — and even to turn it into a virtue, as if perplexity and empathy are themselves deeply meaningful retorts to the long shadow of the Pol Pot period.
One example: to walk around the ex-torture prison, Tuol Sleng, is to experience a horrible, brutal manifestation of the Khmer Rouge’s excesses and paranoia. It’s also to witness Western visitors, by their conversations and by their physical reactions, making heartfelt, genuine but often awkwardly self-aware attempts to publicly ‘take on’ what it all means. Another example: Western fiction set in Cambodia (English language fiction, I should clarify) often centres around a non-Cambodian central character who becomes deeply enamoured by Cambodia and Cambodians and who ultimately dies in tragic circumstances — as if the only way to legitimately and completely empathise with such a long history of war and with the most shocking war crimes imaginable is to literally die for Cambodia. Some of these novels are very good — powerful, challenging and revelatory — but collectively they start to resemble variations on a too-familiar theme. Like these novels, the stories in Holiday in Cambodia are at their most convincing — and entertaining, and funny, and cringe-inducing — when they probe the way that some Westerners react to Cambodia. But McKay offers something different, something fresh.