Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A barang guarded by nagas

Cambodia is the setting for Hunters in the Dark, a book about aimless Westerners who travel there to float along with no plans other than to live cheaply and escape from unsatisfying lives "back home."  The book mainly concerns Robert, an Englishman, and Simon, and American, and how their lives intersect with violent and unexpected consequences.

The book is divided into four sections, each more or less told from the viewpoint of a different character (although all of the characters become intertwined).  Karma, the first section, concerns Robert and his background.  He is a teacher in a small village in England. He's stayed in the general area where is parents and grandparents live, but doesn't really feel connected to anything.  He saves his money so that during the summer holidays he can travel.  His current trip to Southeast Asia eventually brings him to Cambodia.  He doesn't have much money left, but on a whim decides to visit a casino where he manages (without much effort or thought) to win $2000.  This money will be the catalyst for many of the events which follow.  He hires a taxi driver, Ouksa, who takes him to some ruins where he encounters another westerner.  Simon is a confident and friendly American who invites Robert to his house.  Ouksa tries to dissuade Robert from going with Simon, saying he doesn't trust the American, but Robert brushes off the warning.  Simon seems to be prosperous, and he is welcoming and friendly, even being so kind as to share his opium (what a guy).  When Robert regains consciousness after his night of partying at Simon's house, he's on a boat wearing someone else's clothes and with all of his belongings and casino winnings missing (I hate when that happens!).  The boat operator has apparently been given instructions to drop Robert in the city but doesn't seem to understand English.  Robert does find $100 in one of the pockets of the strange clothes, and freed of the rest of his belongings, he's strangely at peace.  He decides to find a hotel and try to find clients who will pay for English lessons.  In this way, he meets Sophal, the daughter of a wealthy doctor.  Sophal can speak English already, but her father wants to at least give her some direction after she dropped out of medical school in Paris.

The second part of the book, Dogs and Vultures, concerns what happens to Simon after he steals Robert's money.  Simon and his Khmer girlfriend, Sothea, are drug addicts who simply spend all their time high or trying to find drugs.  Needless to say, their ill-gotten money does not turn out to be a blessing for them.

Dhamma, the third section of the book, involves Davuth, an immoral policeman.  He has good motives for his corruption, a daughter in private school, but he's ruthless and willing to do anything to get more money.  He finds out where Simon got his large windfall, and becomes convinced that Robert has even more money stashed somewhere. In the final section of the book, Hunters in the Dark, the characters come together in a final series of events that will leave nearly everyone damaged in some way.  Is the cursed money to blame?  Certainly, many of the characters seem to be motivated by the pursuit of the cash.

The book was so very slow to get started.  The first part of the book read like a very boring travel journal.  We were treated to where Robert went, how he got there, and what he saw once he arrived.  The author also throws in many presumably Khmer words, with no attempt to explain them, so the book seemed to be gibberish at some points.  Robert is also a supremely annoying character.  He has no direction, no plans, and no enthusiasm for anything.  He is repeatedly warned against people and actions by locals, yet he consistently ignores this advice (to disastrous effect every time).

It was interesting to read about Cambodia, a country that I hadn't encountered much in fiction before.  Davuth the policeman often remembers his days as a young killer in the days of the Pol Pot regime, and this early causal exposure to violence has helped to shape his current outlook on life.  Overall, the book was an interesting look at how the events of the recent past have shaped Cambodia.  It's also a cautionary tale of how greed and the pursuit of easy money never end well.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Hunters in the Dark from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review

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