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Manoa 16.1 (2004) ix-xi
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In the Shadow of Angkor marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the defeat of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and celebrates the rise of a generation of writers and artists—the youngest of them born after the regime fell—who are actively restoring, wherever possible, what the Khmer Rouge destroyed: their country's physical and spiritual heritage, historical truth, literacy, and the freedom to create art of international importance in all its various forms of expression.
The obstacles to a renaissance in Cambodia's art and culture are significant, particularly in the area of literature. When Angkar, the "Organization" of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, set about eliminating real and imagined opponents to its authority, among the first to be killed were people who were educated or appeared to be educated, such as teachers, writers, artists, professionals, and civil servants—followed by those who happened to wear glasses or live in the cities, those who understood a foreign language, monks, nuns, and lay Buddhists.
The regime tried to destroy the country's libraries and with them the heritage of Cambodia's rich written and oral literature, as well as all traces of its excellent twentieth-century novelists and poets. Angkar's attempt to make the population illiterate almost succeeded. A February 2003 report by the Center for Khmer Studies, in Siem Reap, found that seventy percent of Cambodians over the age of fifteen are "not really literate." Access to books, whether through libraries or booksellers, continues to be extremely limited. Indeed, while gathering work for In the Shadow of Angkor, guest editor Sharon May came to know well the devastating effects of the last twenty-five years on literature and writers. At the same time, she was heartened by the efforts being exerted by Cambodians to renew their literature, promote publishing, and encourage reading. Some of those efforts are described in her interviews with Cambodian and Cambodian American writers.
Not only is there a shortage of printed books in Cambodia but a lack of Cambodian literature in translation, especially in the West. Here too, however, support for Khmer writers is growing. In her overview essay in this volume, May describes meeting French translator Christophe Macquet at a [End Page ix] café in Phnom Penh. She and Macquet marveled at the coincidence that they were on similar quests at the same time: gathering and translating Cambodian literature for Western readers.
Writing about his research in the French journal Europe, Macquet rhetorically asks, "Who has ever had the occasion to read a Cambodian novel?" He replies, "No one, since there isn't a single title in French bookstores." However, Macquet points out, this absence of books does not mean that literature has not been and is not now being written in Cambodia:
Since the 1950 s, no less than 2 ,000 novels and collections of short stories have been published in Cambodia, which, considering the size of the country and the local publishing structures, is significant. The production is very diverse: sentimental novels, adventure novels, mysteries, spy novels, historical novels, comic novels, political, erotic, philosophical, etc. During more than half a century (an extremely short time if one thinks of the slow development of the European novel), Cambodian writers, often under difficult circumstances, invented the Khmer pralamlok, a new concept, a new object, a new way of narrating and listening to stories, a new form of writing, in prose, at the crossroads of Western and Asian influences....
[There has been in those fifty years] the elaboration of a truly Khmer literature (in its themes, metaphors, grammar of silences, gazes, smiles) obsessed with modernity, with freedom (and the recurrent theme of imprisonment), with the loss of a greater time, of an original perfection, with an identity quest (What is it to be Cambodian? What is the Khmer nation? What are today's people in comparison with the founders of Angkor?). We see the growth of a literature orphaned of myth that begins to reflect on history, politics, the human condition, or the other way around, to try to mime a "lost paradise," a...