Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.
The novel unfurls over two distinct and widely separated periods of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s past. The first is embodied by the protagonist Jacqueline Mouhot in her visit to Angkor during the interwar years in French Indochina. The second period is set in opposition to, and ultimately intertwined with, the 13th-century struggles of a peasant by the name of Paaku against a despotic monarch of the ancient Khmer Empire.
Jacqueline Mouhot is the granddaughter of explorer and naturalist grandfather Henri Mouhot (1826-61), whose steps she seeks to retrace after receiving an invitation by the École française d’Extrême-Orient to an opening of a temple restoration project in his honor. Her story is a familiar one of self-discovery in foreign lands, complicated by the tragic choices she had to make as a volunteer nurse with the Anglo-French Red Cross during the Great War and her struggle to face that earlier period in her life.
The granddaughter Jacqueline and her interactions with her contemporaries in colonial Cambodia are fictional. Many of the names that appear in her travels—archeologists Louis Finot (1864-1935) and Henri Parmentier (1871-1949), curator Henri Marchal (1876-1970), and the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945)—are however historical. They all represent a bygone era during which to be a professional “Orientalist” did not immediately connote a problematic image of western imperialism.
*Originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Angkor Wat for this re-post goes to the talented Randall Collis. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence.