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.
The story itself is driven not so much by the adventures of Jacqueline, but rather by the preternatural connection she has with an orphan teenager of the reign of 13th century Khmer King Jayavarman VIII. Paaku is a peasant who survives by harvesting lotuses outside the palace walls of Angkor. Like Jacqueline, Paaku is a fictional character that interacts within a historical setting. 20th-century Jacqueline relives the life of the 13th century Paaku as she explores the temple complexes of Angkor. Sometimes she relives Paaku in her dreams while at other times, she will have visions of him when in the company of archaeologists. She begins to see herself as a reincarnation of the young man.
In his own time, Paaku has a confrontation with the Angkorian king. During an annual temple festival, Paaku makes a display of strength at one of the ceremonies. Because he is of a religious sect different than the palace, this throws the empire into spiritual crisis. Those concerns of pre-modern strife between followers of Vishnu, Shiva, Brahma, and the Buddha in ancient Cambodia are vividly recreated through Paaku’s interactions with historical figures of that era. This exigency works as an analogue to Jacqueline’s unresolved crisis from the war, thus connecting the two disparate time periods of this novel.
Indeed, there is some historicity to all of this as is shown in the travel account by the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, The Customs of Cambodia, which is dated to the initial decade of the 14th century. Paaku’s dealings with Zhou as a representative of the Yuan Dynasty add an extra dimension of political intrigue as well as verisimilitude to events of time period.
As the story of Paaku’s confrontation with the Khmer palace and its violent religious establishment reaches a climax, so too does Jacqueline’s struggle with her troubled past come to a head in the green-wet jungles encircling the ruins of Angkor. In the last moments of a malaria-induced delirium, Jacqueline encounters her strongest spiritual connection with Paaku. This urgency continues until the final words and resulting denouement of story.
Ferrer’s treatment of colonial-Cambodian interaction is nuanced. Anticolonial characters, some Khmer, some Viet, and even some Russians are well-represented and central to the story. Jacqueline Mouhot, meanwhile, is a morally questionable character. She is no one-dimensional “Tomb Raider” played by a Hollywood starlet. Instead, Ferrer allows the main character to represent much of the naïve ugliness of the colonial project itself. This critique provides an edifying center that dampens any potential romanticization of that period.
Creative and engaging, the historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine is an inventive recreation of European exploration and exploitation alongside the spiritual mysticism of ancient Cambodia.