Paris in the late 1940s was a time of rebuilding. It was also central to the nascent Communist party in Cambodia. Justin Clark’s new novel, The Zero Season, captures this period in a style reminiscent of Graham Greene with its political tension, complicated love story, and colorful settings.
Not quite Greene, through, for the love story involves two men. Etienne Legast is a young Frenchman who has been living on a farm away from Paris since the end of the War. He returns to the capital after the death of his mother and has been estranged from his family since his sister told their parents that he’s gay. Etienne doesn’t plan to stay long, but soon after he returns he visits an older professor named Tomas with whom he’d had a clandestine long-term relationship during the War. At this dinner party, Etienne meets a young Cambodian student named Chhim Samphan, who goes by Sam. The two later run into each other in the Pigalle red light district and come to the realization that the other is gay.
Etienne, in trying to help a friend with money problems, becomes involved with unsavory characters, finding himself an accomplice to a robbery and a barroom shooting. On the run, he turns to Sam. Sam, meanwhile, is searching for his sister: she came to Paris in 1937 to perform in the Colonial Exposition and quickly disappeared. He will do just about anything to find answers.
Soon after arrival in Paris, Sam becomes a part of a Cambodian student group that gathers to discuss the politics back home.
Samphan and Sok Sann stand at the back of a small ballroom at the Cité Universitaire, a campus for visiting scholars and academics at the southern edge of the city. A group of their fellow Indochinese students are busy setting up chairs for the audience, while another group has gone to the hall entrance to receive the night’s speaker, a former secretary of the Resident Superior in Phnom Penh. The talk is meant to mark the end of the French protectorate in Cambodia. Mark, thinks Samphan, is a rather ambiguous word.
Sam and his friends also meet the exiled Cambodian Prime Minister, living in Chartres, an hour outside Paris. Modeled after Son Ngoc Thanh, Cambodia’s first non-royal Prime Minister for a couple months in 1945, this character plans an independence movement back in Cambodia. Sam and his friends Sann and Ieng have backstories similar to the real-life Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar, Ieng Sary and Son Sen.
Clark keeps the story moving at a rapid pace. Although set in Paris, the narrative contains plenty of flashbacks to Cambodia and Clark captures these scenes vividly:
His memory goes back to a different river. Along the Tonlé Sap, where he and his classmates at the Lycée Sisowath watched dragon boat regattas at harvest time each year. The celebration was scheduled to coincide with the moment that the lake at the end of the Tonlé Sap overfilled, reversing the current of the river that fed it. One year, a boat sank; its crew disappeared, and other dragon boats had gone searching for them, as the fireworks went off overhead. He and Sann had stood side by side, watching the strange scene unfold. The drowned bodies being brought back in the boats of would-be rescuers, costumed limbs dangling over the side, dragging in the current. Meanwhile, word had not yet reached the distant opposite bank, where the sky popped and exploded with marvelous colours.
An evocative love story, The Zero Season is set in post-War Paris against the backdrop of both the Parisian underworld and Cambodia’s struggle for independence in the twilight of French colonialism in Southeast Asia.