Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia's capital city on New Year's Day. The entire city was forced to flee Pnomh Penh, leaving behind their homes and belongings, or be killed. Her father, a prince and an idealistic poet, initially welcomed the invading Communist regime, hoping for greater equality for its citizens.
“You see that they are children, don't you?” asks a character in In the Shadow of the Banyan. “Children who have been given guns.”
The Communist-led social experiment resulted not in an agrarian utopia but in the killing fields, where an estimated 1.7 to 2.4 million people, including Ratner's father, perished. Somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of the country died during Pol Pot's four-year reign.
Rather than cover the breadth of the suffering, Ratner writes about its effects on one little girl and her family.
“In the Shadow of the Banyan” is billed as a novel, but the main character's experiences closely mirror the author's. Ratner writes that she chose fiction as a medium to make sense of the years of terror and starvation that left her mute when she came to the United States as a refugee in 1981. (All the writers out there trying to pass off fiction as memoir: Take note.)
She makes her narrator seven rather than five when the coup occurs and shrinks the size of her family. But her father's name she leaves unchanged.
The title comes from a grandmother's prophecy that “there will remain only so many of us as rest in the shadow of a banyan tree.”
The novel is as heartbreaking as one would expect, but never nihilistic. In fact, “In the Shadow of the Banyan” is remarkable for its lack of rage. Instead of fury, Ratner writes passages of unexpected beauty and occasional kindness. While the novel encompasses horrific events, it never loses sight of empathy. Part of that comes from the nature of its child narrator.
“Papa said that when he wanted to escape from something unpleasant or sad all he needed was to find a crack in the world,” the narrator Raami says, and he passed along that ability to his oldest daughter.
“When I thought you couldn't walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly,” her dad tells Raami, who was struck with polio when she was one. “I told you stories to give you wings, Raami, so that you would never be trapped by anything....”
If her father was her spiritual guide, Raami's beautiful mother is her bodyguard. The woman who previously spent her days dressed in silk endured years of forced labor and starvation in an effort to keep herself and her daughters alive. She finds food, even when the only things to eat are bugs and leaves.
Life under “The Organization” was capricious and subject to change without notice. People could be tortured or killed for wearing eyeglasses (a sign of the intellectual elite). Raami's family has to throw out the leg brace that helped her walk straight, but she is still forced to labor in the rice paddies and dig earthen bulwarks in a futile effort to stop the Mekong River from flooding.
Ratner is a lyrical writer, who can turn that ability on the needle leeches hiding in the water of a rice paddy, flame trees in bloom, or tendrils of fog drifting over a Buddhist monastery. In one chapter, Raami tries to describe ice to an old farmer who's never seen it, a marked contrast between her life of perpetual hunger and the refrigerator filled with imported cheeses and pates.
“As my father's only surviving child, it is my endeavor to honor his spirit,” Ratner writes in an afterword. “This story is born of my desire to give voice to his memory and the memories of all those silenced.”
“In the Shadow of the Banyan” offers a child's eyewitness account to Cambodia's genocide, overlaid by the soul of a poet.