John Burgess's 'A Woman of Angkor' sheds light on a little-known era

Burgess's book recreates what life would have been like for ordinary Cambodians during the golden age of Khmer civilization.

'A Woman of Angkor' is by John Burgess.

In his very first novel, John Burgess has pulled off something I would have considered impossible.

He’s given us a compelling picture of what life must have been like in 12th-century Angkor, the capital of a centuries-old kingdom that finally vanished. The reasons for Angkor’s collapse have remained a mystery until this day.

Burgess tells the story through the voice of a Khmer market woman named Sray, who rises to prominence because of her skills and her husband’s connections to the royal palace.

I should mention early on that John Burgess is a friend. I met him in the 1970s when I was covering the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for The Christian Science Monitor. John was based in Bangkok at the time. John and I both worked for The Washington Post in the 1980s.

I’ve been to Cambodia many times. I’ve visited the great temple of Angkor Wat perhaps six times since the mid-1960s and I’ve read a good deal about Angkor.

But no book that I know of comes close to telling what life must have been like for ordinary Cambodians during what has been called the golden age of Khmer civilization.

From village to palace

Burgess’s heroine, Sray, quickly takes us from the gentle pace of life in a village on the outskirts of Angkor to the intimidating atmosphere inside the city’s royal palace, where Sray’s husband Nol becomes parasol master to a prince.

Sray finds herself in a palace riven by human failings and torn by rivalries. Brahmin priests, offering spiritual guidance, try desperately to keep the situation under control.

The kingdom is not at peace. The Siamese to the west and the Cham to the east challenge its control over a vast territory. And through Burgess’s skillful storytelling, we witness battles with the Siamese and an encounter with the Cham that could easily go wrong.

The cast includes an elderly king obsessed with orchids, an ambitious young new king, a usurper prince, an architect, a young builder of temples, a Chinese merchant, a kindly sergeant, a scheming concubine, and even a holy elephant.

The story of the gentle elephant Kumari, whom many people believe has spiritual powers and can tell fortunes, is touching in itself.

Through the voices of the builders of Angkor Wat, the author provides a plausible explanation for why the Hindu temple, the largest religious structure in the world, defies tradition and faces west.

The author also creates such believable scenes of love, war, ambition, and rivalry that you can clearly visualize what’s happening. The book is cinematic enough to make a movie.

Through her skills as a trader on behalf of the palace, Sray has access to the King, his court, and the priests who attend him. Her religious beliefs sustain her in questioning the King’s proclivity to choose war over peace.

On her return from a trading mission to China, for example, she tells the King that she hopes for peace with the “people of the east,” only to discover that the King is planning to attack the Chams.

“…by sending soldiers, do we not guarantee future wars?” Sray asks the King. “The families of those who die at our hands will not forget. Anger will live on their hearts, fuelled by evil spirits, and they will seek their vengeance, even if it is not right away.”

Drawing from historic and contemporary sources

How did Burgess make each character come to life?

As Burgess himself explains in an afterword, Angkor was once a city of as many as a million people, but “even its most important personalities are phantoms known only in the barest outline.”

But Burgess did his homework. For an earlier nonfiction book, he studied an 11th-century temple whose carved 340 lines of Sanskrit and ancient Khmer describe land purchases, the transfer of slaves, the settlement of the wilderness, and the upkeep of the temple.

He also studied reliefs at other temples that showed cooks, thieves, young lovers, market vendors, and fortune-tellers. And he got help from looking at life in today’s rural Cambodia, which in many ways hasn’t changed much since the days of ancient Angkor.

For example, a fear of witchcraft and sorcery still exist in today’s Cambodia just as it did in the ancient empire.

I’m writing this piece in large part because of the failure of any mainstream American publication, aside from the Library Journal, to publish a review of this excellent book.

Its publisher, Bangkok-based River Books, has a good reputation, though it is known best for its arts and culture books. This is the first novel that River Books has published.

But Bangkok-published novels are apparently tainted by the “sex-pat” literature genre, which may have discouraged reviews.

Meanwhile, The New York Times makes clear on its website that it doesn’t review books published abroad.

I’ve worked in or traveled to more than 80 countries and have seen a number of wonders of the world. But if I had to make a list, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the temples of Bagan in Myanmar, and Borobodur in Indonesia would rank near or at the top of the list.

I’d also like to take this occasion to encourage anyone who has never been to Angkor to visit if you have a chance.

And if you go to Angkor, please take along a copy of "A Woman of Angkor." It will make the experience more vivid, fulfilling, and worthwhile.

Dan Southerland is a Monitor contributor.

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