THROUGH THE EYES OF BABES: During the four years of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge,
a small child is witness to daily horrors — as well as everyday humanity — in Vaddey Ratner’s
autobiographically-inspired novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan.
ISSUE: Summer 2012
DEPT: Plugged In
Story: Susan Soon He Stanton
How does one write about atrocities? Can there be good amongst all the evil? Vaddey Ratner’s debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan, answers these questions. The book reflects upon the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, a nightmarish time during which 2 million Cambodians perished (almost a third of the population.) Ratner’s story is drawnfrom her own personal history; Ratner was 5 years old and a member of a royal family marked for execution during the Khmer Rouge regime. Disguised as a peasant, she survived years of forced labor, starvation and near execution, finally escaping and living long enough to tell a story not of despair but of hope.
The story is told from the point of view of Raami, a 7-year-old child crippled by polio. Thanks to this disability, she was often ignored and forgotten by those around her, allowing her to become a keen observer of her rapidly shifting world. The novel begins in the idyllic days before the fall of Phnom Penh, at Raami’s luxurious family home. Despite the epic turn of events, In the Shadow of the Banyanserves as a delicate character study, and the reader observes each family member through Raami’s watchful eyes. The characters who emerge most vividly from the narrative are Mama, who begins the story looking like “a butterfly preening herself” and smelling of jasmine, and Papa, known as the Tiger Prince and an emotional pillar of strength in the novel. Throughout the difficult times, Papa is able to retain his humanity, embodying the qualities of both a philosopher and a leader. Distinct but minor players are Big Uncle, who is larger than life, and Grandmother Queen, who suffers from dementia, living more in the past than in the present. Raami and her large extended family are forcibly relocated several times, and eventually separated.
Curiously, for all of the atrocities witnessed and hardships experienced, Ratner’s story is filled to an even larger extent with optimism and beauty. Ratner’s gift is her exquisite descriptions of the careful details of daily life, such as planting rice or observing a turtle swimming in a stream. Most of the accounts in the book concern these mundane details rather than focus on the lurid atrocities. The decline of Cambodia is painted in a hundred subtle ways: in the beginning, Papa remarks that their basil-seed dessert was not properly sweetened; near the end of the novel, Mama shares a water bug with Raami, who devours it ravenously. Through the novel’s slow pace, Ratner’s vision of the genocide becomes more real and disturbing. The Khmer Rouge’s four years of hell were not just an epic series of events but an accumulation of long and difficult days. Since the novel is told through the eyes of a child, certain larger political aspects of the time are not discussed in depth. However, Ratner subtly takes the reader through the reasons for the regime and the many ways the people were killed, including execution, starvation and malaria.Yet simultaneously, Ratner constantly finds opportunities to inject moments of surprising kindness or beauty throughout the story, reminding readers of the goodness of human nature.
In her author’s note, Ratner describes her desire to memorialize the loved ones she lost with an enduring work of art. Shehas done just that; hers is a beautiful tale with considerable poetry and restraint. In the Shadow of the Banyanis an important novel, written by a survivor with unexpected grace and eloquence.