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Bond meets Buddha in Cambo spy thriller


Looking for a good holiday read? Go no further than The End of the Monsoon by John Lathrop, available at Monuments books for $12.50.

The book, set in Cambodia, was released by the UK publisher John Murray around the middle of the year, and Amazon’s book description reads: “Michael Smith, at the US embassy in Cambodia, has an urgent assignment: do what it takes to help a US oil company secure its contract with the Cambodian government before upcoming elections strengthen a Chinese competitor.

“His affair with Zainab, the British charge’s wife, complicates events. Unaware of Smith’s role, Zainab pushes hard for reform, convincing her candidate to tie oil concessions to clean government, and Chinese concessions to the release of a dissident monk. The ruling party works for the monk’s release, but insists that Zainab, a Buddhist herself, travels to the remote northern border for the handover.

Smith considers a British diplomat’s spouse to be a protected species in Cambodia.

While classed as a political thriller, the book is complex and subtle and at first appears to be an adulterous love story, about a gradual descent into the personal moral dissolution that so often accompanies adulterous affairs. It’s also a story about how the insidious nature of corruption corrupts almost all.

Indeed the book’s subtitle, How Far Can You Go  Before Crossing The Line? says it all.

About halfway through, the novel begins to change tack almost as though the author, cognizant of the fact that he is supposed to be writing a political thriller, inserts some classic ingredients of the genre: danger and derring do.

The first attempt to do this, a sort of James Bond-esque gung-ho-hero-rises-to-the-occasion-and-saves-the-heroine-from-disaster when a tethered balloon at Angkor Wat becomes untethered, is somewhat clumsy and clichéd.

But it’s a small flaw in an otherwise superb book.  Part of what makes the book superb is the refreshing description of a relatively recent modern day Cambodia, and the absolute absence of references to Pol Pot and tarantulas.

The book also gives a fascinating insight into the lives of embassy staff and diplomatic circles. NGOs don’t fare too well in this novel, and the author makes a point of satirising the over-capitalised “obscurantist jargon” employed by both NGOs and embassy officialdom on a regular basis.

The book gives this fictitious example:  “Welcome, all Attendees, to Westin Oil’s Second Annual Conference on Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Supporting IMF Guide on Resource Revenue Transparency, Promoting Aggregation and Disaggregation Disclosure, UNDP EITI Guide Document, Paragraph 4, and Bill 6066.”

All in all, this book is one of those great deckchairs reads, and the insights into a real Cambodia of today will bring amusement especially to seasoned expats.



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