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Novel turns King Father into a literary 'Figurehead' of fun

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Courting trouble? New novel Figurehead by Patrick Allington.

Australian piece paints a potentially controversial portrait of Cambodia's ex-King Norodom Sihanouk during the KR years.

Courting trouble? New novel Figurehead by Patrick Allington.

A just-published Australian novel, Figurehead, by Patrick Allington (Black Inc) about the dark days of the Pol Pot regime blurs fiction with reality and creates caricatures of the high-profile Cambodians who played a part in this unfortunate passage of history.

It is the debut novel by Allington, who was mentored by JM Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature, at the University of Adelaide.

The book follows Ted Whittlemore, a fictional radical Australian journalist, possibly based on Wilfred Burchett, a controversial writer denounced as a communist sympathiser.

The book recounts how in the late 1960s Whittlemore saves the life of Nhem Kiry, who then becomes Pol Pot's mouthpiece.

The consequences haunt Whittlemore as he ponders the Khmer Rouge excesses and wonders what went wrong.

Geordie Williamson, the chief literary critic of The Australian newspaper, wrote on June 11 that, "Figurehead is almost, but not quite, a historical novel...Its inventions are not just speculative amalgam - tall tales and hearsay to plug gaps in the historical record - but a leap, made from real-world specificity into the abstract universals of literature."

But how will Cambodians view the representation of Norodom Sihanouk, who is lampooned as some absurdist cartoon character that could be at home in the darkly satirical US TV series South Park?

In one passage Sihanouk refers to his wife Princess Monique as "fruit salad". In another, Khmer Rouge leaders snigger about Sihanouk's ample stomach: "'Everybody is so delighted,' Ieng Sary whispered, 'that His Majesty Prince Norodom Sihanouk is finally pregnant. He has wanted to be a mother for so long. He's so large that the doctors suspect twins.'"

The representation poses the question of whether the book will be made available in the Kingdom's bookshops.

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