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Snake in the grass in Khmer noir tale

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Robert Bergin, one of 14 authors who contributed a short story to the Phnom Penh Noir collection. Photograph supplied

As a child mowing the lawn of a nearby country club, American author Robert Bergin found himself with a writhing copperhead snake in his fist. After he dropped his captive, it led him to a tangled ball of other reptiles: a beguiling but deadly image that now forms the central image behind his new Siem Reap–based short story out next month.

Titled A Coven of Snakes, the tale of how beauty and intrigue are bound up with violence is one of 14 featured in the upcoming Phnom Penh Noir collection.

Bergin, a former US Foreign Service officer who served in Southeast Asia, forged a career dealing in antiques in the region as well as writing on military history. He is also the author of three adventure novels. From Bangkok, he spoke to The Phnom Penh Post about his contribution, and the evil and beauty he finds fascinating about Cambodia.

This short story collection deals with the darkness associated with Cambodia. How did your relationship with the country begin and how did darkness manifest itself in your experience?

I was first in Phnom Penh, briefly, in the late 1960s, the era of the Vietnam War. I was new to Southeast Asia then; everything was exotic and exciting. This was before the Khmer Rouge, and Cambodia was not yet deeply touched by the war. Even Saigon was peaceful most days then. I had no sense of the darkness that was to come.

After Vietnam, I came to Bangkok for five years. It was during these years – the early 1970s – that the darkness descended on Cambodia. From Bangkok one had a view of what was happening in Cambodia as the war came to it. I was becoming interested in Asian art then, and the flow of artefacts coming out of Cambodia had started. It was another dimension of the Cambodian tragedy.

At some point I became very interested in Cambodian silver objects, and started buying them for myself. Then the trade in silver objects stopped. Nothing new was being made. The skilled artisan who crafted these beautiful things had all been killed.

As well as violence, there are beautiful parts of the story – was that a deliberate juxtaposition?

It was not deliberate when I started, but A Coven of Snakes became a story of beauty and evil – which reflects some of the history of Cambodia. In the story, Angkor becomes the background to a series of exceptionally brutal killings of tourists.

My “hero,” an American political analyst, is sent to Siem Reap to assist a French investigator helping the Cambodian police with this case. The killings are believed linked to the Khmer Rouge – which is why the political analyst was sent.

He determines the Khmer Rough are not linked to these killings, and starts to look at the tourist trade, which is just starting to come back. He calls on the help of a local prostitute – who is also a dancer – and becomes quite taken with her as they explore the beauties of Angkor Wat together and she serves as his guide to the dark side of Cambodia – the sex trade.

The analyst starts to understand that evil exists around us, even where there is great beauty. It’s not just the Khmer Rouge – evil is a ancient thing. It can exist in the things we love.

The story begins with the analyst hero’s flash back to a time when he was a kid and inadvertently grabbed a poisonous snake by its tail and where that incident led. And that’s kind of what happens to him in Cambodia. When you’re holding an agitated snake by his tail, what do you do?

Phnom Penh Noir is published via Heavenlake Press. The official launch will be on November 30 at the Foreign Correspondents Club.

The authors and publishers will contribute 20 per cent of their earnings from this book to selected charity organisations in Cambodia.

The Phnom Penh Post is a media sponsor of the book.

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