WHAT is it about Southeast Asia that brings out the mystery/suspense writer in foreigners? Is it the ever-present stench of corruption in the region’s cities? The perceived exoticism of the Orient? The debilitating effect of relentless tropical sunshine on the brain of the average expatriate?
Whatever the reason, Southeast Asia is teeming with wannabe Raymond Chandlers. Among the more well-known are John Burdett in Bangkok and Colin Cotterill in Laos. Famed American writer Amy Tan even got into the act with Saving Fish from Drowning, a truly awful novel about package tourists gone missing in Myanmar.
Expat writer Johan Smits has now stepped into the fray with Phnom Penh Express, a suspense novel set in the Kingdom’s capital city that follows the fortunes of a chocolate maker named Phirun – born in Cambodia, raised in Belgium and recently returned to the motherland – who unwittingly gets caught in the middle of a war between competing diamond smugglers.
The quirky plotline – involving a web of international intrigue whose strands reach all the way to Europe, the Middle East and Africa – unfolds at a cracking pace that will drag the willing reader along by the sweet tooth. However, the real driving force behind the novel are the witty observations about what life is like for clueless outsiders who, for one reason or another, avoid cultivating any form of meaningful engagement with Cambodian culture.
The usual suspects are held up for ridicule: Khmer pop music, bad driving habits, defensible architecture, government corruption and the greed of young Cambodians.
Most of these observations are made through the eyes of the characters. Phirum – oblivious to the fact that he has become the target of multiple assassination attempts – remains merrily engrossed in such experimental pursuits as creating “happy” chocolates by infusing them with narcotics, and writing hilariously pitiful love poetry to Merrilee, another Cambodian native who has, through living overseas, become disconnected from her heritage.
Phirum is, like the other characters, profoundly unhappy with his surroundings. His senses rebel against the “stench of prahok” (fermented fish paste) emanating from the landlord’s flat, as well as the “relentless wailing of the karaoke addict upstairs”. He also describes the Cambodian tradition of bowing to show respect as something that animals might do.
And while Colonel Peeters – a misogynistic Belgian psychopath who travels to Phnom Penh to maintain control of his diamond-smuggling operation – shares Phirum’s nightmares about being tortured by the “horrifying noise” of local pop music, he also indulges in a number of even harsher assessments of Cambodian culture throughout the book. Meanwhile, the questionable local driving habits are described over and over again in exquisitely horrifying detail anytime anyone takes a trip across the city.
The repeated hammering away at these observations, though often witty, conspires to paint a picture of Phnom Penh as an earthbound version of the Eighth Circle of Hell, with little in the way of redemption aside from one block on Street 240, which is presented as a shady, tree-lined haven for foreigners.
As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that this droll commentary also serves as the albatross that threatens to drag Phnom Penh Express down – and herein lies the most glaring weakness of the novel: The characters all seem to put most of their energy into griping about Khmer culture, the only difference among them being a matter of degree. The author occasionally attempts to create the illusion of a dialogue between different points of view, but the debunkers always win the day. When, for example, Phirum is challenged by Merrilee about whether he qualifies as Cambodian, the final word is that he does not, mainly because he hasn’t “bought the latest Nokia with camera and digital music memory” and then filled it with Khmer love songs.
Phirum’s half-hearted argument that the poor behaviour of Cambodians results from the country wrestling itself through an “almost unavoidable phase” – and the fact that in the last chapter he has converted to eating the prahok that he had spent the entire book railing against – remain jarring and unconvincing apologies that contradict the general tone of Phnom Penh Express.
Of course Cambodian culture is not the only subject of the author’s wit. One character, William H Stoppkotte, the senior intelligence officer at the US embassy in Phnom Penh, serves as a comic stand-in for America’s genius for getting things wrong in its foreign policy.
Other worthy targets include aid workers who pamper themselves using money that would be better spent actually helping those in need. “She radiates the arrogant confidence that can usually be found only with the most die-hard prostitutes and overpaid foreign aid workers,” Smits writes, cleverly echoing Paul Theroux’s description in Dark Star Safari of UN employees who drive their white SUVs with “ministerial haughtiness”.
Overall, though, Phnom Penh Express seems bent on presenting an outsider’s view of Khmer culture. Funny at times, yes, but it would have been more challenging for the author, and much more fulfilling for the reader, if the book had made more frequent segues into the heads of Cambodians who salivate at the smell prahok and who don’t see why drivers should be slaves to a mindless electric lighting system. Judging by the entertainment choices of residents in neighbourhoods throughout the city, there are plenty of people who really do love Khmer pop music. While it’s not necessary to share this love, foreign writers can benefit from opening their minds to these sounds and trying to understand them, rather than plugging their ears in disgust.
The final chapter of the novel abruptly jumps from “now” to the year 2016, a time when corruption has virtually disappeared from the city, drivers obey traffic lights and Phirum happily chomps away on prahok during lunchtime. This sudden change serves to make the 27 preceding chapters seem like a mere prologue to vital, revolutionary change. And yet we only see the static moments, the times before and after the transformation of the city and the main characters. But it is precisely this period of change, the very years that are missing from Phnom Penh Express, that could be the subject of a truly interesting novel.
Monument Books (111 Norodom Boulevard) will host a launch ceremony for Phnom Penh Express on June 24 at 6pm. The book will be available for purchase (US$13) at Monument Books in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as at The Shop (39 Street 240) and The Chocolate Shop (35 Street 240).