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Sihanouk’s life, by the book

Sihanouk’s life, by the book


Copies of Shadow Over Angkor are displayed for sale yesterday at Monument Books in Phnom Penh. The book, translated by Julio A Jeldres, contains memoirs of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk. Photograph: Will Baxter/Phnom Penh Post

Portrait pins attachable to a shirt lapel, images showing the famous royal at different stages of his life and photos bearing his visage superimposed on a gleaming white moon.

These are but a few of the souvenirs and memorabilia bought and sold around the city in the wake of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s death in Beijing on October 15.

The keepsakes signify an impulse to honour and remember Sihanouk, but they are also evidence of a resurgent interest in his life and times.

Perhaps nowhere is this interest easier to satisfy, of course, than the books and essays that help to illuminate the more inconspicuous details of his life.

Sihanouk, fortunately, penned thoughts for posterity, and bookstores hum with readers who want to hear the story from the person who lived it.

“Just now, they are buying a lot,” said Sek Rom, 24, a supervisor at the Norodom Boulevard branch of Monument Books.  

The store set up an entire table featuring the 2005 memoir Shadow Over Angkor, translated by royal biographer Julio A Jeldres.

Cobbled together from writings that date back decades, it’s the latest in a string of first-person accounts to emerge. Rom pointed out that they have sold poorly since publication, but Monument, which mostly offers English-language selections, is seeing a change.

“Twenty sales of a book in a month is good. But this is in the past four days,” he said.

Statesmen, composer and earnest filmmaker, Sihanouk was also an eloquent scribbler. Though some books have been criticised for glossing over his early support for the calamitous Khmer Rouge movement, they also provide detailed recollections of historical moments around Cambodia’s independence from France, of his opinions towards US foreign policy toward the region during President Richard Nixon’s term, and paeans to Khmer national treasures.

“See Angkor and die!” he wrote in the 2005 memoir. Sihanouk compares the complex of temples in Siem Reap province to the archaeological jewels of Rome and Athens.

“Yes, as a poet expressed it so well on an Angkorian stele: “My eyes, you may close…for that charming being will never for a moment be absent from my thoughts…,” he quotes. “All Khmers are in love with Angkor.”

At the International Book Center in Phnom Penh, seller Chan Chakrya said that biographies have been selling particularly well, but added that most of the customers seek out their Sihanouk information via films.

A list of several of Sihanouk’s autobiographical efforts, complete with excerpts, is available on his personal website. A print copy of one of them, titled Bittersweet Memories, has sold out from the shelves of the Peace Book Center in Phnom Penh, according to employee Chan Leap.

“Since the King Father died, there have been many clients coming in to find books and stories about him,” Leap, 28, said. “I’m going to have to order more of these.”

As will other bookshops slow to recognise all the potential readers.

“A few foreigners,” said Chay Pisey, a staff member at D’s Books right off the riverside on Street 178, “they come looking for a biography of him.”

But they would only find a biography of Sihanouk’s son, Norodom Ranariddh.

Not everyone went away disappointed.

Around lunch time, Chetha Thor, 35, who works for the Council of Ministers, dropped off at Monument Books on Norodom. He walked over to the table of memoirs, picked up a copy, and headed to the register. He was familiar with Sihanouk’s history, but was trying to pick up new details where he could.

“I know from the past, and hearing from my parents,” he said. “So I just want to compare.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Joe Freeman at [email protected]
Kim Yuthana at [email protected]


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