Natur och Kultur, 2012.
Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2013:1
Review Section: Faction
In Pol Pot’s Smile, Fröberg Idling’s muchadmired account of the social upheaval and bloodshed in Cambodia after the fall of Prince Sihanouk, he analyses ‘the mechanisms of political hypocrisy’. The world consistently averted its eyes from the 1975 Khmer Rouge (Maoist) uprising until the death in 1998 of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader.
Political hypocrisy is alive and kicking inside the royalist Cambodia, the setting for his new novel. Sång till den storm… takes place mainly in 1955, a year when Sihanouk guides his newly post-colonial state towards what will allegedly be its first democratic general election. The tense stand-offs between the state, the official opposition parties and the radical underground movements crackle with overt and covert conflict.
The three protagonists, all of historical record, reflect both the conflicts and the conventionality of this society: two men, committed to opposing sides of a political abyss, and one woman who manages to be simultaneously aware and unaware of the Zeitgeist. They face critical choices between personal safety, principle and feasible practice in the shadow of looming national disaster. Each one is the lead character in a roughly 100-page section of the narrative.
The first section is devoted to an excitable but instinctively cautious young man. He is Saloth Sar Pol Pot, the murderous tyrant of later decades. Sar often reminisces about his time in Paris, when he talked radical politics through the nights and grew convinced that feudal, corrupt Cambodia needed a political rebirth. The narrative voice addresses Sar in the second person, a rhetorical style that works best when tension is building, and introduces us to him while on a secret informant mission. Sar has a love object: before going abroad, he got engaged to the well-born, beautiful Somaly. Since his return, their relationship has cooled and Sar frets endlessly. Has she moved on?
Yes, she has. The power wielded by Sam Sary proved too strong an attractant. Sary holds senior political office and is charged with ‘managing’ the election, i.e. assuring a win for the royal party. The ‘fly-on-the-wall’ language of his section focuses on political dramatics and is peppered with direct speech. Although the election ‘management’ develops into provocation of and violence towards the opposition (Sar barely escapes), Sary is a man of action rather than a monster. He adores his family but is not above partying and skirt-chasing; the lovely Somaly, reigning Miss Cambodia, is a trophy he acquires and initially glories in.
Somaly is the star of Phnom Penh society and knows it. Self-assured and restless, she dreams of escaping from her gilded cage to a still more golden future as the mistress of a rich man who will set her up as a couturière in Paris, far away from Cambodian conventions. But when Somaly gets pregnant by Sary, she instead becomes an often disregarded concubine and sub-house-keeper, which bears out her favourite quote from a Max Ophül film: ‘I love the past. It is so much more peaceful than the present. And much more reliable than the future.’
Sång till den storm... is a fusion of fictionalised reportage and interpretative biography, rather than a conventional historical novel. The concept works sometimes erratically but mostly brilliantly; it extends into a study both of the interaction of character and political events and of people interacting under pressure and is also an introduction to an important, still exotic national culture during a complex, dynamic period of its history.