At the Edge of the Forest, Essays on Cambodia, History, and Narrative in Honor of David Chandler

Karel van Oosten

This year a volume of articles written in honour of one of the best known scholars worldwide on Cambodia has been published in the series of Cornell Southeast Asian Program. The books title is aptly chosen and both the historical and the narratological perspective are given ample attention. The volume gives many insightful perspectives and it becomes clear from the very beginning that its contributors are well versed in the Cambodian world of literature and are thoroughly familiar with the Khmer culture.

In 1978 David Chandler wrote an article for a workshop on Southeast Asian intellectual history which he gave the poetic title Songs at the Edge of the Forest, Perceptions of Order in Three Cambodian Texts. The essay was first published in 1982 and now after 25 years it is this article that sparks of a bouquet of scholarly essays written in the same line. This book is also testifying Chandler's enriching theoretical considerations.

Chandler tries to capture in the Songs at the Edge of the Forest what we could call the spirit of Cambodian's outlook on life and he tries to do that by reading stories that are either legendary or based on historical facts. As he himself admits, Songs has been his most loved piece of writing until to date - apart perhaps from his poetic publications - and it is easy to see why that is. Its clear, unpretentious style and its poetic quality have remained and may have gained in significance over the years. However, this does not mean that the first time reader of Chandler's article will be able immediately to hear clearly the tone of the writing and its conclusion - if there is one - and it may well be that this is exactly its most appealing characteristic.

The central question Chandler asks in his original essay seems to me to be the following: Where do we have to look for if we want to understand the people of Cambodia and if we want to know how they perceive the sometimes puzzling world of chaos and violence that surrounds them? He believes a possible answer can be found in Khmer stories or narratives. This might look obvious at first sight but for historians it is common practice to refer to sources that turn out to be less ambivalent and less difficult to interpret, such as archives or journal papers.

Alexander Hinton in his contribution in this volume Songs at the Edge of Democratic Kampuchea mentions Chandler's methodological starting points, which are, rather briefly stated: order and feared antitheses, ambiguity, and the uninterrupted line Chandler draws from local and textual perspectives to much broader socio-political perspectives. These three themes recur in almost every essay and in that sense the volume shows evidence Chandler's impact on a group of today's scholars of Cambodia in the Anglo-Saxon world.

In this review I would like to make a couple of critical remarks concerning the central point of departure for these essays.

In most articles the authors draw an almost straight line between what has actually happened in the past or is taking place in the present and what is told in a story that exists for a long time already. I am not sure whether Chandler draws the same straight line in his Songs.

Anne Hansen concludes in her essay Gaps in the world: Harm and Violence in Khmer Buddhist Narratives: ‘These narrative analyses help us understand a Cambodian Buddhist response to the kind of questions that cannot really be answered at all, let alone historically, about the human propensity to produce violence and harm, a persistent question that plagues us inside and outside of Khmer studies' (69). Alexander Hinton makes a similar remark when he refers to stories of the past and writing about the confessions that were written in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison during Democratic Kampuchea: ‘And, like the narratives from these stories, the text of the Tuol Sleng confessions reflected a tension between an idealized moral order and a messy reality' (89).A last example comes from Penny Edwards when she writes in the same vain as these two authors: ‘In the same way, the narratives analyzed by Chandler would have helped listeners and readers, in the nineteenth as in the twentieth century, to map the trauma of war and negotiate their way between the reality they faced, the idealized image of a world they knew, and the threat and promise of tomorrow' (Between a Song and a Prei: Tracking Cambodian History and Cosmology through the Forest, 160).

How precisely must I understand the turns of phrases used in these quotations such as ‘like the narratives' or ‘in the same way' or ‘like the composition'? Of course the authors use these words after having given some relevant historical information or a summary of the concerned narrative. However, at some points the reader could do with some more specific historical details that reveal the sources of the people involved. Were they aware that they were acting in accordance with what had been written down in a way already? Or does the modern reader put the events in a mall that should somehow be fitting for all he can think of that will ever happen. In this sense, it resembles the law of karma that, to its critics, can be used at all times to explain any situation or state of living and thus does not explain anything at all, but that to its believers explains the cause of events in its very physical and visible appearances.

This is the core question of Chandler's methodology and I find it hard to discover whether I should first read the stories and then try to understand Cambodians or first talk with Cambodians about what happened and then read the stories as some sort of explanation?

This looks to me rather the same procedure as in some Christian traditions where believers try to explain everything that happens to them through referring to Bible stories. In my view not the most obvious historical source as far as this point is concerned, or at least a source that should be considered carefully.

It could be stated that narratives do not explain anything at all, but are creative and brave attempts to write something down that makes sense in itself. I have had the same experience while reading Khmer legends and folktales, sometimes vainly trying to figure out what they want to tell the reader, or the listener. Coming from a rather different culture I struggle to see the crux of interpretation of these stories and I often wonder whether I am not looking for the kind of explanation that is simply not in it. Is it that they reveal something that has been hidden so far? Or is it that they posit some sort of meaning that is still to take place in the future, either as an ideal or as a realizable fact? And are we not all constantly modelling the reality to our own wants and wishes?

This question cannot be answered in the same way for every article. John Marston for instance tries to ‘read' the architecture of modern religious building projects in the light of what are said to be typical characteristics of millenarianism. Indeed, he mentions some of the narratives ‘prophetic'. Alexander Hinton on the other hand searches for "explanations" of the extreme violence that was used during Democratic Kampuchea. Both turn to earlier expressions and evidence in Cambodian history but it is clear that a building in general does not raise the same question as events do, and apart from arguing that a building is either traditional or modern, determining some of its familiar motives and themes or its presumed old or new styles, it can be explained to a large extent in terms of common language. The same goes for what happens in the political arena. Judy Ledgerwood writes about some political events that took place in November 1990. She pictures these events as rituals meant to restore the order in terms of ‘nation, king, religion', still to date Cambodia's national slogan. The leading politicians of the then called State of Cambodia presented themselves as the only legitimate leadership of Cambodia and they did so by positing their leadership in a position that had been until then reserved for the king.

But what can be explained about violence on a scale and in a manner that seems to go beyond well-known categories? Do we not need additional information about the actual occurrence of such violence? I believe without hesitation that extreme violence happened in the past as is testified by testimonial stories, but why did it happen right at that time? It seems difficult to extract an answer to this question from legends and folktales.

Nonetheless, this should be the task of history I guess and thus I would say that the volume is sometimes slightly overbalanced towards narrative "explanation" and could do with some more historical handwork.

Ashley Thompson, who remarks that she is not a direct pupil of David Chandler, also notices the overall anthropological roots of most of the contributors of the volume. It is a cliché that any description is already an interpretation, but she deliberately bends the focus from history as an unquestioned discipline towards a more considerate discipline that takes into account the relationship between history and its writers. Thus, she seems to say, it is the historian who is caught in a never-ending though inevitable and at least partly deluded search that makes history. She gives a detailed example of how this idea implicates not only our reading of the texts but makes us aware of how Cambodians read and write their own stories.

In conclusion, if history is to be understood at all as history, it is to be in the written form. This is of course nothing new, but it is this one-dimensional approach Thompson tries to avoid. Therefore, I find her article the most rewarding as far as stimulating methodological literary theory is concerned. However, it would be a gross mistake not to read carefully the other contributions, as all of them show a meaningful insight into Cambodian society, using Khmer literary sources and results from fieldwork. In the book there are no statistics, diagrams or graphics, and so for the mere historical facts and genealogy one should look elsewhere, but for an understanding of the Khmer cultural world of order and disorder, imaginative and real landscapes, and for possible answers to the universal question of ‘good and bad' in a Cambodian context, the book is a stimulating and most rewarding example that offers the careful reader an insight into Cambodia's fascinating and sometimes puzzling perceptions of life mirrored in its many stories.

Karel van Oosten