Destination: Shanghai, Vietnam, Cambodia
Book: The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay NEW, May 2013 in paperback, originally published in 2012
Kim Fay is the third of the quartet of mystery writers I met at the Tucson Festival of Books. (I previously wrote about Becky Masterman’s book set in Tucson and Jenn McKinlay’s cupcake mysteries set in Scottsdale.)
I was very excited to hear that Kim Fay, who has lived in Southeast Asia for long periods of time, had written a book about a search for hidden treasures in a Cambodian temple. If you are a regular here, you know how much I loved Cambodia when I visited there. I’ve posted a review of an outstanding memoir , guidebook reviews and temple art photos from that trip.
Although Kim Fay published The Map of Lost Memories in 2012, the paperback version comes out this month. Which cover do you like best?
Her novel, set in 1920’s Indochina, follows Irene, a museum curator from Seattle, on her quest for hidden treasure. The scrolls she seeks in a remote temple will reveal what actually happened to the ancient Khmer, who seemed to have just disappeared after creating a sophisticated and complex society. They built water works, and each new king created a stone city centered around increasingly elaborate temples. Buddhist and subsequent Hindu art lavishly covered the walls in both tributes to the gods, stories of great battles, and everyday life.
But after six centuries of rule, the Khmer faded away in the fifteenth century. Ever since the ruins in the jungle were rediscovered in the 1860’s, scholars have puzzled about why and where they went. That scholar, Henri Mouhot was French, and the French later colonized much of Indochina, so they have been the dominant force in the restoration of the temples. Of Angkor Wat, Mouhot said:
It is a rival to the temple of Solomon, and erected by an ancient Michelangelo. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece and Rome.
The quest takes Irene into the jungle on a difficult trek toward the northern boundary of Cambodia. She has chosen to take with her Simone, a drug-addled expert in the area, and unwillingly accepts the presence of Simone’s once-boyfriend Louis, who works for the French. Clothilde, a native of the remote village along their route who has actually been to the temple is enlisted to help them find their way.
Fay has taken on a difficult challenge. First, she has to convincingly recreate the time of the 20’s . Furthermore, unlike Indiana Jones or the Dan Brown books (DaVinci code, etc.) with their searches for vast treasures or powerful artificacts that will change the world,Fay has to interest her readers in a treasure hunt for something that most people are not even aware of.
She has added the challenge of giving a forum for debate of whether other countries have the right to take ancient artifacts and put them in a museum far away–the morality of collecting ancient art. My very first book review at A Traveler’s Library covered that subject with the book Loot. I have continued to argue that the British Museum should return the Parthenon marbles to Greece, particularly since the Greeks have built the magnificent Acropolis Museum. So of course that debate drew my interest, as did the question of Cambodian history, and the many mentions of my favorite temple, Bantay Srei, but it may be uphill sledding to get the general public interested in these arguments.
On the one hand, Irene, the collector argues:
If nothing left Cambodia, I wouldn’t know the Khmer. If people hadn’t taken statues, if my own father hadn’t brought back apsaras for the Brooke Museum, my mother would never have been able to give me their remarkable world.
On the other hand, Louis, the Frenchman there to protect the interests of the French government in keeping relics in Cambodia, quotes the scholar Marchal:
Angkor’s admirable sculptures receive their full values only from their situation. Detached or broken they lose all meaning and are nothing but insignificant fragments.
Another serious debate surfaces in the book, this one familiar to any traveler who goes to remote places. Should the outside world encourage the native people to maintain their traditional ways, or help them join the modern world? We hear Clothilde’s view on how the native people should be treated.
Idealists! You’re certain you know what’s best for the natives. You think there’s nothing more romantic than living in a grass shack. Try living in one during monsoon season.
Louis, on the other hand, sticking up for the colonial government of France, says,
If we give their country back to them right now, it will be a disaster. They’re not ready for the modern world, but at the same time they can’t go back to living in the past. The West progressed gradually, organically, but that’s not possible over here any more.
I have focused on these moral arguments about the treatment of artifacts and people because I want readers to know that while this novel is an adventurous quest, it also has a serious side. Do the serious arguments weigh down the adventure? You’ll have to be the judge. After all, the heroine participates in a murder, skirts the law, survives cobras and mosquitoes in the jungle, and in true hero fashion, out-thinks her companions. Pretty adventurous!
If you are a traveler with a curiosity about the history of Indochina, The Map of Lost Memories provides an exciting way to look at Shanghai, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Where do you come down on the artifact argument? Preserve them in foreign museums, or leave them where they are?
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Note: The publisher provided a review copy of The Map of Lost Memories. My opinions remain my own. Links to Amazon.com enable you to purchase anything while also supporting A Traveler’s Library. Photographs are my personal property.