The King's Last Song by Geoff Ryman
Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
15 June 2006
Geoff Ryman's seventh novel, The King's Last Song, unfolds in two narrative strands. One follows the life of Jayavarman VII, the ruler of a minor princedom who in the late 12th century became Cambodia's first Buddhist king. In the other, modern strand, an accident uncovers a book written by Jayavarman, inscribed on leaves of gold. Before long, the book and the archeologist responsible for it, Luc Andrade, are abducted. As Luc bargains for his life by translating the book into modern Cambodian, his two friends, the motoboy William and the Tourist Police officer Map, scramble to find and rescue him. Together and separately, they comb the Cambodian countryside, exploring its various social and ethnic groups and digging up painful memories of Cambodia's recent, violent past.
Ryman's earlier novels reveled in the wildly fantastic and the outright bizarre—lesbian polar bears in the far future, Oz's Dorothy as a bitter victim of sexual abuse, a retelling of The Spoon River Anthology for the modern, commuter era—which he couched in playful, experimental narratives. With his most recent and extremely well-received novel, Air: Or, Have Not Have, Ryman moved away from these tonal and stylistic excesses. Air's prose was transparent and precise, its narrative largely linear and, apart from one technological innovation, set in a world much like our own. The King's Last Song completes this transition—it is a thoroughly naturalistic novel (no biologically unlikely pregnancy in sight), and by far the most subdued thing Ryman has ever written. The novel's primary function seems to be to act as a guided tour—literally so, as it opens by introducing us to William and Map as if we had just gotten off a plane and one of them had approached us, offering to guide us to the hidden treasures of their country—of Cambodia's distant past, its recent past, and its present—a primer on the ethnic, national, and political causes for the disputes that cost the lives of so many people, and an introduction to the ancient nation's rich history. It is a novel less concerned with describing events than it is with conveying a sense of place and time, and although the narrative encompasses roadside kidnappings and massive battles, neither is likely to get the reader's heart racing. In its tone, The King's Last Song might be called a Buddhist novel: its narrative anticipates tragedy, and, when it occurs, reacts to it in a sanguine, resigned manner.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 12th-century segments, which are the novel's weakest and most problematic aspect. They follow Jayavarman from his childhood as a guest (really a hostage) of the Universal King Suryavarman to his accession to that same king's throne. It's traditional to tell tales of courtly intrigue and political power struggles with a healthy degree of sarcasm, to portray the principal actors as power-hungry and their actions as motivated largely by reasons of expediency. Ryman chooses the opposite approach. Jayavarman and his queen Jayarajadevi are both devout Buddhists, committed to the ideals of compassion and justice and earnestly devoted to implementing them in their own small nation, and later in all of Cambodia. "Earnest" is, in fact, a good adjective with which to describe the entire historical strand in The King's Last Song, which seems primarily concerned with educating its readers rather than with interesting or entertaining them. The characters in these segments are transparent, their motivations and psychological quirks carefully spelled out for the reader, and for the most part rather straightforward and predictable. Also predictable are the turns of plot, which have a kind of storybook logic--one chapter ends with Jayavarman as the Universal King's protege, happily married and respected by his peers; the next inexorably opens with the young king enslaved by invaders.
Reading the historical segments of The King's Last Song, one catches a whiff of the region's great epics—the Ramayana or the Reamker—in which the characters move along a predetermined path which even a novice reader can sense. Ryman's language in these chapters, however, is anything but epic, and the result is a strange and unsatisfying mix, neither epic tale nor naturalistic narrative. Towards the end of the novel there are a few attempts to imbue some of the characters, including Jayavarman himself, with psychological and moral complexity, but they are half-hearted—the king's crippled son is bitter at his purposeless existence, but the character is whiny and uninteresting; the king himself commits an act that goes against his stated principles of honesty and morality, but it happens off-page and we are never given a glimpse of the process that led to the decision or the king's justification for it. One can't escape the conclusion that Ryman loves his topic too much—that he has sublimated his narrative to an older, historical one because Cambodia's history fascinates him.
This is, unfortunately, an attitude that Ryman carries over to the novel's present-day plot strand. Whereas in Air, Ryman had the presence of mind to imbue even the least significant characters with their own political awareness and with a humanizing selfishness—a desire for fame, for wealth, for the stability of their place in the world—that informed their choices and actions, in The King's Last Song the minor characters are forced to make do with a drab political uniformity. After Luc's kidnapping and the book's theft, William enlists a large group of young men from among his neighbors and relatives, in the hopes of mounting a manhunt. The reactions of the people he visits to the news of the crime are identical—shame at the international perception of Cambodia as a nation incapable of safeguarding its historical treasures, rage at the theft of the property of the Cambodian people, pity for Luc Andrade. Not one of them asks to be paid for their participation. Not one of them complains that their sons are needed at work or in the family fields. Not one wonders what an ancient artifact has to do with the everyday reality of their lives, or dismisses Luc's quandary as the troubles of yet another rich foreigner.
Even the novel's major characters, although more strongly individualized when it comes to issues of personal histories or quirks, are strangely uniform in their politics, and inclined to agree with one another politically even when they disagree on personal matters. Whether it's Luc debating with his kidnapper, a former comrade of Pol Pot, or Map arguing with an army officer who bears a grudge towards him, the discussion constantly veers towards agreement and the common ground (which, admittedly, mostly involves justly excoriating the French colonial occupation and America and Russia using the region as their own personal chess board). It seems disingenuous, at best, to present as politically docile and uniform a nation in which, only a few decades ago, more than 1.7 million people were murdered over political and ideological differences of opinion. At worst, it is terribly condescending.
When not forced to act as mouthpieces for Ryman's approved political stance, the characters in the modern segments of The King's Last Song shine. Of particular appeal are William and Map, polar opposites forced to work together in order to save their mutual friend. William is young, energetic, and hopeful. His greatest skill is in making connections. He meets new people and immediately makes friends of them, questions them enthusiastically about their homes and their lives, and files the information away. William is constantly learning, constantly on the lookout for more information, and every person he meets is an opportunity to expand his knowledge of the world. He is instantly disarming, strongly averse to conflict and versed in deflecting it—a man of peace.
Map is a former Khmer Rouge, a former soldier and bandit, a murderer, as ugly within as he is without. He works as a guard at the temple at Angkor Wat, and is extensively learned about its history. He is an intense, demanding individual, and one completely without hope. His history is one of tragedy and death, and he has abandoned his soul to dissipation. Although intelligent and quite capable of talking his way out of a fight, Map thrives on conflict. He enjoys challenging authority and making trouble. In Map, the innocent William finally discovers a person from whom he does not wish to learn, whose knowledge of Cambodia's recent past is best left unexplored, but also an impetus to get on with the next stage of his life. In William, Map finds a measure of peace, and purpose for his existence. In both characters and in their interactions, Ryman comes closest to the novel that The King's Last Song might have been—an exploration of Cambodia's wounded soul, of the ways in which the nation and its individual members have found to deal with their dark and bloody history, and of the ways in which that history returns to haunt them.
The cure for this communal trauma, according to Ryman's fantasy, is the golden book—a voice from the past, as the front cover tagline says, which brings hope for the future. There is something compelling about the image Ryman paints, of Cambodia's lost generation—older than William but younger than Map, born into war, in most cases not even literate and completely ignorant of their history—being exposed to these ancient words, forming for the very first time a connection with the grandeur and wisdom that was once their birthright. In order to get to the point where Jayavarman's words are blowing in the wind, however, Ryman is forced to resort to contrivance. If the golden book is returned to the government, we are told, it will be enshrined as a tourist attraction, to make money for hotel owners. The only way for Jayavarman's words to reach his people is for the book to remain hidden, so that Luc's translation can be disseminated. Ryman might have managed to convince us that the physical book and Jayavarman's words are one and the same, and that to give the former to the men in power is to ensure that the latter are controlled as well, but how can he convince us that Jayavarman's words will inspire Cambodia when we, who have been reading about the king's life and excerpts from the book itself throughout the course of the novel, know them to be thoroughly uninspiring? How much stronger would The King's Last Song have been if Ryman had excised the historical plot strand, and left us to imagine the kind of wisdom that the 12th-Century monarch had left behind for his people to discover?
The King's Last Song is beautifully written, and has some fascinating and lovable characters, but it is hobbled by its author's affection for, and fascination with, its subject matter. As an introduction to Cambodia for Western readers who know nothing about it, as a primer on its history, as a demand for sympathy on its people's behalf, it works quite well, but as a novel it is essentially plotless and manipulative. I haven't said anything about Ryman's by-now infamous Mundane SF manifesto as it relates to the novel because The King's Last Song is in no way science fictional but it occurs to me now that it might be called Mundane, in that it prioritizes real-world politics over its quality as a piece of fiction.