Ek Tha has set the benchmark for elucidating the Cambodian journey by exploring its turbulent past, mirrored masterfully with an unlikely love.
Ek Tha’s semi-autobiographical novel Long Love, Short Life has broken ground on a new post-Khmer Rouge literature approach in Cambodia, encapsulating within its pages both a nation struggling to recover from the horrors of the unprecedented Pol Pot-led genocide regime and to come to terms with its immediate past while capturing a truly unique Cambodian love story at the mercy of the events surrounding them.
The new, lauded release successfully does justice to both the historical challenges the nation faced as it tried to revive its shattered traditional, moral and cultural norms, and ultimately to find its identity while mirroring an unlikely couple trying to do the same amid a tide of external forces.
The book, influenced by the author’s own journey from refugee to journalist and now spokesperson for the government, treats the reader to a unique but comprehensive perspective through which Tha navigates Cambodian history at the same time as the Cambodian experience, during one of the most fascinating and turbulent eras of its past.
Set in the aftermath of the wicked Pol Pot regime, after the nation’s liberation by Cambodian and Vietnamese volunteers, Long Love, Short Life tells the story of Duongchan – a young provincial girl struggling against poverty to complete her education – and her classmate, Dara, the son of a middle-class family.
The book covers a difficult time when the countryside of the Kingdom was still infested with Khmer Rouge rebels and the prevailing Cold War meant the U.S. had imposed sanctions preventing much-needed aid to Cambodia.
The turning point in the book comes as things literally reach breaking point, when Duongchan’s bicycle chain snaps in the midst of a downpour, causing her to meet Dara. The bicycle not only links to the wider historical context but also to her modest family and her future. We also realise it is only Dara, through the chance meeting, who can offer her protection against the Khmer Rouge raiders who still threaten her livelihood, to protect her future.
However, their love still has to undergo the challenges of the time, by surviving such an unstable period in history which will shake their very culture and traditions to the core.
The young lovers have dreams of their ideal future, but the world around them is changing, driven by the winds of fate and fortune. Just like Cambodia and its people, Duongchan and Dara must adjust to the new reality and its sometimes tragic consequences, as the book tenderly captures a love that defies all odds, conquering even death itself.
Inspired by the author’s real-life experiences, Tha brings us along a journey following the couple over a definitive quarter-century of Cambodian history with charm, humour, contextual poignancy and sharp insight into human nature and the external forces which impact upon it.
He draws on the remarkable character of the Cambodian people to accept and adapt to change with extraordinary resilience, whilst preserving a deep pride in their ancient traditions, rooted in centuries of Khmer culture.
Ultimately, between Tha’s experience and the characters he masterfully creates, the book delivers a truly unique Cambodian story.
Tha is a scholar in his own right and author of the non-fiction work: The Factors Contributing to Cambodia’s Civil War 1950s- 1980s; Lessons Then & Now.
Studying books and papers can help inform and educate those curious about history, but they can rarely reproduce the experience of being there and what it feels like to be at the mercy of a situation out of your control. Where the former can list those involved and date the events which unfolded, only the latter can recount the subjective, the emotions and the impact on the hearts of those who witnessed the events.
There are some biographical accounts of Cambodian history, such as Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, but the work largely focusses on the individual’s personal experience rather than also incorporating the bigger picture.
Long Love, Short Life bridges the gap, delivering not only a historical account of a period which brings together factual knowledge and personal experience from the author, but also effectively intertwines the human experience by subsuming a love story within the narrative.
The book has much in common with H Arlo Nimmo’s Songs of Salanda and Other Stories of Sulu, written by an anthropologist who lived with the Badjau Laut maritime nomads for two years while writing.
Nimmo felt that his anthropology papers were limited and that he could only share a deeper truth by fictionalising his own experiences. Tha’s book shares the same inspirations, giving us a greater understanding of what it was like to be on the ground, creating the sense of tristesse towards a lost past, leading towards an acceptance of the present and the potential of the future.
Eventually, as the Cold War ends and Vietnamese troops leave, the now-married lovers are in their 30s and have a daughter, Sakura. This new chapter again brings with it a new set of challenges both for the couple and Cambodia, with the stresses and strains again taking their toll on the main characters.
As problems again begin to mount, Duongchan tells Dara: “There are billions of stars out there, and I picked the wrong one.”
This statement alone is full of hidden contextual meaning – firstly, that Duongchan, which translates to “moon” in Khmer needs a “star”, or Dara in Khmer, in order for its body to shine. Duongchan is telling Dara, in a masterfully referenced way, that his star cannot help her to shine.
Secondly, it also again mirrors the people’s experience who, like Dara, thought that globalisation would be the answer to he and his wife’s prosperity, when instead it only brought them trouble, echoing the failed regimes of the past.
Unlike Western romances, there is no deus ex machina to put everything right. No comforting re-establishment of the status quo. No act of masculine individualism to force the fates to retract their influence. Tha again references the experiences of the Cambodia people by this time forcing the reader, not the characters, to accept and move on.
It is a journey that teaches us much about Cambodian culture, old and new, and the forces that so heavily influenced a nation recovering from its almost absolute destruction as well as the uphill struggle to re-enter the world with its sovereignty and dignity intact.
A philosopher once wrote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
The past is at once a curse on progress yet an anchor, a foundation upon which to build a future.
That, perhaps, is the underlying message of Long Love, Short Life. It is a novel that will portray the evidence of progress and triumph, but without forgetting the past in which its anchor lies.
The novel is more than just a romance, and it includes a massive helping of original anecdotes and stories from the author and his family as well as revealling how Cambodia has been shaped by the globalisation in many respects.
It is, perhaps, one of the best approaches to weaving the wide-ranging and multifaceted elements of Cambodia’s past together to bring the readership as close as possible to the truly unique history the country has gone through.
There is more to be learned from this novel than just about the lives and love shared between a Cambodian couple at the time of civil war, the complex issues it addresses through a range of character experiences and the historically accurate context offer a powerful, informative element which hits home the relevance of the period.
It has been said that the traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living and if we do not learn from the past, those nightmares will return for future generations.
Tha’s objective – through this novel – is to not only teach Cambodians about their past but to make sure that the knowledge can be used to prevent the nightmares from happening again.
Those who read Long Love, Short Life would do well to learn the lessons of its narrative and take them to heart.
Bob Couttie is a British historian, film-maker, broadcaster and journalist. He is the author of Hang The Dogs: The True Tragic History of the Balangiga Massacre and Temple of the Leper King, a detective novel set in Cambodia, as well as several plays. He shares his time between Cambodia and the Philippines.