There are many reasons why I like Figurehead by Patrick Allington – it’s brisk, muscular writing with some very droll dialogue; it has an engaging plot and the characterisation is deft – but most of all I like the fact that the author has chosen to mine recent Cambodian history to write a book which wrestles with complex moral issues.
Far too many Australians know too little about Asia. This is not just my opinion, for while funding for government programs to increase engagement with Asia may wax and wane, all sides of politics have commissioned reports that show that most Australians know very little about the region’s history, geography, politics or economic importance to Australia. Our journalists scamper off to report on populist issues, without knowing a word of Japanese, Chinese or Indonesian, (which must be the easiest language to learn on the planet). (Can you imagine English journalists reporting in France needing an interpreter??) They get away with this because hardly anybody in Australia knows any better. Australians travel to Bali and Phuket for holidays without even knowing the name of the country’s capital and they too often trample on local customs and cause offence. And while Baby-Boomers know a bit about the Vietnam War and the murderous regime of Pol Pot, most young people know nothing about it.
So Patrick Allington’s book is doubly welcome. It’s a very readable novel, set in the early post-colonial period from 1967 when South East Asia was in turmoil during the Cold War – Cambodia and Vietnam had gained independence from the French only to become embroiled in the stoush between the US and the Communist governments of the USSR and China (who were just as hostile to each other as they were to the West).
The history of this period is very complex and King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia who features in this story was a wily politician who played all sides off against each other in a continuous round of confusing about-faces, so much so that commentators and diplomats alike seemed unable to decide whether he was cunning or a fool. (I remember having to write an essay about him and his use of traditional symbolism when studying SE Asian history at Murdoch University in 1993. I tied myself up in awful knots over it, and I think they only gave me an HD for being brave enough to tackle the topic!) Even now it is a moot point whether Sihanouk should be blamed for the tragic consequences of joining with the Khmer Rouge in order to get invaders out of his country or should be celebrated for keeping his country intact. Nevertheless he has somehow survived into a cheerful old age in North Korea and runs a bizarre website with daggy recipes, daggy old songs and photos of the royal family doing daggy things.
Allington has woven his fiction into this dramatic period with an imaginary incident: his journalist Ted Whittlemore (very loosely based on the notorious Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett) saves the life of Nhem Kiry (very loosely based on Khieu Samphan who was president of so-called Democratic Kampuchea as it was called under Pol Pot and presided over the murder of more than a million Cambodians in the Killing Fields and elsewhere). Whittlemore is tormented by guilt about this as events transpire because Kiry turns out to be a nasty piece of work indeed, even if he does have some funny lines in the story…
For although all this is very serious stuff and the plot is of necessity complicated, the black humour of Figurehead keeps the momentum going. The verbal sparring between Whittlemore and other journalists or with Sihanouk and Kiry is amusing even when Allington is tackling distressing issues. Whittlemore’s cynicism seems to be a protective mechanism for we are never in any doubt about him being on the side of the ordinary Cambodian being used a pawn by great powers and their own rulers. We can also tell that Allington’s anti-hero is gutted about the UN peace deal which (based on real events) tidied things up without justice being meted out to the Khmer Rouge* – and we can tell that he hates himself for associating with protagonists that he despises in order to do his job as a journalist. Journalists are not supposed to suspend objectivity but as Whittlemore bitterly admits, he’s not a man who can do this.
Listen here’s the truth: objectivity exists so reporters can claim they don’t have opinions and people who only have a spare fifteen minutes a day can pretend that they are informed. Balance is for acrobats. Look around you: do you see anyone, can you find me one person, who is neutral? The only difference is that I don’t mind admitting it. (p182)
Of course if he’d been objective in the first place he wouldn’t have saved Kiry’s life…
I did enjoy this book but I think its place on the Miles Franklin shortlist is a bit tenuous. Apart from a very brief (and not very convincing) section about Whittlemore’s old age, none of the action takes place in Australia and the fact that he’s an Australian isn’t crucial to the characterisation. He doesn’t seem an especially Australian bloke to me so I can’t see how it fits the clause in Miles Franklin’s Will that eligible books should depict Australian life in all its phases.
Nevertheless, its place on the shortlist has given this book a well-deserved publicity boost. It’s not the kind of novel I’ve been reading lately – I didn’t find myself lingering over any imagery or symbolism and there are no postmodern tricks to decode. Rather, it’s the dialogue which carries this novel and creates a strong sense of immediacy, and it’s the enormity of the issues raised which captivate the reader. It’s broadened my horizons – and like Andrew Croome’s Document Z which fictionalised the Petrov Affair, it ‘s a classy effort at bringing recent history into prominence. I won’t be at all surprised if it gains wide readership.
*I believe that a long overdue series of war crimes trials is about to begin in Cambodia, but the delay in proceedings means that most of the villains have already died a peaceful death of old age.
Author: Patrick Allington
Publisher: Black Inc Books 2009
Review copy courtesy Black Inc Books