Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 5, 2022

‘The Ballad of Keo Narom,’ in The Watermill (2020), by Arnold Zable

With Holocaust Memorial Day and its aims to educate people about genocide fresh in my mind, I have just read about the Cambodian genocide in ‘The Ballad of Keo Narom.’ This story is one of a quartet in Arnold Zable’s The Watermill, which I bought last year when I heard about it from a Zoom author event organised by the Melbourne Jewish Book Week Summer Bookclub.

As you can see in my report about the conversation between Tali Lavi and Arnold Zable, the quartet brings us the stories of people who have a sense of displacement.  As in Zable’s most famous book, Café Scheherazade (if you don’t know it, read about it here), he brings together personal stories with the cruel events of history to create powerful, poignant fiction.

Zable (b.1947) is the storyteller from the ‘agora’: the marketplace and the places where people congregate.  That is where he is alert to and listens to the stories of the untethered. In 2013 in Cambodia to conduct a workshop where Cambodian writers gathered, he was approached by a woman wanting him to hear her story.

She had a story she wished to tell me, she said, and handed me her card: ‘Keo Narom, PhD.  Researcher and book writer for children’ printed in Khmer and English.

We had little time to talk during that first meeting, but Narom did not appear hurried.  She was composed and quietly spoken.  She talked of the deaths of her husband, her father, her brothers and sisters and her four children during the Khmer Rouge era.  A younger sister survived.  Ma petite soeur, Narom says with affection.  It was, she would later tell me, the first time she had begun to recount her story.  After all, she had to find a way to get on with life.

The grief will never be overcome. How can it be?  Narom does not allow herself to dwell too long on her lost ones lest the ghosts return to haunt her.  En avance, she says as we return to the workshop.  Always forward. (p.73)

In  what became ‘The Ballad of Keo Narom’, Zable brings us the story of a woman uprooted from her home in the city and forced into slave labour under the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero.

The very idea of the city was being eradicated, the social fabric shredded: universities and colleges, nightclubs, houses of culture, market places, tea houses and cafés, temples and pagodas, museums and galleries—the places where people strolled and gathered —were emptied.


The millions out on the roads were to become known as the April 17th people, enemies of the state simply because they were city dwellers, guilty of having an education, possessing soft hands and wearing glasses, or of being engaged in commerce.  They were an amorphous mass to be ‘re-educated’ in the countryside.

The killings began in the very first days, in the city and at roadblocks where identities were checked.  Those judged to be collaborators with the overturned regime were singled out—politicians, public servants, military personnel—and executed.  Cambodia was to be remade overnight as an agrarian utopia.  (p.79)

Most of Keo Naram’s family died from starvation, malnutrition, illness and injury, but her husband died of despair.

A scholar who had studied literature in Czechoslovakia and returned with a master’s degree, he had the misfortune of having served as a cultural advisor to the previous government.  Stripped of the power to protect his children, he was driven to despair.  He killed himself… (p.82)

It was left to Keo Naram to try to keep the family together.  One by one, Narom’s children succumbed to illness and hunger.  She was not allowed to leave her labour in the fields when her nine year old son was dying, but her last child died in her arms.

The Khmer Rouge had a slogan to justify the death of children: ‘When you dig up the grass, you must remove even the roots.’ (p.84)

She lives with unfathomable grief.

Zable, himself the child of Holocaust survivors, finds his role as listener difficult, but feels an imperative to make her story known:

There are moments that cut deep in the memory, and this is one of them.  All the elements are assembled: the story and the enclosed space in which it is being told, the city so close, yet cut off from hearing.  The stillness accentuates the melodious flow of Narom’s voice, its shifts in energy and the occasional falter.

I register each change in tone and expression, the slight shaking of her head in disbelief that such things had happened.  I feel the gravity of what she is recalling, acutely aware of my own voice as it breaks the silences with questions.  I am suspicious of that voice, and fearful of reopening old wounds.  Fearful of what the telling is doing to the teller.  But also, possessed by a sense of obligation to hear Narom out, I cannot help but pursue the story. (p.81

After the incomprehensible tragedy of this genocide, liberation seemed hollow.  It was a chance meeting with a former colleague crazed and destitute that jolted Keo Narom out of days of torpor and hopelessness. She recognised that she was haunted like he was and that her little sister orphaned in a country of the orphaned needed her.

The word healing is too trite.  Narom had survived, but it was a matter of luck.  She entertains no simple notion of resilience.  Hunger, disease, beating, slave labour, exhaustion—and murderers—had not killed her, but they had killed many others, upwards of two million, one quarter of the population. (p.98)

Keo Narom PhD

Trained as an ethnomusicologist, Keo Narom has in the time since, collected stories and song from all over Cambodia, and in 2005 published a key reference for scholars of Cambodian music.  Her doctorate explores the complex relationship between the arts and sciences.  Buddhism, she says, helped her to develop a growing sense of obligation to journey through life with purpose. 

A remarkable woman, whose story is told here by a remarkable storyteller.

The other stories in the quartet feature a miller in rural China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, a theatre troupe that rose out of the horror of Bergen-Belsen and a Wurundjeri elder who shares the story of her ancestor’s resistance against invasion.

Image credit: Keo Narom PHD and the cover of her book Cambodian Music:

Author: Arnold Zable
Title: The Watermill
Publisher: text, 2020
ISBN: 9781922268556
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $32.99


  1. What a powerful story! I wonder if having someone who still needed her (i.e., her younger sister) may have been key to Narom’s survival?
    I wasn’t aware of Zable’s work, which sounds (unfortunately) very timely . . .


    • I think it was, in the sense that it gave her a reason for living, unlike the colleague driven mad by grief and despair, but there was also her faith (Buddhism) and the work she was doing to preserve Cambodian culture. I’m no expert of the psychology of recovery from genocide, but as I understand it, once the immediate physical needs are met, the lost culture and history need to be rescued from oblivion. All over the world, Jews have worked to rescue stories, songs, poetry, crafts, rituals and ceremonies – and even recipes. (I attended a launch of a cookbook of survivors’ recipes a couple of years ago.) I think that having important work to do may have helped her as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Lisa: I thought about your reply and I have to agree. The personal reason was important, but for a woman like Keo Narom the intellectual, cultural and spirtual foundations of her life would have been equally important. Thanks for a great review!


        • I’ll read the other stories in the quartet before long, and will be looking to see if there are similarities in the post-survival experiences.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Woah. That statement about having to dig up the roots. So simple, so brutal.


    • I will never understand that kind of blank-faced cruelty… I do not understand what goes wrong in the human heart that anyone could do that.
      Just last night I was talking with The Spouse about my days as a radio operator in the Ocean Grove Surf Life Saving Club. Seared into my memory was the day a toddler disappeared in the crowd. The mother was up in the tower with me where for over an hour we scoured the beach with binoculars and I tried to keep this frantic woman calm, while the entire beach responded to my calls over the PA to find this child. Everyone there knew how precious this one child was; everyone cared. Eventually she was found, she had wandered a long way, past the flags and along the unpatrolled beach, and when the call came in through the radio, the mother simply crumpled into a heap with relief. It was a beautiful thing to see them reunited.
      Just one child, but it meant the world to the mother, and every human heart on that beach was with her that day.


      • Reading these narratives, acting as a kind of witness, it’s something to do, to try to counter those inclinations, to remind ourselves (and anyone who cares to read or listen to our thoughts) that there are entire stories populating each individual’s life. Not just statistics or trends or things-happening-over-there.


        • Yes, that’s true.
          The other thing is, though people my age will remember the shock of this in the way that our parents were shocked by the discovery of the Holocaust, later generations see the Cambodians among us without necessarily knowing their story.


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