Phnom Penh Noir is a collection of short stories set in Cambodia. The 15 stories were selected and edited by Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino crime fiction series. In the introduction to the collection Moore notes that ‘noir’ can mean many things. In these stories, noir is an overarching atmosphere of darkness; it is about fear, fate, and morality. According to Moore (and with this I would have to agree) Phnom Penh is a particularly interesting setting for a noir collection: it sits atop a history of genocide and war crimes, and is these days often plagued by corruption, lawlessness, and violence (of course, this is only one aspect of Cambodian society).
I was a little disappointed with this collection. While the stories are entertaining, many of them are no more so than the average TV cop drama. The quality of the writing – at a sentence level – also leaves much to be desired. Sentences are often clunky, there are some awkward metaphors, and a few clichés (especially when it comes to titles). The setting is interesting, and in some cases the country is well described – but most of these stories revealed nothing new (to me, at least) about Cambodia.
There is just one female contributor to this collection, and only three Khmer writers. I am fairly new to the literary scene in Cambodia, but I know that there are a large number of talented Khmer writers out there (you only have to look as far as Nou Hach) and many of them are women. The result is that Phnom Penh Noir comes largely from the perspective of male expats, and quite a few of their stories seem to be preoccupied with interactions between ‘bar girls’ and foreign men. Cambodian women, in a number of these stories, are presented as sort of exotic ‘femme fatale’ characters – in only two stories are women given a strong voice of their own.
All of that being said, in this review I’m going to focus on the two stories I enjoyed most in the collection – Suong Mak’s “Hell in the City” and Prabda Yoon’s “Darkness Is Faster Than the Speed of Light”.
Suong Mak – at just 27 years old – is a prolific writer. He writes mostly in Khmer, but his novel Boyfriend (about a gay-male couple) is being translated into English. His story “Hell in the City” is one of the only stories in Phnom Penh Noir that comes largely from a female perspective, and features three very strong female characters. “Hell in the City” is the story of the rape of a young girl and the subsequent search for her attacker. Suong’s descriptions of Phnom Penh are raw and detailed, and give great insight into the everyday lives of Cambodian people. Particularly interesting was discovering more about how the Khmer media works (something that is largely inaccessible to me as an expat who cannot read the Cambodian language). Suong’s story – perhaps most importantly – tries to understand poverty, and how it is perpetuated. When the mother of the girl who has been assaulted is asked if she wants vengeance, she replies: “No … I’m afraid it might come to hurt us again”. The narrator comments that “[m]any victims said the same thing … They knew only of inequality, exploitation, and assault – the things they felt belonged to the poor”.
Anne Enright (in talking about Raymond Carver) said that “a short story is about a moment in life … after this moment, we realise something has changed.” Prabda Yoon’s story – “Darkness Is Faster Than the Speed of Light” – achieves this wonderfully. Yoon was born in Bangkok, and his 2002 story collection won the S.E.A. Write Award. “Darkness” – also written from a female point of view – is set at Olympic Stadium, a wonderfully unusual setting, and a welcome break from stories about Angkor or the Phnom Penh bar-scene. “Darkness” begins with the hint of a sinister back-story, climaxes with a strange and disruptive incident, and ends with a shift in perspective for its main character. It is short, crisp, and slightly surreal.
Other pieces in the collection that deserve mentioning include Kosal Khiev’s poem “Broken Chains” (Khiev is a powerful writer with an incredible story: you can read more about him, and see him perform “Broken Chains”, here). Bopha Phorn’s “Dark Truths” is a well-written story that tackles – in a surprising and refreshing way – the problem of paedophilia in Cambodia. Bopha Phorn is the only female writer in the collection, and the first Cambodian woman to win the Courage in Journalism Award. Christopher G. Moore’s “Reunion” and Richard Rubenstein’s “Sabbatical Term” delve into the country’s recent history of genocide, and also make for interesting reading.
Phnom Penh Noir is published by Heaven Lake Press (HLP). Twenty percent of the proceeds will be donated to selected Cambodian charities. You can read more about this collection at phnompenhnoir.com.