Descartes duality influenced the western morality. Things were viewed in two planes: good or bad, right or wrong, saints or sinners, heaven or hell, reward or punishment. One could even trace this to Aristotelian second law of non-contradiction “It is impossible to hold (suppose) the same thing to be and not to be (Metaph IV 3 1005b24 cf.1005b29–30).” It is not surprising then to see literature known for its moral role mirroring this: antagonist versus protagonist, a war of the good against the bad with the hope of experiencing a catharsis when the good triumphed the bad. But Geoff had a radical approach to this western morality when he wrote the story of a villain with compassion.

Map knew that he was rotten.

He got married. Did you hear? To a cousin of his. He found an Australian university that does degree courses on the Internet. The UN dig team helps him a lot, they let him use their computers. So he’s going to university at last.’ Rith shakes his head. ‘I’ve asked him to talk to my layabout son’

Map’s eyes are dim but his smile is thin as if satisfied and his head rocks from side to side. ‘I told him’. I said, ‘he would have all kinds of good luck, just so long as he stayed away from me.’

‘Why is that?’ There is something Rith doesn’t understand. William asks after Map, William looks edgy and unquiet, trapped in his own house. ‘Are you bad luck for everybody, or just him?’

Map tells him, almost serenely. ‘I killed his parents’. Pg. 451.

Map didn’t just kill William’s parents, he killed dozens of people, not just in the war but sometimes out of recklessness due to his inferno of anger. The army hated him for that and would love to have his head for a dinner. In normal hegemony, Map should be a doomed enemy waiting for the apocalypse.

But Geoff went against this normal parlance and wrote of Map who was carefree but determined, reckless but honoured his work, guilty but patriotic even when under question, loyal to his friends even when it meant to stake his life as a burning offering to the freedom of the ones he loved.   And in writing Map in this way, the reader comes to see that below the tough skin of Map was someone like any of us with our weaknesses and the yearning for those little mundane things of life. Map a weak man who even burn incense to calm the raging of the spirits of the people he killed.  And this discovering was shocking as well as it was liberating.

‘So your poor quartermaster was just the first guy I met when I found out. Maybe if he’d just said, those fuckers shot your brother, I could have taken it. He tried to pretend it hadn’t happened.’ Map shrugged. ‘Veasna was the nearest thing to a brother I had. So I just lost my head, and your man lost his. Pow!’ Map looks round at Rith. ‘I went back to my old farm and Chams were living in it and I cleared them out and burned the place down so no one else would have it. Then I went to Phnom Penh and found out my sister had killed herself…

‘Your brother killed himself, too.’

‘Ah’, says Map. ‘Ah’.  

             He leans the twig with its tiny fish back over the fire. He goes immobile. His eyes gleam brighter and Rith can see the man is trying not to cry. His mouth crumples.

Who would have thought this wild man had any feelings at all? This is embarrassing. Rith wants to hide. Pg.358.

The King’s Last Song is a beautify tale set in the Cambodia under two historical periods linked by the themes of the terror of war and an epic book written by King Jayavarman. Each of the periods built a delicate layer and feeds on each other, setting a pretty pacing in the novel. King Jayavarman would fight a war to unify his country, it would take his reincarnated self, Map, in the post-war modern Cambodia to preserve the marvellous book Jayavarman authored in the ancient time so that it would be known in the current world.   

Published by Ezeiyoke Peter