Grace Metalious' 1956 novel, "Peyton Place," was attacked by certain citizens of that self-satisfied era as a libel on small New England towns. Having been raised in a small New England town, I myself took it to be more or less straight reporting--probably toned down a little, if anything, to get past the censors. And it may be that certain citizens will feel that Loup Durand, in "The Angkor Massacre," has invented an implausible world peopled by impossibly colorful characters. For instance:
1. A French photographer with one foot missing who wins a bet by downing 50 glasses of whiskey without stopping.
2. An alcoholic bear who thrives on the endless cans of beer poured down his throat by CIA case officers.
3. A left-wing former teacher who puts his enemies to death by smothering them in plastic bags.
4. A right-wing general who orders his soldiers to cut the liver out of a rebellious rival officer and eat it while the dying man watches.
5. A bush pilot who bites off and swallows another man's finger in the course of a drunken argument.
6. A bush pilot whose lips are mistakenly sewed together by the Filipino doctor who patches him up after a drunken brawl.
I mean, come on.
Except that the even-numbered oddities above are things about which I have personal knowledge from the three years I spent in Laos, and the odd-numbered ones are from Durand's book, set in Cambodia at about the same time. I'm prepared to believe that Durand is just telling it like it was--although I have more trouble swallowing those 50 whiskeys than his photographer did.
"The Angkor Massacre" is the story of a young French planter's efforts to survive and remain in Cambodia, the country of his birth, despite the violent upheavals of Lon Nol's coup and the Khmer Rouge rebellion. Along the way the planter, Lara, marries an American woman, loses the family plantation, and gets in and out of a variety of bloody encounters with the several collections of murderers then vying for control of that lovely and unlucky land.
Southeast Asia, in those days when the war was finally drawing to a close, attracted a weird and romantic collection of war groupies of all descriptions--idealists and ideologues, holy fools, crooks, opportunists and profiteers, drug addicts and dreamers. This human stew might have fallen somewhat short of being savory, but it was certainly never dull. From its bizarre ingredients, Durand has extracted a story that never slows down. "The Angkor Massacre" hurtles to a jungle climax that should satisfy any adventure fan.
I am just such a fan. Give me giant Khmer tribesmen, beautiful island love-nests in the Gulf of Siam, barrel-chested Corsican gangsters, gun-running French planters, evil warlords and murderous fanatics of both fascist and communist persuasions, as Durand has done in the "The Angkor Massacre," and the battle for my heart and mind is over.
Well, almost over. Part of my mind still resists stubbornly. Durand, a Frenchman, generally rises above his countrymen's predisposition to fear, envy and unadmitted feelings of inferiority in the face of anything American. But now and then he succumbs. He can't talk about the American effort in Vietnam, for example, without reminding us at length that our war was fought in disproportionate measure by blacks, Chicanos and other minorities--"even Aleutians." This may be so, but I'd just as soon not hear it from a man whose country sent thousands of Senegalese, Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and other innocent bystanders to their deaths in Indochina.
Setting aside this consideration, though, Durand has delivered exactly what he set out to deliver--a well-written, closely observed adventure story set in as exotic a locale as the world has to offer.