How can the theft of cultural treasures be anything new? Since time immemorial, we have taken them freely from the conquered. As Genghis Khan once famously put it, “The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”
Little wonder that now, 800 years later, the world’s museums are filled with treasures that were stolen outright, hidden for a spell, moved furtively across borders, then sold by adventurers and collectors for fabulous profit. Napoleon approved heartily of booty. Hitler refined the practice. From Spain’s evisceration of South American riches, to Britain’s wholesale looting of Asia, to Greece’s demand to have the Elgin Marbles brought home, we have vigorously argued about who owns history. In recent years, the Getty, Metropolitan and British museums have had to surrender more than one ill-gotten trophy. This past spring, federal agents in New York prepared to seize a 1,000-year old Cambodian statue from Sotheby’s, on the tip that the massive warrior was pilfered — during Pol Pot’s revolution — from a temple just north of Angkor Wat.
Imagine then, if you will, Kim Fay’s fictional heroine in “The Map of Lost Memories”: the doughty Irene Blum, a young curator in a Seattle art museum who has acquired more than one rare prize by just such methods. She is the daughter of a sailor turned curio trader, the protege of a highly successful and venerated collector, and it is 1925, when thievery, subterfuge and even murder are all necessary evils in the great game of art and empire.
In an otherwise steady march to the directorship of her museum, Irene has been shunted aside by her board of directors. A man with more impressive scholarly credentials has been offered the job. Bitter, outraged, intent on showing the world her worth, she decides that she will undertake a hunt for an ancient treasure that will revive her reputation and seal her revenge.
That priceless trove is a set of 10 ancient copper scrolls that tell the history of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire. Guided by a shrewd Svengali — the old, ailing art collector Henry Simms — she sets out with little more than the diary of an American missionary who once glimpsed them, and the knowledge that her mother may have died in their pursuit. Since her father’s death, which made her an orphan at 9, Irene has been raised by Simms. He has given her a keen appreciation for the Khmer people and an abiding love for the artwork they left behind. When Simms tells her about the antique box her father gave him and the diary it holds inside, her curiosity is piqued. But when he adds, “The scrolls are going to be the summit of my collection. My swan song. And you, my dearest Irene, will be the one to bring them to me,” she does not hesitate. She goes.
There is nothing sentimental about Irene’s quest. Hardened by loss, sharpened by ambition, she will press a few necessary people into service, hack her way through the Cambodian jungle and grab the Khmer legacy for herself. One of those necessary people is Simone Merlin, a brilliant but erratic opium addict who grew up in Cambodia and — with her husband, a famous revolutionary — has already pulled off a significant heist or two. Eager to avail herself of Simone’s expertise, Irene tracks her down in Shanghai but finds her beaten into submission by an abusive spouse. It isn’t easy to persuade a muddled addict to break free and join an expedition, but Shanghai being Shanghai — home of the dispossessed, cunning and criminal — the unanticipated happens: The two women find themselves implicated in a murder. There is no choice but to flee the city and lose themselves in the anonymity of the jungle. To complicate matters (and fuel the fire of adventure), they are joined by two men with whom they are romantically involved.
So you see, what we have here has all the makings of an Indiana Jones story, with equal doses of “The Da Vinci Code,” “The Name of the Rose” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” Thrown in for good measure is a clear nod to Andre Malraux, the French novelist-revolutionary who (with his wife Clara) did indeed pull off a temple robbery in the 1920s, not far from Angkor Wat. From popular reader to serious fusspot, everyone is promised a little something in this story.
Kim Fay is a first-time novelist, and the newness sometimes shows. All the same, she has captured more than her publisher’s fancy with this story. Sold in a lively auction and contracted in eight foreign countries before publication, the novel has qualities any reader would wish for: adventure, romance, history and a vividly described exotic setting. Despite its many imperfections, there are reasons to read this book.
Fay clearly has a deep affection for the Far East. A former Seattle bookseller, Asian cookbook writer and resident of Vietnam, she is precise in her descriptions, sometimes verging on the lyrical. In her book, you will find passages such as this: “Irene waited on a wooden bench in a well of shade, where she watched sunlight crawl across the red-tile roof, lifting a vaporous film from the air. Pillars showed their sharp angles, and as morning levered the sun farther into the sky, light billowed around pedestals scattered like pilings in a shallow stone sea.” Not bad. Moreover, the voyage from Shanghai to Siem Reap, as predictable as it can be — as conveniently plotted — does have its breathtaking moments.
Mainly, once you’ve reached midpoint and all players are in place, the story begins to unfold at a furious pace, answering every exigency of the Da Vinci-Rose-Bridges-and-Indiana-Jones format. For this alone, Fay’s book will find fans in many countries. She adheres to many principles of a swift adventure story. And yet, as you move through, you can’t help but feel that some fundamental armature is missing.
Too bad that we don’t like her characters more. Too bad that we reach the last page before we are given any human justification for their choices. Too bad that a hand comes, ex machina, to solve every twist and turn. By then, alas, a serious reader has thrown in the towel. So many rules have been broken.
But if you’ve traveled this far, hang on. Despite the rigidity of the characters, despite a suspicion that none of the serial coincidences can be remotely true, there is something captivating about this novel. Call it authorial confidence, a sense of place, a splendid Technicolor. It may be that the industry has good antennae after all. “The Map of Lost Memories” has one beautifully met purpose: It brings Cambodia alive.
Arana is a writer at large for The Post and a senior consultant to the Librarian of Congress. Her novels are “Cellophane” and “Lima Nights.”
THE MAP OF LOST MEMORIES
By Kim Fay
Ballantine. 326 pp. $26