Since his first visit to Angkor Wat in 1969, former Washington Post correspondent John Burgess was captivated by the beauty and mystery of the world's largest religious monument. Ten years in the making, his latest novel, Woman Of Angkor, peels back the layers of time to reveal the personal histories of the people living in Angkor during the 12th century.
Author John Burgess at the Asia Books signing in Bangkok.
Burgess resurrects Angkor's stunning bas-reliefs to reveal an engaging and seemingly authentic story of a time when personal histories weren't recorded.
Woman Of Angkor is remarkable for its transcendence and ability to evoke the religious and supernatural anxieties of the age. Through the character of Sray, the wife of a master parasol-maker, Burgess provides a vibrant snapshot of a past that is often overshadowed by the ancient civilisations of Rome and Greece.
His depiction of the time allows the magnificence of Angkor to resonate today thanks to its rich language and compelling characters.
Burgess was in Bangkok recently at the invitation of Asia Books. We had an opportunity to catch up with him.
As a Southeast Asian expert, what first captured your imagination about the region?
I first went to Angkor in 1969, and got the bug immediately. It's something not to be missed. It's a huge city that was the capital of an empire for six centuries. Every king built something amazing. What captivated me about it is that we know so little about the people, we can see them on reliefs and some inscriptions but for the most part they're sort of a mystery. I have tried to recreate the society of the time by building on the historical records and coming up with a story that will hopefully keep people reading.
Which characters do you relate to most?
Well I am a man (laughs) but I mostly relate to Sray who actually didn't begin as the central character. I originally wrote it in an omniscient narrative form. After getting a draft together, a number of people thought it would be more compelling to tell the story from the point of view of one person. From the characters I had, Sray was the most interesting so she became the teller of the story. She is someone who is beautiful, spiritual and admired by society but she is living with a secret _ as most of us are. But in her case it's something potentially fatal if it comes out.
What kind of research did you do to create such an evocative depiction of life at the time?
I wrote a non-fiction book on Angkor called Stories In Stone, which sort of got me grounded in the scholarly side of what's known about the history and society of the times. I also spent a lot of time studying the bas-reliefs. There's one fantastic scene where there's a market woman who is dozing and she has some fruit in front of her and there are thieves trying to steal the fruit so you can really get insightful snapshots of life.
The other thing is this society was so influential on Southeast Asia today and in some ways you can work backwards by looking at Thai and Cambodian society today. There are still Brahmins in the palace, markets are still dominated by female vendors, so you can make an educated guess that a lot of the institutions and ways of thinking that you see today were alive then. Also, Sray is a person who goes through life interacting with human beings and spirits. Some spirits she is close to and some she tries to keep her distance from and that's not so different to how a lot of Thais and Cambodians live today.
Western knowledge about this chapter of history is often obscured by a focus on the Greeks and Romans. Does your novel hope to change this?
I've had the exact same thought. In the West we all grow up knowing about the Romans and the Greeks. We have a basic idea of their history, how they dressed and what they contributed to history and yet Angkor is on par with them in terms of glory and religious activity and yet it is almost unknown in the West. However, this is changing and now up to 2 million tourists visit every year.
I do hope that this novel will put Angkorian civilisation on the world map. I would love to see children's pop-up books on Angkor because there is as much glory, adventure, wonderful art and amazing history there. We know about the kings, about the people who built them, when they ascended the throne, but we have little knowledge about their personalities. There must have been court intrigue. I tried to imagine and recreate some of that but from a historical standpoint we really know very little _ the personal part of Angkor's history is missing.
How does Sray's sense of spiritual responsibility, guilt and judgement compare to contemporary Cambodian society?
I think they are very similar. I think Cambodians all grow up inculcated with Buddhist ethics and when they get into the real world they find there's often a conflict between religious teachings and what the world really is. Some, like Sray, fight it and keep to the straight path and others find it's easier to go along with the rest of the world. But few of them reject religion. I think religion is imprinted on their worldview.
Why did you choose the parasol trade as Sray's husband's profession?
I have always been fascinated with the bas-reliefs that show parasols being held over every person of importance or deities. That's another thing that has survived until modern times. When the Cambodian king visits another state there is always a man holding a parasol. It's obviously there to shield, to shade from the sun and also a symbol of authority and rank. If you look at the bas-reliefs you can see different kinds of parasols. There's one that shows maybe 14 parasols floating overhead. They're not just there to keep the sun off the king but as symbols of importance. So it seems there must have been an industry of designing them and then organising the bearing of parasols. That person would have had a certain degree of influence being physically close to the king all day.
Certainly in European courts there were people who served some sort of ritual function, becoming powerful beyond what their rank would tell you. I went to a parasol-making village in Thailand and spent a couple of hours watching the process of cutting bamboo and turning these raw materials into a beautiful parasol.
What's next for you?
I'm working on two books on Preah Vihear. One is a novel set in ancient times and one is a history of the temple. So from Bangkok I am going to Cambodia, hopefully when I get back to the US I'll be ready to start.
What do you think is the most diplomatic way forward for the controversy surrounding Preah Vihear?
Preah Vihear is a great tragedy and one of the most religious and spiritual places in the world. An accident of history has placed it right on the border of two countries that in many ways don't get along. But when you visit Thailand or Cambodia you are struck by how similar the cultures seem. The languages are similar, the agriculture, the modern temples, and one can only hope that these two countries can work out this conflict and figure out a way that this amazing creation can be presented to the world.
John Burgess has written a non-fiction book on Angkor.
About the author
Writer: Olivia Caisley