Tag Archives: Cambodia

The Crocodile Princess (II)

 

Can you hear that sad sigh? I’ve just finished Ian Gregson’s The Crocodile Princess and I feel it has so much more to give. One excerpt on my blog is not enough. The book’s definitely got its place on one of the  Got To Read Again shelves in my study.  I say shelf but it’s actually a bookcase each time and I have five main categories:

  • a Got To Read Again shelf
  • a To Read shelf (I bought over 30 books one afternoon at a local book fair last year and am still working my way through those tho the Lord knows, my To Read shelf wasn’t empty before that)
  • a Was Good, You Can Pass It On to Someone Else shelf
  • an Academic shelf (books relating to my PhD)
  • a For The Flea Market shelf

And then there’s a whole pile of homeless books wandering around and ending up in the most unlikely places. Librarians across the globe will be rolling their eyes. What do I care.

Here’s another taste of The Crocodile Princess for you.

 

Ian Gregson THE CROCODILE PRINCESS book cover

 

Keith thanked the pedaleur but said that he had urgent business to attend to at the moment, but the pedaleur said that he would return later in the day and take him to visit some girls, and all of them would be congenial and lovely, and there would be a choice – there would be some Cambodian ladies, but also some Vietnamese, some Chinese and some French (…)

Keith was suddenly shocked by the thought that such a visit might actually be wise – because sex was an activity he needed to learn and this, when no emotion was involved, might in fact be the wisest place to learn it. He was unnerved by the idea that the wisest course could possibly be so thoroughly the opposite of conventional wisdom. But a woman would certainly expect a man to be confident and competent and he couldn’t be either in a field of action he had never entered. (…)

Keith was made aware of the long silence between them when the pedaleur said that he also knew boys who could be of service to him. When they arrived outside Peter’s apartment, the pedaleur looked Keith solicitously in the eye and said that he, too, could be of service, and Keith registered the man’s gold-capped teeth, and his dark skin, the skin of a rural Cambodian, and his powerful arms and shoulders. With that sudden intensity which Keith had noticed before in Cambodians, the pedaleur said that he and Keith could go to a place he knew where, for half an hour, they could be heureux, and then he would pedal Keith tranquilly along the river, so that he could be quiet and peaceful. And this would cost only one American dollar. Keith remembered it was Sunday morning, and thought how different this was from the church-going Sundays of his Lancastrian upbringing.

 

(once inside Peter’s apartment, he is surprised to find a married woman there, Edith. Surely those two weren’t… were they??? This is me, Joan, paraphrasing the section I’ve omitted. Keith takes in the compromising scene, then…)

 

Several desperate words which hated women, which he had heard used mechanically, obsessively, during his national service, and which he had found himself using then, during that time, crowded into his head and shouted.

 

***

 

  • Ian, would you say that every writer is willingly or unwillingly also a politician?

All literature is inevitably political in its implications, but some forms are more explicitly political than others. In lyric poetry the politics is only implicit; the short story also has a tendency to occupy a personal rather than a political space. The novel is the most political of literary forms and the greatest novels (by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens, Toni Morrison etc) evoke a whole society.

 

  • some believe that it is impossible to teach creative writing. What’s your stance on this?

I taught creative writing for a long time so I’d have to declare an interest there. It’s certainly possible to teach writing techniques connected eg to narrative voice. I’d also hope that, as you teach such things, you instill a love of literature in general.

 

  • how do you feel about commissioned writing?

Nice work if you can get it, though these days I wouldn’t want (much) of it.

 

  • what was the hardest aspect of writing The Crocodile Princess?

Inventing comedy ideas that were appropriate,and good enough, for Peter Cook to speak.

 

  • to which extent does the final book correspond to the original you had in mind before you started writing?

I had a broad outline in mind which the novel does fulfill, but it developed a lot on the way and that’s one of the most gratifying aspects of writing.

 

  • where would you place yourself along the continuum of novelist-types: meticulously planned before I sit down to write — start writing then go with the flow?

I’m somewhere in the middle of that – I have a general idea and quite a number of specific ideas about plot and character and individual scenes, and images,etc, but the great joy is moving along through those and finding it expand and acquire its shape.

 

  • literary criticism: science or art? and why?

It’s a combination of the two. I do think that novelists and poets should be aware of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan etc because that’s among the most important thinking of our time.

 

  • why Cambodia: what is unique to this setting regarding the requirements of your novel?

It’s fascinating, beautiful place which got caught up in some major political events.

 

  • Crocodile Princess. two versions of the story; the  Cambodian (princess swallowed up by a crocodile) and the Dagenham version. The theme of secrets/masks, origins, double/parallel identities, public/private faces (Yuri, Dudley, Joe smoking opium to retreat from his mundane life, Edith). Unreliable surfaces, déjà vu, illusions/magic. Dialogical identity. There is a lot antagonism/tension caused by these clashing identities and their individual objectives within the plot; also:pieces of information like poker chips, owned and coveted and passed around by means of your mischievous literary style. No one seems truly happy; all trapped in their own identity crisis. dreams, illusions, nightmares…  is the title of the book symbolic merely of the ‘paranoiac petty-mindedness’ of the diplomatic community,  or of the human condition in general, in your view? To which extent is the novel a mask YOU wear to play beak-a-boo with the reader?

Well these are the bits and pieces we all work with as novelists aren’t they? And the most important thing is that they are ambivalent and polyphonic so that they can say a wide range of things at once and so go some way to evoking the beautiful mess that we live in.

 

  • in the novel, we hear more than once about the inadequacy of rationalism to do justice to the intricacies of human thought or to bring about some form of inner (dare I use the word: spiritual?) peace. What is your personal take on this issue? how satisfactorily are you able to function and connect to other minds in/of Western culture? Have we been led astray? How does rationalism affect you as a writer AND critic?

I don’t regard rationalism as separable from other kinds of cognition: it’s a label we give artificially to a form of thought that is thoroughly intertwined with other forms and works alongside them to help us understand our experience.

 

  • humour: Do your students ever get the chance to laugh in your classes?

I’d really want them to laugh but I’m not funny enough to make them laugh as often as I’d like.

 

  • What’s on your bucket list that you haven’t done yet? Do you have plans to do it yourself or will one of your characters see to it for you?

Really that’s my current project, where I’m combining different literary forms, – poems, short stories, flash fiction, and an essay in a sequence focused on a single subject (in this case about advertising).

***

The Crocodile Princess. The description on the back cover fits so I won’t try to outdo it, I’ll simply repeat it:

Fast-paced, witty, full of intrigue, misdirection and set in the heart of Phnom Penh in an extraordinary moment of history, The Crocodile Princess is a gripping read from the highly accomplished author of Not Tonight Neil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Crocodile Princess

Ian Gregson THE CROCODILE PRINCESS book cover

 

I got a present the other day; a signed copy of The Crocodile Princess by Ian Gregson; novelist, poet, critic and Oxford Professor of Poetry nominee. I had only ever met Ian once in person before. That was five years ago, when he gave me his personal copy of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and told me to consider writing my next novel in the first person. I did more than consider it, I took up the challenge, one which, for years, was marked more by cursing than by anything I would care to call satisfactory progress. Now the novel is finished. Thank goodness. Now I can get back to reading for pleasure.

A pleasure I wish to share with you. Below is the opening of Ch2 of The Crocodile Princess. I love it for so many reasons. I’m sure you will find your own.

 

THE CROCODILE PRINCESS

 

‘No no you’re not going to catch me,’ shouted Joe Keane, the American ambassador in Cambodia. He stared in the face of Norodom Sihanouk looming on a billboard above him, Sihanouk dressed all in white and with a shaved head, saintly Buddhist, his serenity a rebuke to Keane’s desperate, breathless driving forward of his cyclopousse, his bicycle rickshaw, his pedalling ever more frantic because the finishing line was a huge jacaranda tree only forty yards past the billboard, and Peter Cook was gaining on him, now only fifteen yards behind, and calling to him, taunting him with his growing nearness, about how he would imminently overtake, about the superiority of Cook’s own cyclo, about how Joe’s contraption was wonky, about how Joe himself – worst of all, this, as Joe was gasping more and more for breath –   was an old man, was past it… and Joe was dizzy now, standing up on his pedals, then sitting down again, and the cyclo was so unwieldy, and four times heavier than a normal bicycle, and he could feel his head sicken, where dazzling white enormous Sihanouk in the silver of the nearly-full moon was swimming in his eyes above him – or no, too bright for that, because in fact lit from below by a carefully placed lamp, so now, as he approached, Joe could see lizards running all over the god/king… lizards (and he thought this ludicrously, even painfully, given what he needed to concentrate upon) attracted by the insects on Sihanouk that were, in turn, attracted by the lamplight… and then he thought about that thought and knew he was observing his thought self-consciously still because of the opium he had smoked earlier, at Madame Chhum’s, the opium whose pungent taste even now lingered between his teeth and inside his tongue, somehow both sweet and bitter, the opium that made his thoughts wrap themselves around each other, twist inside each other and open passageways that led past tens of doorways which might open at any moment and lead down other passageways… and it was being too deeply inside that thought that led him not to notice he was veering to the right, not to notice so that now he had to wrestle the cyclo leftwards, still half-hoping to go forwards as well, still somehow to win because the tree was only twenty yards ahead, but it was no good, the front wheel was pointing left but the weight of everything behind it, the hooded seat and the wheels and Keane himself, was dragging it still to the right, so that his back right wheel was slipping more and more into a shallow ditch, and he made a final effort, standing on his pedals feeling that his breath was squeezed hard as though his lungs might burst, but no, it was no use, and he slipped further into the ditch and the whole ungainly contraption toppled onto its right side, and he saw Cook go flying past him to the jacaranda where he stopped and jumped out of his cyclo and danced about him with his arms in the air.

***

I’m not quite halfway through the book but already have loads of questions. Here are a few:

 

  1. Ian, do you have any personal experience of the diplomatic service? If not, what kind of research did you do in order to portray this particular social group so convincingly?

I’ve never worked as a diplomat, but I think it’s important that the novel tackles political questions and if you focus on a diplomatic community you’re involved in politics straight away. In particular, it’s important for British writers to explore the colonial experience, especially given the extent to which writers in colonized countries have focused on that history from their perspective. So I researched the lives of ambassadors and other Embassy staff, and read memoirs of diplomats, including ones that described that life in the time and place of The Crocodile Princess.

 

  1. How long did it take you to write the book and did you use any time management software to help you? (What do you think of such software in general?)

It took me three years – some days I only wrote about two hundred words, and I revised the first draft extensively. I’m not even aware, to be honest, of what time management software is!

 

  1. One of the things I adore when reading The Crocodile Princess is the way you weave in witty observations that make the characters immediately come alive in a line or two. I also have the impression that it is at times a very thin line indeed being drawn between humour and disdain. Why did you decide to give characters this edge and have you personally ever been at the receiving end of such treatment?

The focus on comedy arose from the element of alternative history, where I invented an alternative life for the comedian Peter Cook. I wanted this component to throw a defamiliarising angle on the politics. I love the idea of the novel as a polyphonic form that incorporates multiple voices and languages. So I conceived of the satirical comedy as a language which would be a source of imagery – as in the references to the domino effect, for example. The element of disdain in it might be connected to the class aspect, of Cook’s upper-middle class origins (his father worked for the Foreign Office in Nigeria). And that might also indicate that I wanted some distance from Cook, which was why I invented Waldo Vaughan as an angry left-wing Welsh nationalist comedian as an alternative which unfortunately never occurred.

 

  1. Another thing I admire: the philosophical remarks which lift the plot beyond the mere happenings within the diplomatic circle yet without rendering the book too high-brow or know-it-all. Are any of these opinions ones you share or were they attributed to your characters much in the way you would choose the colour of their hair or select for them the right spouse?

I agree with some of them and not others. One of the things I wanted to depict was a kind of ideological norm for 1962 – people being racist, sexist, homophobic, and snobbish – but above all casually, as part of a set of unquestioned assumptions. Hector Perch, the left wing journalist, is the character whose views I would most naturally share, but – partly for that reason – I wanted to show him being alarmingly wrong in his political diagnosis of Cambodia. One of the ready resources you can draw upon in a novel set in 1962 is the ironies that arise from having characters have perceptions which readers – from their knowledge of subsequent events – realise are shockingly wide of the mark.

 

  1. A critic whose name unfortunately escapes me said that a novel in verse is an abomination. You write novels as well as poetry. How useful do you find the distinction between poetry and prose in contemporary literature?

I wouldn’t want to write a verse novel because the form of poetry, to my mind, would be too awkward. But the idea of poetry being dialogic and novelized, as theorized by Bakhtin, is very important to me. And my own poems have always invented characters who speak the poems, and they have overlapping points of view where voices collide. And I like to think that in my fiction I call upon forms of imagery which I’ve learned from writing poems.

 

  1. Tell me more about the cover.

Adam Craig at Cinnamon designed it. He came up with several alternatives, but I thought that the understated reference to Angkor Wat was cool and laid-back in a way that appealed to me.

 

  1. What’s something the readers don’t know about one of the protagonists: something you had in mind when writing the book, but which didn’t make it into the final version?

It’s not so much a character thing. A pun on ‘backwater’ haunted me: that word is repeatedly applied to Phnom Penh. It’s important that the city was patronised in that way, because it means that outlandish stuff could happen there that wouldn’t have been tolerated in Paris or Moscow. But I also thought of the word as referring to the astonishing yearly event in the city, when its river reverses its flow. That image was connected for me to the central themes of the novel’s ‘alternative’ nature – its focus on systematic disorientation, of a deep-seated bewilderment which I hoped would express how little in control people are of what is underlyingly shaping their lives.

 

  1. What are you reading right now and why would you recommend it?

I’m reading Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful, which is a novelised version of the lives of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Thelonius Monk. Based on facts but extending what is known through fictive speculation. I’d recommend it because it does what I most admire – it is beautifully, accessibly written so you feel compelled to keep reading, but it also asks fascinating, complex questions.

 

The same can be said of The Crocodile Princess. Definitely. Thanks, Ian, for sharing your views with me. Some people think the author doesn’t count and that we should approach the book as an autonomous work of art. I’m not one of them. Ian’s answers allow me to get so much more out of reading his novel. And I hope they make you interested in finding out more.