Dead Soldiers

February 2, 2013

The final official mourning period for the late King-Father Norodom Sihanouk has just started: his son will light his funeral pyre on Monday afternoon; soon afterwards everyone can get back to business.

 

Here’s a poem I was introduced to recently, by James Fenton, written during the Cambodia Civil War of 1970-75, about lunching with the royals.

 

Dead Soldiers

 

When His Excellency Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey

Invited me to lunch on the battlefield

I was glad of my white suit for the first time that day.

They lived well, the mad Norodoms, they had style.

The brandy and the soda arrived in crates.

Bricks of ice, tied around with raffia,

Dripped from the orderlies’ handlebars.

 

And I remember the dazzling tablecloth

As the APCs fanned out along the road,

The dishes piled high with frogs’ legs,

Pregnant turtles, their eggs boiled in the carapace,

Marsh irises in fish sauce

And inflorescence of a banana salad.

 

On every bottle, Napolean Bonaparte

Pleaded for the authenticity of the spirit.

They called the empties Dead Soldiers

And rejoiced to see them pile up at our feet.

 

Each diner was attended by one of the other ranks

Whirling a table-napkin to keep off the flies.

It was like eating between rows of morris dancers–

Only they didn’t kick.

 

On my left sat the prince;

On my right, his drunken aide.

The frogs’ thighs leapt into the sad purple face

Like fish to the sound of a Chinese flute.

I wanted to talk to the prince. I wish now

I had collared his aide, who was Saloth Sar’s brother.

We treated him as the club bore. He was always

Boasting of his connections, boasting with a head-shake

Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase.

And well might he boast. Saloth Sar, for instance,

Was Pol Pot’s real name. The APCs

Fired into the sugar palms but met no resistance.

 

In a diary, I refer to Pol Pot’s brother as the Jockey Cap.

A few weeks later, I find him ‘in good form

And very skeptical about Chantaraingsey.’

‘But one eats well there,’ I remark.

‘So one should,’ says the Jockey Cap:

‘The tiger always eats well,

It eats the raw flesh of the deer,

And Chantaraingsey was born in the year of the tiger.

So, did they show you the things they do

With the young refugee girls?’

And he tells me how he will one day give me the gen.

He will tell me how the prince financed the casino

And how the casino brought Lon Nol to power.

He will tell me this.

He will tell me all these things.

All I must do is drink and listen.

 

In those days, I thought that when the game was up

The prince would be far, far away–

In a limestone faubourg, on the promenade at Nice,

Reduced in circumstances but well enough provided for.

In Paris, he would hardly require his private army.

The Jockey Cap might suffice for café warfare,

And matchboxes for APCs.

But we were always wrong in these predictions.

It was a family war. Whatever happened,

The principals were obliged to attend its issue.

A few were cajoled into leaving, a few were expelled,

And there were villains enough, but none of them

Slipped away with the swag.

 

For the prince was fighting Sihanouk, his nephew,

And the Jockey Cap was ranged against his brother

Of whom I remember nothing more

Than an obscure reputation for virtue.

I have been told that the prince is still fighting

Somewhere in the Cardamoms or the Elephant Mountains.

But I doubt that the Jockey Cap would have survived his good connections.

I think the lunches would have done for him–

Either the lunches or the dead soldiers.

 

James Fenton

 

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