American involvement in Cambodia during the Vietnam War was often called a “sideshow.” Bombing of the countryside displaced the population and destabilized the government, which paved the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Music of the Ghosts by survivor Vaddey Ratner only touches on American culpability, but the grueling, heart-wrenching novel indicts any treatment of Cambodia as mere footnote.
The novel concerns a woman named Teera, who, like the author, lost her father, escaped Cambodia to America and attended Cornell. Teera returns to Cambodia to meet a man known as the Old Musician, who claims to have known her father. The Old Musician—once a pupil of Pol Pot, who was a teacher before becoming leader of the Khmer Rouge—ended up in one of the regime’s prisons, where officials tried to extract confessions to confirm their paranoia. There, the Old Musician often shared a cell with Teera’s father.
The novel thus splits in two. On the one hand are Teera’s impressions of her unknown native country. On the other are the Old Musician’s memories of life under “the Organization.”
Through Teera, Ratner seems keen to show present-day Cambodia as recovered from the war, if nothing else to offer contrast to the book’s darker chapters. Teera admits her time in America has made her a reflexive optimist, but the war keeps dimming her rose-colored glasses. The landscape is scarred by bombs. Social relations remain tense. In an unforgettable passage, Ratner describes a woman whose job is to remove mines, but she later replaces them, as otherwise she’d be out of work. Thus the never-ending parade of amputees perpetuates on Cambodia’s streets.
The novel isn’t unending desolation. On the contrary, it is often very sweet, told with a careful lyricism that sometimes gets the better of the plot. Occasionally calling to mind Things Fall Apart, another novel about collapsed societies, Music of the Ghosts evokes a world with ghosts aplenty, but less apt by Ratner’s hand to be dismissed as a sideshow.