The Cambodian Void: An Apology
The Devil knows what I put in my mouth, but it immediately made me feel sick. There were five or six of them skewered on a stick; they had spindly little legs, and it was clear from how the Cambodians were watching me that I was eating them the wrong way. Endangering my health, Or just being vulgar. You never could tell with these Cambodians and their expressionless faces; they could watch you drink carpet cleaner without batting an eyelid.
And their suits, those incompetent replicas of long-outmoded Western fashions, and their hair, invariably cropped so that it stood on end. Sopheap, the shorter of the two, had a pock-marked complexion and the infuriating habit of laughing extravagantly at his own mindless humor. Munny had the cruel demeanor and hair-trigger temper typical of very skinny men. He compulsively chewed the sunflower seeds he kept loose in the pockets of his polyester suit. They were always exchanging glances so filled with sadism and treachery that the skin crawled. I kept imagining them a pair of giant iguanas, hunched over the table and silently blinking their eyes.
I’ve made the corrections to the contract, I said, pulling it from my briefcase, removing it from the protective plastic envelope, and pushing it across the table toward them. I had overlooked, somehow, a puddle of brown sauce; the contract slid right through it, and as Cambodian restaurants are never supplied with napkins, I was left to wipe at it with the sleeve of my tailor-made shirt.
Now you have sauce contract, howled Sopheap, sauce contract! He opened his mouth wide and laughed for a terrifyingly long time, exposing his rotten, crooked teeth, fastening me with his steely eyes, and only after a full minute of this did I forfeit the last of my dignity and laugh along. He sat back, satisfied, resuming a blank expression.
Munny picked up the soggy papers, studied them for a moment, and said: Of course, we not sign this. This no good. And he slid the papers back across the table to me.
Little beads of sweat popped to the surface of my forehead and the backs of my shoulder blades. I registered that it was hot, fiendishly so, that the outside of the restaurant was crowded with some bizarre, muscular species of dog, that the music had a hypnotic undertow which was making it difficult to think clearly.
Well, but that’s precisely why, I said, forcing a confident smile and ramming the contract back into the plastic sleeve, that’s precisely the reason why I have here prepared an identical copy of the document, I said rifling through my briefcase, a second...
But just as the words left my lips, I had a sudden flash of the documents sitting on the bureau of my hotel room, right alongside the mini-bar, and I looked up to meet the blank stares of my associates.
It’s a minor setback, I told them, my voice drained of self-assurance, absolutely a minor setback. This is an absolutely run-of-the-mill kind of, I coughed, obstacle. As I continued to babble similar nonsense, my mind spun with snapshot memories of the past ten days, of ingratiating the stupid and patently irrational whims of these Cambodian reptiles, toasting them with glass after glass of rice wine, accompanying them to sleazy dives covered with mirrors and black enamel tabletops so that the waitresses whom, Sopheap had informed me with a grin, knew how to reward a big tipper, could charge you Hong Kong prices for the shoddy replica of luxury. I had flattered their acumen, though I knew the rhetorical subtleties of my compliments to be beyond them both linguistically and culturally, I had ordered them—and myself, alas—a gourmet soup called kokhiya sâmlâ, from whose murky green depths one fished out revolting surprises with a spoon. I had pandered, compromised, laughed at jokes I found either moronic or vulgar, or which I simply didn’t understand. I realized I had come to expect from them less intelligence than I would credit a wild animal. Most distressingly, however, I had begun to sense, as I looked into the black depths of their eyes, that they were looking at me with the very same annihilation of personhood and identity, the same void I experienced when I looked at them. We were obliterating each other, I realized, turning each other into single-cell creatures, and there was not a blessed thing any of us could do to stop it, things had progressed too far. And after a few days, I had even found that it stayed with me, this sense of the void within me; I wandered about with it inside my gut; it became the vantage point from which I apprehended the world, and my own actions in it.
Waiter! I cried, Bring these men two bowls of kokhiya sâmlâ. I shall return in half an hour, I told them, I’ve just left it in my hotel. Please! Don’t move.
I kicked my way past the stray dogs, slapped away a few beggars, and made it to my rented car, once a shining symbol of foreign wealth, now coated in a layer of Cambodian grime. How can they expect people to behave normally in this country, I thought, if wherever you go you get covered in filth, if a man has to walk through his entire life in dirt? Small wonder they’re belligerent, it could scarcely be any other way. It was my last night to close the deal before my plane left for Moscow the following morning, and from there on to Odense, where my idiot employer, Mr. Nielsen, was waiting in his crisp, sterling, 21st-century office, with every modern convenience, as they say, at his fingertips. As I climbed into the car, I remembered how he had poured me some fine Scottish whiskey, and his soothing baritone voice had said: Do whatever you please with these people. None of our company policies or ethics stretch as far as Cambodia. Nothing you do there has any real repercussions at all. As you know, here in Denmark, and in this office in particular, we have a great many stringencies. Often we don’t understand why these rules could possibly be good for us, but we do our best to abide by them anyway. All those things you can leave in your cubicle before you go. All your niggling little doubts, your good breeding—tipping waiters, please and thank-you, chivalry, subtlety, savoir faire, even the most basic hygiene—all of this I want you to leave here in Odense. I will tell you a secret. Your manners won’t merely go unnoticed, they will even trip you up, slow you down. These people will respect you less for your politeness. They take it as a sign of weakness. I know it sounds incredible, but believe me, I have had years of experience with these savages. I may not yet fully understand the heart and mind of the Cambodian, but I do know that he will eat you alive if you stroll in with European good graces.
The car jolted strangely and clattered to a halt. Street urchins seized the opportunity to cluster around, trying to sell me what appeared to be a tiny human fetus floating in a jar. I swiped at it with my hand; the vile thing went crashing to the street, spraying the side of the car with a thick vitreous fluid. I rolled up the window and the car sped off, leaving the urchins shaking their fists in its wake.
...already mentioned, there is no game plan, Nielsen resumed, out in Cambodia, except this: bring me back the contract with those signatures. They will do everything in their power to delay this, even though, insanely enough, they honestly believe the contract to be in their best interests. It is simply there in their blood. They love to make the foreigner linger, through increasingly base and unscrupulous methods. These people are in constant pursuit of the inane. This much was true, I now recalled from inside the automobile, what had I been doing for these past ten days? I had been urging myself deeper and deeper into the Cambodian psyche, shucking off layer upon layer of Danish breeding and dignity in bars, conference rooms, public toilets, looking into a series of mirrors, each time a bit more grizzled and misused, my ironic detachment turning into something quite different, much more difficult to put a finger on, a kind of oceanic frailty, a total evaporation of confidence at what this gradual whittling of my identity would bring, or in turn build, if all of this erasure did not, at least in some abstract sense, have its equal and opposite reaction, to which I was not attending in any conscious—
A sickening thwack. The car jolted to a stop. My head hit the dashboard.
I came to—it couldn’t have been more than a few seconds—with a great dizziness, and the pulse of my lips throbbing against my teeth. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve, and registered, though only faintly, that it left a long streak of blood. Well, that’s fine, I thought, or said out loud, nothing a few ice cubes couldn’t fix, maybe a—I caught a glimpse of my own face in the rear-view mirror and a shudder ran through my bones. I’ll just have to give the face a quick scrub as well, nothing amiss there. I checked out my limbs, and found them all to be in fine working order, with the possible exception of a slight twitch in the right leg. I eased myself out of the car, the crunch of broken glass underfoot, a stabbing pain in the buttocks when I walked.
And irrelevantly I thought—it wasn’t for this my parents put me through Harvard, it wasn’t for this, surely, that I stayed up nights poring over economics textbooks, learning Russian, German, Chinese; in fact, bits of everything except Khmer. It wasn’t for this that I learned, step-by-step, how to seduce a young woman from a good family, flattering her beauty exactly no more or less than her intelligence, keeping my baser thoughts to myself. It wasn’t for this, was it, that I had worked my way into the trust and open arms of three successive corporations, exploiting my boyish good looks and what I had come to accept as my natural charisma? And now the madness of it all! The total, maddening incongruity with the pathetic, crippled, Cambodian picture I now presented. Now rein yourself in, I thought, time to focus on the reality at hand, however vulgar it may be.
In Cambodia, it never takes more than a few seconds for a crowd to form. They were all gathered around the front of the car. I had escaped everyone’s attention, and so I abandoned the car, its door wide open, and slipped off, crossing the street, walking at a diagonal slant. I had made it less than a hundred feet when I heard a woman break into a wailing shriek. Well, I thought, something dreadful must have happened in conjunction with the car, best not to look back, and I hobbled a bit faster, hooking right into a department store.
The entrance aisle was lined with mannequins on pedestals; because this was Cambodia, many were missing fingers or noses, the shapes of their bodies exuded a rank sexuality, and their clothes were ill-fitting and shabby—the effect was a row of beggars and war veterans, stooping over to take a coin. A white man can never melt into a crowd in Cambodia, I reminded myself, passing through these grotesqueries, but perhaps I can find a rear exit, then creep through the back alleyways, make it to my hotel that way.
I slunk past a man demonstrating how deftly a kitchen knife sliced through something that might have been an eggplant, had it not been orange and filled with a thick syrup, swung left toward the menswear department, passing rows of leather jackets, reflecting on how the Cambodians were helplessly seduced by leather and gold, like all the downtrodden and uncultured peoples of the world. I approached a little fat man piling shoeboxes in a corner.
I grabbed him by the shoulder. Firmly now, I thought.
Look here, I said, I can’t give you all the details, but the situation, just between you and I, is urgent. Have you got a supply entrance I could just slip through? Could you do this simple thing for me?
He was staring at my face all the while, with a pathological steadiness, but he made no response, not a word, not the slightest expression or gesture. How else to get through to this vegetable? And here, again, I found myself confronted by the void, staring deep into it and, therefore, deep into the vacuity of my own soul again. I was already familiar with this kind of demonism. I had spent ten whole days trying to grasp what lay behind it. Now I was bored and disgusted, sick of pretending to tolerate and understand this subhuman mode of interaction. Somebody had to start making examples of these people, chipping away at their obvious sense of impunity—starting with this goddamn shoe salesman. You do speak English, don’t you, I snarled, less as a question than a command. Again, the same bland, utterly equivocal expression, the glassy eyes, shiftless as the desert sands. Hopeless, I said, you’re a disaster, giving him a push to vent my rage, and stalked off, the fury mounting. Two salesmen were having a card game at the glove counter. Steady now, I told myself, one last try.
Now listen here, I said, and listen good. I’m looking for a back entrance. Unperturbed, one of them lay down another card, which his opponent calmly studied.
Look me in the face, I said, my voice becoming shrill, I need your attention. As the other man laid down a jack of clubs, my patience gave, and just as I was about to really cut into them, I had a sudden mental flash of the rear-view mirror, my blood-streaked, disfigured face, and I recognized the problem: It was me; I looked like a madman. I backed off, and in a few minutes I had found a washroom.
The Danish washroom bathes the visitor in a powerful, invigorating light. The Cambodian equivalent offers a dank, cave-like atmosphere. Nonetheless, I could make out the general outlines of my body in the mirror; I was in terrible shape, and my hands, I registered, were shaking so fiercely I could scarcely wet them under the faucet. I really would have to see a doctor when I arrived home, I decided. People in car accidents seldom recognize that they are suffering the effects of long-term shock. Remember Aunt Regina, the way she always shrieked and turned pale whenever she heard the sound of broken glass. I splashed water all over myself. The heat was most intense in the bathroom. I need to get out, I thought, loosening my tie.
I was now fairly confident I was presentable, surely no more insane looking than the average Cambodian male. I limped deep into the heart of the department store, past more knife demonstrations, leering salespeople, squinty-eyed mannequins, screeching animals in bamboo cages, pickled entrails in jars, television sets flashing catastrophes, crippled children begging for money, until I was sure that, just beyond the shimmering hills of the porcelain section, I saw the back door. I broke into a stumbly run and bounded past a table display of teapots, hooking a foot on a table leg and flying, sprawled out toward the ground. Worse, a cracking sound signified I had kicked free the table’s supports. What followed had a pastoral beauty—a slow-motion hailstorm of china teapots, splintering shards dancing to-and-fro all over, everywhere, tinkling and cracking, spreading a vast mosaic of rainbow-colored broken porcelain around me—and then a teapot collided heavily with the back of my skull.
A whistle brought me back to my senses—policemen charging through the department store. Suddenly, possessed by a lucidity brighter than I had felt for days, perhaps since I had left Denmark, I rammed through the crowd to the service door, my heart pumping wildly. The door led to a landing. At the foot of the landing stood a motorcycle.
Things have come this far, I said, setting my jaw. I jumped on the vehicle, kick-started it, the policemen’s whistles bearing down on me, and I flew off at a cracking speed.
I had never driven a motorcycle previously, and found it to be quite unlike the American films. This vehicle jolted about nauseatingly on the broken paving stones, splashed through puddles of filth, scattered packs of children, monkeys, or long-necked birds, coughed a greasy black smoke, and vibrated hard enough to make my teeth shake, but it gave me a sense of euphoria such as I had never experienced in Cambodia; finally I was putting these people where they belonged, cutting through their defense shields, chasing them back into their grim little rat-hole apartments, to breed some more of their foul children, generations of broken-toothed, broken-backed—
Then suddenly the slums had evaporated, and now I was cruising past my international hotel—a typically Cambodian sort of contradiction. The clock in the hotel lobby told me that twenty-five minutes had expired since I had left Sopheap and Munny in that restaurant, an incredible compression of time, I thought, pushing my way into the elevator.
The most demonic thing I had seen yet: all the people crowded in the elevator had the same face, literally identical, their features that of an imbecile, looking forward with the same, glazed expression, into the vast Cambodian nothingness, noses pressed flat against their skulls. I swallowed a gasp. A fly nattered in the still of the elevator. There is always a fly in Cambodia, and in unison all the identical heads began slowly swiveling to face me.
The silence was utterly maddening. Something ghastly will happen, I thought, when I am confronted by all those faces at once. There was the dreadful sensation that one void was about to stare into the depths of multiple others all at once, with all the horrors this entailed, as the elevator shot endlessly up into space. We were about to enact an apocalypse in miniature, on the scale of this elevator, to the buzzing of this fly, with neither trumpets nor cloudbursts. I sank deep into myself, groping for something solid to combat the void, because if there was nothing to be done with the yawning abysses all around me, if there was nothing to be dredged from that blackness, then perhaps my own personality had not entirely abdicated, perhaps there was a shred to salvage, and I plumbed deep, but kept finding everywhere this blanket of emptiness, and the deeper I went, the more unnerving it became. As the swiveling heads were nearly upon me the policeman’s whistle blew again somewhere in the distance, the elevator doors slid open, in stepped two obese Germans, and all the identical heads snapped back into their glazed neutral positions.
How did I get back in the lobby? With the spare contract in my pocket? And only two-and-a-half minutes to intercept Sopheap and Munny on their way out of the restaurant? The motorcycle, naturally, refused to kick-start, only spluttering in response to my efforts. No cause for alarm, I thought, though I knew Asiatics to be fanatically punctual, and at that moment a bus wheezed up and came to a stop before my feet. I heard another blast on the whistle from that police officer and leapt in, the doors slapping shut behind me.
What was it that came out of the crevices? I was standing in the aisle, steeling myself against the vehicle’s nauseating lurch, and I noticed that the corners of my periphery were darkening. All around me slouched the same Cambodian public, oblivious as always; but now encroaching all around them, with a steady pulse, this ominous shade. Blinking my eyes was no help.
I looked up toward the ceiling and gasped. It was spreading from there, burbling outward from some unseen center-point then groping down, shadowing-forth, down the windows, even dribbling bits onto the floor. I gave the man to my left a desperate shake on the shoulder but he only turned to me with his ink-black eyes, and a shudder went through me. The bus was moving faster now, its gears making wild gnashing sounds. I was thrown against a pane of glass.
There was no doubting it: through the window, seconds before the darkness swallowed up my view, I saw two giant reptiles stepping out of a restaurant, one nonchalantly checking his wristwatch, starting to walk away. Sopheap! I cried, and when the bus stopped for a red light, almost entirely swallowed in blackness, I put my foot through the window, held the contract out at arm’s length, yelling: Munny! Someone stop those iguanas! The whistle now blaring, a cracking pain in my skull, and I was still shouting the same thing when I came to my senses, to find two policemen dragging me from under the arms, picking me up from the wreckage of broken porcelain, through the throngs of ogling Cambodians, past my car wreck where that woman was still wailing and cursing the skies—no sense in looking, nobody wails so inhumanly over the death of a dog—and into the back of a windowless police van, into the pure Cambodian blackness.