Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Bamboo Palace - #28

I first came across Christopher Kremmer in Uni. I had a friend who forced his book, The Carpet Wars, on me.

Pete, the friend, wore an Akubra all the time and constantly played the harmonica. He was the stereotypical Aussie farm boy who was doing a degree in Middle Eastern politics and Arabic. He once turned up at my house trying to apologise to my Mum as he thought she had taken offence to something he had said or done, by bringing her an entire bucket of turnips, as he knew she was a librarian and this had once worked on his school librarian. Two weeks later he was trying to convince her over the phone to adopt a lamb. He was a very strange, amusing and intense guy. Strange thing is, is he and Mum do a lot of volunteer work together still. I haven't seen him in years. But the thing I still thank him for is intensely forcing that book on me and telling me I had to read it. He was right.

So I asked that next Christmas for Kremmer's new book, Bamboo Palace. It was on Laos, and the Lao royal family and their fate after they were overthrown by the communist regime. I tried reading it, and got bored and distracted, and it has sat on my shelf since.

I picked it up for this challenge and understood why I had put it down in that uni holidays so many years before. I had a hard time with the names of people in this book. It just made it rather hard to read. They were sounds I wasn't used to, and were very long and very similar. I had some background in Islamic history and faith with The Carpet Wars. I didn't so much with South East Asian history or Buddhism. Hinduism more, but that was only really mentioned as Buddhist appropriated rituals.

The beauty of Kremmer's writing is he makes everything accessible. He is so easy to read, and explains everything for you if you don't understand it. If you do, you read it as a recap rather than an annoying explanation. The writing itself in this book is perfect. And towards the end of the book, when he finally slips into what he does absolutely the best, which is retelling people's stories and experiences, I flew through it.

He is also the master of those little snippets of observation that are reasonably obvious, but you need someone to point them out to you. My favourite was right at the end of the book where he said:

"The US-led war on terror has given the Lao exile movement hope that small authoritarian regimes like the Lao PDR may face pressure to democratise. Yet America's use of detention without trial to hold suspected Islamic militants at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, can only undermine Western protests against regimes that use similar methods against their own people." - p242.

He wrote that in 2003. The difference I see now, is that those same words could be applied to his own country 10 years on in 2013, to our Government's treatment of refugees. And that is rather heartbreaking, not just for what it is, but also as earlier in this book he talks about Lao people coming to Australia as refugees to escape the possibilities of Lao gulags. If this was happening now, these people would be fleeing one type of gulag, for essentially another.

While I loved the writing and the accessibility  I have to be honest that the subject matter didn't grab me. Unlike The Carpet Wars, which I read in a couple of days, I struggled with this book. And that's not the authors fault. This ís his second book on Lao, so he personally obviously loves the region and this story. Just wasn't quite my cup of tea. But if it's yours, I highly recommend it.

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