Kevin Cummings, author of Bangkok Beat, gives the low down on Christopher G. Moore’s latest book, which is set in Cambodia.
Christopher G. Moore has a fascination with memory and is constantly looking for events worth remembering. A worthy pursuit, which has served the international award-winning author and prolific essayist well over the years.
His latest book subtitled, A Walking Meditation through Cambodia, is much more than a memory exploration. Memory Manifesto is a memoir that reflects on Moore’s 25 years of experience as a journalist, writer and visitor to Cambodia.
We learn in Memory Manifesto that our memories are the centre of our world. We also learn a great deal about the planet that Moore has navigated during his 40-plus years as a writer and explorer of life’s side-streets and back alleys.
Cambodia serves as a backdrop as he recollects the interconnections and incompleteness of his memory and that of the world’s, while pondering the significance of our collective memories and whether a memory has tangible meaning in the universe?
When talking about why he chose Cambodia over Thailand, England, Canada, Vietnam and the USA – all also countries where Moore has lived – he says, “Cambodia is a place haunted by the recent memories of the dead and the living. For most parts of the world Cambodia is a forgotten place. It doesn’t exist for the vast-majority of people.”
The reader is taken on a condensed journey that began for Moore in 1993, when he was a journalist covering the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Cambodia is a country where not everybody is happy to remember the past. It can be a dangerous place depending on what you choose to remember or forget, as Moore’s friend and Canadian filmmaker Dave Walker found out in 2014.
Many of Moore’s Cambodian memories of that late 20th Century period found their way into his third Vincent Calvino novel – Zero Hour in Phnom Penh, where you can read a fictional account of Moore’s real-life visit to a Cambodian prison and his memories of the hopeless occupants. As he puts it, “It was a time when Cambodia was still undergoing a memory transplant.”
Moore implies that the best way to find things worth remembering is to get to know the journalists, musicians, artists and writers of Cambodia, which he did.
These professions have shown they are our best hope to retain memories that others would choose to whitewash or simply wipe clean.
The stories in Memory Manifesto are numerous, interesting and difficult to distill down to a select few. Moore’s imploring of the writer Bopha Porn to come to Phnom Penh after she witnessed a soldier shoot and kill Chut Wutty up country, which put her own life in danger, stands out. Bopha had written a story for Moore’s Phnom Penh Noir anthology released in 2010, the original reason for their pre-publication meeting.
As one might expect the years of occupation and genocide by the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath plays a heavy role in this 214-page platform. Pol Pot did his best to eradicate the memory of an entire country by resetting the clock to Year Zero. New people and new thinking have often been a threat to those in authority and Memory Manifesto has frequent references to history, the people who made it, and wished to alter or obliterate it. Memories of the past are important to Moore, although he concedes that, “Our empathy is mostly for the living; there isn’t enough supply to nurture the dead.”
Moore is at his best when he captures memories from locals, expats and tourists occupying Cambodia. Have you ever had an hour to kill before you met someone for dinner?
What do you remember about that hour? Moore had such an experience before meeting Dutch artist, Peter Klashorst. He spent that hour in a seedy bar on Phnom Penh’s Street 136. The characters and actions he remembers included three recalcitrant Africans, a near seven-foot tall American, a three-piece suit wearing, two-bit Cambodian thug, and a feisty female bar-owner who wanted her customers to buy a beer before they cooled down by her fan.
Memory Manifesto has more serious moments than comedic ones, but my favorite episode of levity came when Moore met his friend Cambodian Sam Sotha prior to a book launch for some butterflies-curing Happy Pizza. It seemed like a good idea at the time and as Moore remembers it, it was. “Happy takes time”, we learn. At the book launch Moore thought the Generals in attendance were the band and later found himself on stage with a microphone speaking to an audience of 200 people for 15 minutes. At the time, it seemed longer.
Moore is a gracious writer. He lets the reader play a role and even fill in the blanks on some unanswered questions. It is a partial explanation of what keeps the reader turning the pages.
If there is a criticism to be found in Memory Manifesto, it is that Moore gets to selectively edit his memories, as we all do, for public consumption. More personal revelations would have been preferred but this is a memoir after all.
The best way, according to Moore, to live a full life and accumulate memorable memories is to shed your fears. Moore’s recurring message throughout is to doubt one’s memory and recognise it as a reconstruction. Our memories, as the tonic and gin drinking man making a song request of the piano man would be wise to learn, are very selective and never to be known complete.