Southeast Asia and its storied past remain mysterious to me. So I cannot judge the fidelity of Kim Fay’s novel, The Map of Lost Memories; I can only say how fascinating I found its story. The story takes place in Shanghai, Saigon, and Cambodia in the 1920s, when colonialism was rampant and when travel to such exotic places took a great deal of time and energy. An intriguing cast of characters is seeking a set of eleven copper scrolls which purportedly will reveal the history of the Khymer people. After their Shanghai introductions, the searchers depart for Saigon and then head into the jungle to find the temple that supposedly houses the scrolls.
Fay does an excellent job of recapturing colonial attitudes of the 1920s. Irene Blum, the main character of The Map of Lost Memories, has been passed over for a curatorship at a major American museum. She wants revenge, to find the scrolls and build a reputation that will make those trustees regret their misogynist decision. Her Cambodian venture is financed by a wealthy collector, a man who believes he is entitled to anything he can buy. Mr. Simms has few ethical compunctions, though he’s quite a likeable human being. Simone Merlin’s motives are more complicated. A Frenchwoman raised in Viet Nam and now married to a Communist revolutionary, she shifts her rationales throughout the novel. One never quite knows what she is thinking or what she will do to assert her will on her comrades. Added to the mix are an archaeologist determined to keep the scrolls in Cambodia, an attractive adventurer with a checkered past, and an assorted cast of Cambodian natives.
Fay points out, in a fascinating Reader’s Guide, that she purposely made the native characters vague, seen only from the outside as European travelers would have perceived them in the 1920s. She further explains the seeds of her narrative. When she was a little girl, her merchant seaman grandfather used to tell her bedtime stories about his travels in the Orient. Then she herself taught English in Viet Nam for four years in the 1990s. She even comments that she wrote many of the jungle and temple descriptions while sitting in the midst of whatever locale she was using in her fiction, and she mentions recurring personal visits to her friends in Southeast Asia. Such first-hand knowledge leads me to believe I should trust this author’s veracity.
The scenery is as compelling as Fay’s portrayals of ethical values. The world of The Map of Lost Memories precedes Communist China, precedes the Viet Nam war, and precedes the Khymer Rouge uprising. Taking place before the advent of air travel and the encroachment of modern amenities (no air-conditioning anywhere), the landscape surrounding the cities is untrammeled and difficult to negotiate. Colonial magistrates are untrustworthy, and native tribes are uncooperative. Irene and her companions struggle through dense jungle in inappropriately heavy boots, eat tinned meat, light their paths with torches, and traverse routes overgrown with brush and vines. Despite their travails, they do come upon some extraordinary discoveries, and Fay renders those finds with appropriate awe. Her description of Angkor Wat, for example, depicts its astonishing immensity and beauty as one might view it for the very first time.
I wholeheartedly recommend The Map of Lost Memories. I learned a lot; I thought at length about the questions the book raises regarding colonialism and the subsequent despoiling of native artifacts; I enjoyed every page.