Ghosts in the Forest by Corinne Purtill first attracted my attention because it is set in Cambodia. I lived in Phnom Penh for seven years and I enjoy comparing my experiences and impressions with observers from the West. This is a Kindle Single, so it is short. It is also non-fiction which, for me, demands a closer and more careful reading. This is available as an audiobook or as a Kindle ePub.
The story told here is not about Phnom Penh, of course. It is about a small group of people, here led by Moun, who have decided that they can escape the slavery of being forced soldiers by fleeing into the jungle so far that no one can ever find them. They live in the jungle eating only what they can trap or plant. The communicate with no one outside the group. If, while forging for food, they see any type of human activity near their camp, they move camp deeper into the forest. Moun and his group did this every two to three years.
This is also a story of a group of people unhesitatingly doing what they felt necessary to remain “invisible” to the outside world. When Moun’s group was visited by a group of four Vietnamese, there was community cooperation in planning the deaths of the Vietnamese. Although one did escape, members of the group felt the killings were necessary to preserve secrecy.
There is also the important story of author Purtill trying to find out the truth of what went on in the camp during the years of isolation. She faced strong cultural resistance to telling the full truth. Even when asking for such seemingly innocuous information as birth dates she would receive the answer, “It is just not important.” Purtill writes frequently throughout the story that she is confident she is not getting the full truth. She tried many things such as using an interpreter from a Cambodian newspaper, hiring an interpreter who had language expertise in Moun’s dialect and even getting help from the academic world. The author must be given credit for diligence in the pursuit of a story she felt existed.
Putill’s difficulty in getting a definite and meaningful response to anything can be illustrated by Moun’s answer to her almost at the end of the book. She asked him if he would ever move away again from the village where he currently resides. His answer was no, moving was no longer something he would do. He would die in the village where he now lives. Unless others agreed to go; then he would go also.
This is a novel of survival and living close to the earth. It is also a novel of struggling to find the truth.