I met Jonathan Franzen in Cambodia. Okay, he wasn’t actually there in person but I had stuffed The Corrections down into my backpack ready for some bus reading in-country. When I finally took the book out, on a long bus around the country somewhere*, it was a bit bent and damp from trekking clothes. No doubt it smelled. But it didn’t affect the words on the page nor that he was a writer that changed my world. We flew into Phnom Penh in 2009 and started what would be one of the most difficult travel experiences I’ve ever had, and Jonathan was there the entire time with me.
To read a book that is so startling and moving, at the same time you are experiencing some life-changing moments in another country, is a mind-bender to say the least.
I started reading The Corrections after we’d spent time in the complex city of Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh, and indeed Cambodia, is complex for many reasons. Cambodia is one of the poorest countries in the world with most people surviving on less than $2 a day – poverty is not a word here, it is a way of life. It is also one of the most heavily mined countries in the world as a result of the Vietnam war. The number of children and adults with landmine injuries is simply heartbreaking. It’s hard to travel Cambodia and not be exposed to the devastation of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime, particularly if you visit Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. I’d read about Cambodia’s history and thought I was prepared, but I was not prepared. The museum holds photographs of every single person that was an inmate and for most, murdered there. The Khmer Rouge was meticulous in its recording keeping. You walk past rows and rows of photographs of unsmiling faces, with expressions that vary from the questioning to the sorrowful. It is simply overwhelming to view and when the history is too devastating to look at, you know the people went through so much worse. The only photo I have of the museum was the barbed wire from the outside, I couldn’t bear to lift my camera inside as it seemed disrespectful. We declined a trip out the ‘killing fields‘ as it too seemed disrespectful and I didn’t think my heart could cope with the sadness.
Despite the country’s troubled history, I loved the country and its people. One of my most treasured memories was a day when we hired a motorcycle and rode around Kampot. Me on the back of the bike, arms around my boy, I felt more freedom than I’d ever imagined. Ironic it was in a country where freedom did not exist. We had some wonderful moments, filled with laughter and friendly hosts and then, at odd moments, the most incredibly vivid reminders of how cruel people and the universe can be. In amongst this, I was reading The Corrections, a book that takes the reader to some of the darkest places within our minds and pulls at our most human threads to feel not just empathy, but as if we had really been there the entire time, watching the slow death of the Patriarch.
I’ve heard a lot of people say ‘Franzen’s characters are just so awful. They are not nice people and I’ve never met anyone like that.’ At my most honest hour, I find his characters are some of the truest I’ve ever read about – greedy, selfish and animal-like at times, they represent the deep, dark nature of humans that we rarely let ourselves admit exists. It was an odd book to read in Cambodia but it was the right book to read in Cambodia. So, when our bus broke down for two hours, I finished the Corrections and cried at the end – I think not just for Alfred but also for a country. You can’t separate a country or person’s beauty from its own devastation.
So for me, the correction, when it finally came, was upon arriving home. Cambodia gave me a sense of perspective that we have enough, and if anything, we are incredibly lucky to have it at all.
* We travelled from Phnom Penh to Battambang to Siem Reap to Kampong Thom to Kampong Chhnang to Kampot and back to Phnom Penh