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Read: Eve Zucker’s “Forest of Struggle”

 Eve Zucker’s first book, Forest of Struggle: Moralities of Remembrance in Upland Cambodia, is a village ethnography of contemporary Cambodia. It’s also one of the best post-conflict studies (focusing on the cultural situation after the Khmer Rouge period) that I’ve encountered. In her fieldwork from 2001-2003, she moved to a very small village called O-Thmaa in the Cardamom Mountains. Her interest in this particular village was its social brokenness – unlike neighboring villages, it was clear even on her first visit that O-Thmaa was not ‘recovering’ from the Khmer Rouge era in the same way, or with the same speed.  Zucker focuses on the themes of memory, forgiveness, and morals, tying them together in a way that adroitly notes the ways in which the erasure of memory – forgetting – may be crucial to forgiveness. Ernst Renan, of course, made the same point regarding nationalism over 100 years ago, pointing out that a French person could only become part of the French nation by forgetting the terribly cruelty visiting upon their previous identities and selves (Albigensians, e.g., of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre). Examination of how morality is constructed, transgressed against, and recalled for the next generation – to put it briefly, how collective moral continuity is reproduced – are at the core of her examination.

A few things of particular note in this book: O-Thmaa is a ‘highland Khmer’ village.  This fact should attract the interest of anyone who studies mainland Southeast Asia. The supposedly great divide between lowlanders and highlanders has long been a staple of studies of Southeast Asia. Lowlanders tend to view themselves as Buddhist, rice-growing, and ‘civilized,’ opposed to highlanders, seen as Non-Buddhist, swidden agriculturalists, and ‘savage.’ Like Nicola Tannenbaum’s famous book, Who can protect against the world?: Power-protection and Buddhism in Shan Worldviewthen, Zucker’s book looks a a relatively anomalous group of people, who are highlanders, but ethnically identify as (Khmer). Zucker’s ethnography adds useful and important information to our knowledge of communities in such locations. The fluid ethnic identity of Cambodians is on display, as people early on discuss how they ‘used to be Chong or Suoy,’ but are now Khmer, or even “Pure Khmer.”

And then there are the personalities. From Yeay Khieu to Ta Kam, the personalities of the village – especially the elders – are brought to life. This is a real pleasure of the book.  Yeay Khieu embodies a sort of constant good cheer and perseverance, recalling the old ways, and telling stories with indefatigable good nature. Ta Kam is a considerably more ambiguous character – a local who no longer lives in the community, the villagers of O-Thmaa say he was a Khmer Rouge village chief, and caused the deaths of many in the village. By the end of the book he has returned to live in O-Thmaa.

There are wonderful moments in this book – especially wonderful moments for me were the chapter on commensality and the transgressive bonding over taboo foods and liquor, and reflections on the ways in which the community interacts with, and maps onto its landscape, the ideas of the wilderness, and its amoral qualities.  Against the wilderness, the village becomes the opportunity for the recreation of social possibility.

Zucker is careful not to extend her arguments too far, but does engage usefully with two broad camps of thought regarding the continuing effects of the Khmer Rouge era.  She notes that some argue that Khmer society was nearly completely broken by the Khmer Rouge, while others argue that Khmer Society has recovered and begin to re-institute itself without too much interruption.  Zucker uses these two camps of thought to discuss her example, but refrains from explicitly claiming that her example could be used to reform these camps.

In all, this is an excellent book, and highly recommend to Cambodianists.  It’s clearly written, accessible to experts and undergraduates alike, and makes excellent points in a clear manner, all while introducing the reader to highland Khmer Cambodia.

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