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|| The eyes of Bayon

Ep. 1/3 – Happy Birthday Vannak

Loïc Barrière

By Loïc Barrière

Lire en français (FR) - version originale

It's strange to stay cloistered in this room when the weather is so nice. I’m not the only one though. The whole of France might be locked up. There are rumors of a curfew.


On the other side of my bedroom door, I can hear them conferring in low voices. Maybe I'm overreacting a bit. Unnecessary precautions. It’s fine that I don't kiss them, but I could at least have had lunch with them. After all, it is my birthday.
It was my brother-in-law who came up with the idea to Facetime. Jules calls me and, at the end of my bed, I watch them dipping their spring rolls in sauce. Vientiane wanted to bring me something to eat in my room. The tone of my voice was rather curt. "No way. You put them in front of the door, you step back, and I take them."
The cake, full of cream and shiny strawberries. The candles, flickering on my tiny screen. The traditional Happy Birthday, followed by my first name, Vannak. The excitement of the children. My sister's thumbs up, the smiles. I kill the mood a bit by demanding no one blows on the cake for me, not my father, not even the children. Jules removes the lit candles one by one. We pretend everything is normal. They put carefully wrapped presents before my door. The whole family has gathered in the hallway. "Back up a little." I'm trying to film myself tearing the plastic off the DVD ‘Diamond Island,’ the wonderful film by Davy Chou, which I went to see in Paris when it came out. Another surprise, a photo book about the temples of Angkor. Gifts to prepare me for my trip, hopefully in October, for the Water Festival.
When I retrieved my piece of cake in the doorway, I had the impression of being in one of those films where you see a prisoner seizing the bowl held out by his jailer.


It's strange to stay cloistered in this room when the weather is so nice. I’m not the only one though. The whole of France might be locked up. There are rumors of a curfew.
The wallpaper is faded, my shelves are crowded with books and newspaper articles. At the place where I’ll move soon, the walls will be salmon-colored. I’ll have an office. I’ll buy an armchair at Ikea, with a lamp to read in the evening.
I've known this little room all my life. The view isn’t bad. The square seemed immense to me, as a kid. The grocery store, open until 10 pm, has changed owners several times. There are these guys in the shadows until dawn seemingly watching people come and go. A pharmacy at the end of the street where the owner was murdered just before closing one Saturday in November. It was my sister who convinced me to buy an apartment. I hadn't really thought about it, but I couldn't really picture myself, once my father had left, living all alone in a council apartment that was meant to house a family
Goodbye Val d'Oise, hello Seine-et-Marne. I'm going to live in a very pretty new town, surrounded by lakes. I laughed when I learned that there was a Tang Frères and a Paris Store. My sister told me: "If you finally find your soulmate, you'll have all the schools five minutes away from your house!" Vientiane and Jules live in a big house in a nearby village. I’ll be able to see their kids more often. I’m relieved my father is going to live with them.


The president finally announced the lockdown of the entire population. No curfew but restrictions, travel permits, remote working.
This is the first time I dare to take sick leave. With the cough I have, I would surely be treated like a leper at the office! However, I don't know if I have it, the virus, since they hardly test anyone. On TV, the doctors advise against cough syrup. Ventolin doesn't calm me. I’m reduced to taking Doliprane, which they have started to ration. I feel a bit abandoned.

I've stopped listening to the radio, the TV. Too anxiety-provoking, too repetitive. Not much interests me anymore.
This discomfort in my chest is starting to worry me but I don’t tell my father about it, he is already alarmed by my uncontrollable cough. I would like to be a silent patient. But I cough, I spit, I blow my nose. I've only had asthma for a year. Until now, I’ve been in perfect health. The doctor says the asthma came because of the pollution.
Vientiane is texting me several times a day. I reassure her. She says she’ll come by and give me a thermometer. In the bedroom, I’m bored. I finally open the books I ordered on Amazon: Father Ponchaud's story about the Khmer Rouge, ‘The life of Buddha’ by Thich Nat Hahn, the novel by Marguerite Duras set in Cambodia.
I took an interest in my parents' country rather late. If it wasn't for Charlotte, maybe I wouldn't have been whipped into a frenzy of reading about Cambodia. It was just before the birth of Léa, my sister's eldest daughter. I remember that first conversation with Charlotte in a tapas bar, among mutual friends. She was bombarding me with questions about Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge, Angkor Wat, but I was unable to answer with anything but generalities. I was stung to the quick. Back home, I surfed through the INA archives, I browsed dozens of articles. I wanted to be perfect for our second date. I tried to ask my father about his life during the Khmer Rouge era, about the family's flight, the few months spent in a refugee camp. A brick wall. He had nothing to tell me. Not because he doesn't remember or because he’s trying to hide things, but that's the way it is — my father doesn't like to talk. The little I know about those years, I owe it to older cousins, an aunt and an uncle, but my thirst for knowledge was never completely satisfied because they are stingy with details. Sometime later, Charlotte took me to see two plays, Cambodge me Voici ("Cambodia Here I Am") and the Théâtre du Soleil, performed by artists from Cambodia in Khmer. And there I learned and understood quite a few things. I felt that I belonged to a history that had never been so clearly told to me before.
One of the books that moved me the most was Christian Mey's L’Abnégation de ma Cambodgienne("The Self-Sacrifice of my Cambodian Woman"), the true story of a young Khmer who grew up in the Atlantic Pyrenees. The child responds to humiliation with violence but ends up becoming strong through rugby. I cried. Maybe because his mother's death reminded me of mine’s. Maybe also because I wasn't really aware of what my parents had endured in France before. Their loneliness, their poverty. Not long ago, upon seeing Vientiane fixing one of my hems with her sewing machine, I suddenly remembered that my mother used to do sewing work when I was little, at night, for a man who would come to pick up the clothes just as we were leaving for school. The haunting sound comforted me. Apparently she did this for years, with the professional Singer sewing machine that Vientiane later learned to use.

Maybe I'm really going to die ? It's getting harder and harder to breathe. But I don't want to go to the hospital. I remember my mother in her room, her smile that was meant to reassure me, her hand in my hair. And that pungent smell that followed me for a long time. But no, I can't die. It's not in my plans. A few weeks ago, I was visiting apartments with my sister. Vientiane didn't let herself be fooled by real estate agents. We found a three-room apartment with a nice balcony. Vientiane did not find any flaw with it, but when she demanded a discount, I was afraid it slip through my fingers. I could already picture myself living there, with geraniums, jasmine, maybe even an olive tree. The sales agreement signed, I returned twice, after work, to get to know the neighborhood. The RER station built on a pond, the swans, the ducks, the book box. My sister was happy for me. "I could bring you something to eat from time to time. I’ll make you lok lak rice, caramel pork." Before Charlotte, I dated a different woman. It was the time when I'd moved back with my father, after I was laid off. I invited her to our place. When she saw the blocks of flats, the squatters in the lobby, she got scared. I guess that's not why she left me, but after that I never dared to invite a girl to my house again.

No sleep all night. Too much trouble breathing. Terrible anxieties. I don't know whether there is something wrong with my mind or with my body. I took some ventolin. I felt a little better, but it didn't last. Fucking pollution. Fucking factory waste, fucking cars! Last summer's heat wave nearly got me, the hand rail in the bus was so hot! My lungs were on fire.
I sit on my bed with the book about Angkor on my lap. This room must be a nest of germs. I want to air out the room but as soon as I stand up, I get dizzy. The square is closed. Nobody in the street. Every noon, with her certificate, my sister comes to drop off meals for my father and me. Under the same roof, we live separate lives. I only leave my room to go to the bathroom or the toilet. I warn my father in advance, so that he can leave. I am a grenade with its pin pulled.
I browse on Facebook. I can't get interested in what people are saying, in their indignations, or their anxieties. I looked for Charlotte among my contacts. She doesn't post much. I would like to tell her about this trip to Cambodia I’ll take at the end of the year. But what's the point of writing to her? We’re no longer in contact since she met some guy and had a child.
I curl up over my painful lungs. Only the images in the book soothe me. I compare the prices of plane tickets. Singapore Airlines? Malaysian Airlines? China Airlines? The borders are more or less closed. No more planes are flying. It seems even pollution is decreasing. Before we were confined, I had found interesting prices at Sovann Voyage. Charlotte left to visit Angkor a few months after our encounter. She had suggested that we go together. I told her I wasn't ready! I was such a fool! I was afraid I would be disappointed. Afraid it would be too late. I had heard that the Khmer soul was disappearing, that the country was being colonized by China, that Buddha had been replaced by the dollar. Charlotte had returned from Cambodia enchanted. She had brought me back a krama, the Khmer scarf, and a small wooden sculpture of the four-faced heads of the Bayon.
In Angkor, she had met a French tourist. It was with him that she had her child.

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About the author

Loïc Barrière
Loïc Barrière
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Loïc Barrière published five novels, among which Rizières sous la lune (Vents d'Ailleurs, 2016), Le roman d'Abd-el-Kader (Les Points sur les I, 2016) and Le Choeur des enfants khmers (Seuil, 2008). He is also a journalist at Radio Orient where he hosts literary and political programs.