Book Reviews

Crossing Three Wildernesses by
U Sam Oeur

Coffee House Press

Cambodia, U Sam Oeur explains, is a land of dreams and spirits, haunted by its history. His autobiography preserves 70 years of his country’s turbulent history, from the days of French colonialism through the horror of the Khmer Rouge, and gives a colorful depiction of a culture that was almost destroyed by the regime of Pol Pot.

U Sam Oeur’s life is extraordinary, if not mythic. Born a farmer’s son in 1936, he began his education as a naked schoolboy in a country village, and finished with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Iowa. After living in the US for seven years, he returned to Cambodia in 1968, married his fiancĂ©e who had waited for him to come home, and put his poetry aside to become a successful businessman and politician. He served as a delegate to the UN months before the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and the horror of the Pol Pot years began.

This is one of the few accounts written by an adult survivor of that era, and it is an amazing document, filled with the details of daily living, punctuated by the "three wildernesses" of disease, starvation, and execution. "Living as a cipher," erasing his past, drawing on his rural background to keep himself, his wife, and his son alive, U Sam Oeur credits their survival to the advice and protection of guardian spirits who have been a vivid presence in his life.

After the Vietnamese invasion toppled the regime of the Khmer Rouge and U Sam Oeur was able to return with his family to his house in Phnom Penh, all that remained of his former life was a page torn from a volume of Emily Dickinson. "The survival of that page seemed miraculous at the time," and he keeps this with his own poetry, in Texas, where he now lives, writes, and translates Walt Whitman into Khmer.

The beauty of this book lies in its detail and its candor: the meticulous description of a small community of rice farmers showing what Cambodia lost during the close of the last century; the horrifying story of the Khmer Rouge evacuation of Phnom Penh when U Sam Oeur had to pass by a dying, disemboweled relative to keep his immediate family safe; the prophetic dreams and the guiding spirits that kept him, his wife, and his son alive in a time when their country was filled with killing fields. His most personally unsparing account is of the period when Cambodia, freed by Vietnam, became a satellite of that country and he no longer had to feign ignorance to survive. Using poetry as protest, he spoke out against communism, lost his comfortable government position, and became a drunk, reciting his poetry in a rice wine shack.

The amazing and often terrible odyssey of U Sam Oeur mirrors the history of Cambodia. His autobiography illuminates his country, revealing it in a way that it has never been shown before.

Reviewed by Janet Brown