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Novel by Cambodia scholar now in English after 92 years

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The cover of The Road of the Strong by George Groslier, a French writer who devoted his life to studying and documenting Cambodia.

Novel by Cambodia scholar now in English after 92 years

The first novel by George Groslier, the French writer who devoted his life to studying and documenting the Kingdom, is finally available in English, 92 years since its publication. The Road of the Strong, or La Route du plus fort, centres around a French administrator tasked with developing the road system in northwest Cambodia, as well as his intertwined fate with car manufacturer Roland Gassin and his wife Hélène.

With Roland staying behind in Vietnam for business, Hélène visits the rural province of Battambang and is soon absorbed by its rural way of life and Cambodian culture – as well as by Ternier himself.

In the novel, Groslier gives a vivid account of the cultural, historical and geographical aspects of Cambodia and its people, providing a truthful look at life in the early 20th century French protectorate, including its Royal Ballet.

“Groslier was a talented artist and in his writing he began painting with words,” said Kent Davis, the publisher and editor of DatAsia Press. “His rich descriptive style added visual depth to all his books, including his non-fiction works.”

The 396-page book also includes maps, 100 illustrations, the complete original 1925 French text, and an essay by Tom Kramer called Colonial Battambang Today.

Davis encountered Groslier’s first novel when he was working with Paul Cravath, an expert on traditional Asian dances, on the project Earth in Flower about the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Davis’s personal mission of bringing forgotten books back to life, combined with his discovery with Cravath, inspired him to translate Groslier’s works, with The Road to the Strong the last of four books published. Kent’s discovery of Groslier’s daughter Nicole, just 20 minutes from his house in Florida, helped in the process of restoring and reprinting the books.

A grant awarded from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2012 allowed Kent to work with translator Pedro Rodríguez on In the Shadow of Angkor – Unknown Temples of Ancient Cambodia, a description of Groslier’s trek in 1913 and 1914 to document the country’s monuments; the novel Return to Clay – A romance of Colonial Cambodia; and Water and Light – A Travel Journal of the Cambodian Mekong, a record of his voyage on the river in 1929.

Groslier was born in and died in Cambodia after spending most of his life in the Kingdom and was the first Western scholar to write extensively about Cambodia’s royal dance tradition, among many other topics.

Like other books by Groslier, though this one is fictional, Davis sees it as an important historical document, which could help to understand the French view of Cambodia and its culture, and to piece together a picture of life in the protectorate.

“For a true understanding of any era, people or culture, the most important accounts come from eyewitnesses who saw and experienced their topics,” he said.

“How familiar is that person with the local culture? Do they speak the language? Groslier spoke Khmer and immersed himself in the culture.”

Henri Copin, a professor of humanities at the University of Nantes and a specialist in French colonial literature, even calls Groslier “a Cambodian Author”.

“Groslier built his fiction on his experience of reality and his vision of the colonial endeavour . . . This affords us a first reading of the novel as the reflection of a certain reality,” Copin writes in the foreword.

“I reread this book many years after discovering it and am struck by the marvelous opportunities it provides to arrange symbols, or even create myths, that coexist with their differences, and their contradictions, and their contrary meanings,” he added. “Road versus path. Civilisation versus nature. Progress versus liberty.”

The Road of the Strong: A Romance of Colonial Cambodia (396 pages) can be purchased on Amazon.com for $24.95.

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