The Cambodian Book of the Dead, an novel excerpt by Tom Vater

Tom Vater, author of Asian Noir

Noir Nation invited Tom Vater, a writer of Asian Noir, to share an excerpt from his first novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, now available on Amazon.The novel concerns a German detective named Maier who travels to Cambodia, a country re-emerging from a half century of war, genocide, famine and cultural collapse, to find the heir to a Hamburg coffee empire.

His search for the young coffee magnate leads into the darkest corners of the country’s history and back in time, through the communist revolution to the White Spider, a Nazi war criminal who hides amongst the detritus of another nation’s collapse and reigns over an ancient Khmer temple deep in the jungles of Cambodia.

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 The Hangman’s Boudoir

“Were you ever married?”

Lorenz smiled happily. The young fighting girls had cleared some of the overgrown garden behind the casino. Carissa, Maier and the White Spider sat in wheelchairs in the morning sun. The view across the Gulf of Thailand was gorgeous, the ridges of islands in the distance half submerged in clouds, the water placid and calm.

“Now, Maier, now we are getting closer to each other. Your critical, well-structured thinking is coming into play. Perhaps this is your true calling. Perhaps you lived your entire life in preparation for this moment. Now you are asking the questions that a good biographer would think of. You are beginning to dig for the morsels of information that lie buried between the lines of the official version – exactly the things that make a man what he is. You are writing my testament.”

Maier had turned his notes into prose during the night. He was no poet, but he weighed every word. The fear that the little shrimps would amputate Carissa’s legs if he did not produce, sat deep in his bones. To avoid this scenario, he needed to write like a Nobel winner.

Maier’s most difficult assignment had only just started.

“I was married twice. I met my first wife in Croatia in 1942. She worked in a women’s camp, in which I was employed as representative of the Reich. I was very young, still almost a teenager. Her father was a German, her mother from Croatia. I could never have married her back in Germany. She was ten years older than me. We were married by the camp commander. As I said, I was young. And I had no urge, like many of my colleagues, to rape the female inmates. They were too sick, and anyway, that kind of thing stood everything on its head. My mission and my ideological convictions stood in the way of that kind of thing. We were trying to get rid of these people. A few months into the marriage, I was told that my wife was protecting one of the inmates.

She had married me in order to save her friend, perhaps her lover, perhaps a dissident. My wife even told me in which part of the camp her friend was housed. She never really thought about what kind of a man she had married. Isn’t that strange? I did not bother finding out who her friend was.”

The White Spider sat facing Maier, eyes glazed over, drifting away through the memories of his youth. Maier said nothing. He had opened a dark door in the White Spider’s head. He hoped he would not drown in the flood of memories that was pouring out.

He was the biographer of death.

“Though she was older than me, she had a much lower rank. The next day I went to visit the camp commander. I told him the truth. At the same time I informed the SS in Zagreb. The commander would not have agreed to my suggestions without pressure from the outside. As I said, I was still young.”

Maier took notes, in direct speech. He would rewrite the text later.

Somehow.

The White Spider leaned forward and brushed his old thin hand through Carissa’s white hair. The journalist recoiled from the pale, skinny fingers and looked past him, her gaze fixed.

“Yes, Maier, women. I learned early. If you really want to achieve something in life you will have to do without some things, some circumstances and even relationships, which we take for granted, which we feel we have a right to, simply because we are alive. But it’s not like that. Man has no right. He takes it. Think of what will happen to the world if we let everybody reproduce, on and on and on. The lack of natural resources, our environmental vandalism, climate change, the little wars in the developing world: all results of our irrational attitude towards reproduction. One day this will bring us down. I don’t care much. I won’t be around to see it. But think about it. In China, the government tries to control population growth by passing laws. It doesn’t work, because the system is so corrupt, but in principle, the Chinese are on the mark.”

“What was your first wife’s name?”

The White Spider looked at Maier directly. The question had brought him back from his philosophical meanderings.

“Take notes, Maier, this was one of the key events in my life. I remember exactly how I stepped into my office that morning, after talking to the commander. The day is so clear in my memory, as if it had all happened yesterday. It was a bloody cold day. Sixty inmates had frozen to death the previous night. My wife was a guard in a place called Stara Gradiška, the women’s camp of Jasenovac. Her brother worked with her. He was really a nice man. But he had no ideology. He was an opportunist. A typical Croatian. I ordered two other Croatian guards into the office, very reliable men. Then I had her brother called. His name was Miroslav. I told him that my wife had been cheating me. Of course, he tried to defend his sister. He knew exactly what it was all about. My two helpers garrotted him right in front of my desk. My secretary passed out.”

The old German had gotten so excited he was out of breath and now coughed quietly into a white handkerchief.

“Take notes, Maier. I am in the mood to have the odd toe removed from your girlfriend’s foot. My girls never get enough practice. The visit of the Japanese collector was a rare opportunity to simulate the conditions of a field hospital in a combat situation.”

Maier continued to write in silence. He did not dare to look across at Carissa. Lorenz looked at the detective, his eyes filled with expectation. Maier swallowed.

“You did not tell me your first wife’s name.”

“That’s correct, Maier. That’s how it goes when you tell stories. I am getting there. Just a little bit more.”

Maier nodded and briefly glanced past the old German, at life. It was a long way away and he did not belong there. He had taken his place, close to the cold flame of the old white devil.

“I filled in an execution order for the entire block my wife had mentioned. About three hundred women and children. I had the camp commander sign it. The document contained very precise instructions as to how the inmates were to be killed. My wife was ordered to get them to dig their own graves. It was her job to kill them, with a shovel to the back of the head, one by one. After the thirty-eighth execution, Nada shot herself in the head.”

Maier and the White Spider sat, united by the indescribable. Maier looked at his captor and fell through black eyes into the depths of a bottomless ocean. Lorenz grabbed his wrist and smiled gently. “I killed my second wife myself, Maier.”

 

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