Although it is fiction, this story is based upon the experiences of the poverty-stricken individuals who lived and earned their livings at the largest municipal garbage dump in Cambodia, Stung Meanchey. It describes a life of courage and fortitude in the face of abject hardship and privation. Since the production of the documentary by the author’s brother, the dump has been closed, but you cannot remove the fact that the dump was a wretched place to live. The filth and the stench permeated the homes which were built from scraps. They had no solid construction or protection from the elements or disease. There were no doors, no locks and no protection from the roving gangs that robbed and preyed upon the poor pickers. To have to sort through that garbage, fearful of falling into toxic waste, being run over by a garbage truck, being infected by the bacteria that must have lived in the environs, or being attacked by the vermin that crawled through it, to say nothing of what the smell might be like in that place, is beyond my ken and beyond the expectations of normal people in developed countries. In our wildest imagination and nightmares, we could not reproduce such a world order.
This story was imagined with actual facts describing the way the inhabitants lived and struggled, trying to manage day to day, trying to bring up a family, maintaining health, “hearth and home” in what passed for life in that appalling atmosphere. They survived by searching through the detritus of other people’s lives, picking out the plastic and metal and other substances that they thought had value. Then they sold their “bounty” for a pittance if they weren’t beaten before they got to the buyers. They had no creature comforts or modern conveniences. What they had was each other.
In the midst of all that despair, they also held on to hope. One of the messages of the book that came through loud and clear was that it was not what material advances one made in life, but rather, how one lived life that was important.
The rent collector, Sopeap Sin was a drunk. She was a hard and seemingly unfeeling woman, totally lacking compassion. She collected the rent and brooked no excuses. When Sang Ly’s husband Ki was beaten, robbed and severely wounded, they had no rent money. As Sopeap demanded her money and made threats to evict them from this “paradise”, she happened to look around the home. Her eyes lit upon a book, an odd sight, indeed, in this wasteland. She was suddenly emotionally overcome. The book obviously had special meaning for her. When she left, she took the book with her.
When Sang Ly realized that Sopeap could probably read, she made a deal with her to teach her how to read. She would then teach her own son, hopefully providing him with a ticket off the “mountain” of Stung Meanchey. She hoped that her son, who was often ill, would improve his lot in life and someday get well, enabling him to live a more productive life in the city.
Although the subject explored in this book is grave and really heart-rending, the story is told with such a light touch of humor and a simple common sense approach to life, that reading it is not as difficult as one would suppose. However, the reader will be forced to deal with the fact that although no one should have to live under those conditions, these very real people actually did survive in this barbaric lifestyle. It was often all that was available to these poor people. The beauty of the story is that as they lived this way, they actually created a community that worked together in order to survive, and they, often, even shared what little they had and protected each other when they could. They existed as a viable community.
Underlying the larger fictional story is the history of Cambodia’s political struggles. The brutal, uneducated masses belonging to the Khmer Rouge, rose to power and quickly set about randomly murdering all those they encountered who were educated, successful, productive, and well-to-do. They did not believe in anything but the principal of working the land. The rice crop would sustain them all. Such revolutions always fail. It is almost impossible for a society to simply live off the land without some kind of greater organization, governed by something other than the principal of control by the ignorant who maintain it through violence, cruelty and brutality. The life of Sopeap Sin, an educated teacher, was utterly changed with their rise to power. In her current life as the rent collector, she drinks to excess to escape from her memories of the horror she lived through under the rule of the Khmer Rouge barbarians.
The story is like a universal parable contrasting good vs. evil, hope vs. desperation. For the most part, the characters treated each other with kindness and offered advice to each other with statements that sounded much like proverbs, basic simple truths that explained life and the circumstances surrounding their experiences. Although uneducated, they were wise in their understanding of what made life worth living. Of course, the unattainable accumulation of luxuries was never a consideration, although they did dream of a better life. Subsistence and survival, love and family, community and their social order took precedence over everything else. When they were faced with danger, when the innocent were victims, they came together to protect each other and their “way of life”.
The references to literature, with the quotes and stories from famous authors, added a magical quality to the tale. The messages wrought, from each piece presented, were sincere and meaningful. They representing universal concepts. The story of Moby Dick was one of the examples used. Using literature as the tool, with simple explanations, life was explored and explained, and the value of thinking things through and learning on one’s own from experience and mistakes, was illustrated. The Cambodian folk tales, and others, like folk tales from most cultures, opened a window on the life of the simple citizens who eked out their existence in the dump and in the small surrounding subdivisions that provided a bit more structure and convenience. Sadly, the story of their subsistence is commonplace in many third world countries.
The history of Cambodia was traced through the stories so that within each chapter, there were stories and messages within the larger story. The rent collector was so much more than the tale of Sang Ly, Sopeap Sin and the garbage pickers. The tale imparted a wonderful message about the value of an education and the enduring value of literature. Reading, learning and broadening her mind through the information gleaned in the books, opened doors for Sang Ly. It provided hope for the future, for herself and others.
The people in Sang Ly’s life were largely gentle. They lived off the wasteland, surviving in the only way they could in the face of a world which offered them nothing but the dump, a place where people threw away the things that meant nothing to them, and yet meant everything to those that lived in Stung Meanchey, who existed because of that very garbage. What made the story most powerful for me was the fact that the families featured were real, and this was the limited life they lived, all the while maintaining a happy outlook and a hopeful aspect.