NO SELL DEAD – A Tale of Cambodia, by James Jennings, Molecular Press, 2018, 240 pages, $ 15.00
Don’t underestimate the exhaustion of simply surviving a regime like Democratic Kampuchea. You are physically spent, but mentally and spiritually drained as well. The mind has no time for complications, dual loyalties, cover stories, anything like that. (p. 238)
Lukas Bellwether had a career behind him as an international criminal lawyer. Not such a long career, but long enough to have set himself up with London’s world consultants and experts who get invited to international legal gatherings. Dermott Vann was a senior conference interpreter. This was not the first time that the two friends had met for dinner during a global congress.
Thus, we are introduced to the protagonist and one of the many multi-dimensional characters in this Cambodian crime fiction, which is as multifaceted as Cambodian culture itself. As for the story, here’s a tease: The not-so-extraordinary international criminal lawyer Lukas Bellwether runs into Dermott Vann, a senior interpreter, at a conference in Yangon. Bellwether, who at this stage of his career is more of a conference lecturer (self-importantly fancied as consultant – another one of those canny nuances), is there to make a presentation. Vann is there to interpret. When they occasionally meet at conferences, they customarily indulge in drinks and dinner to catch up. Only this time, Vann unexpectedly goes into convulsions as they stroll the streets of Yangon. Death by poison. Bellwether is off to find the truth.
NO SELL DEAD is a fantastic read. With economical prose, a keen eye for detail, a measured rendition of the events before, during, and after the Pol Pot regime, and with an uncannily nuanced appreciation of Khmer culture, James Jennings serves up an engrossing novel that should especially delight anyone who has been involved in or acquainted with the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts, and most notably, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
And who better to tell this story than an insider. Jennings is an accomplished interpreter of extensive experience before the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts. For several years, he was the chief interpreter at the ECCC. Widely traveled, he lived for several years in Yangon, Myanmar, where part of the story takes place. Armed with his insider’s knowledge and take on what lawyers do at these courts, the disillusionment of purpose experienced by the once naïve and idealistic lawyers who restlessly bounce from tribunal to tribunal, from prosecution to defense, chasing a delusional high that disappointingly, if not predictably, eludes.
But where Jennings really delivers is in his nuanced portrayal of Cambodia and the Cambodians: the Khmer culture, the Cambodian way of thinking, the Cambodian culinary delights (and peculiarities), the baggage carried by the survivors of Democratic Kampuchea due to their personal experiences and real or perceived memories, which, in no small measure, inescapably affect their mindset and survival instincts that shape their day-to-day affairs (even though very rarely referenced), and more. One could live in Cambodia for years working with Cambodians and not acquire or even come close to appreciating many of the observations Jennings makes.
No sentimentalist, he evenhandedly exposes the characters’ weaknesses, obsessions, delusions, and contradictions. Truth, depending on circumstances (and cultures), is a relative commodity, with lies and demi-lies effortlessly told reflexively and reflectively, with no one character – whether from the East or the West – being immune to these human frailties and predisposition. Through the characters and their experiences, their thoughts and their actions, Jennings transports us to Cambodia, Myanmar, the US, and Europe, keeping us in suspense, occasionally surprising us, and continually edifying us.
Jennings is not just a talented interpreter and an exceptional writer, but also a fine storyteller.
I highly recommend NO SELL DEAD.
P.S. Jennings now resides in Portugal, the scene of his new political thriller, HOUSE OF LUSITANIA.
AN ASIDE: In Praise of Interpreters and Translators
No international(ized) criminal tribunal or court could function without the translators and interpreters. It never ceases to amaze me how incredibly talented and meticulous they are in capturing not just the language but also the intonations – the spirit, if you will, of that which is being conveyed by the speakers. It is a demanding and exhausting job to be sitting in on proceedings doing simultaneous or near simultaneous interpretations with precision, when witnesses as well as the lawyers, on all sides, are prone to meandering inarticulately or even unintelligibly. Were that not challenging enough, when judges misspeak or are caught making faux pas, reflexively many of them tend to blame the interpreters.
Yet, despite the challenges they face every day when in the booth interpreting (translators are constantly working under challenging deadlines), the value of the interpreters and translators in making proceedings and trials possible is rarely fully recognized. Nor do many of us who appear in the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts spend much time socializing with them, or even getting to know them. We either take them for granted (after all they are not “learned” like us), or we are simply too fixated on our own work and self-importance.
James Jennings’ NO SELL DEAD is a good illustration of just how talented these interpreters and translators are. When not working, they are generally involved in intellectual pursuits such as learning the local language, history and culture, attending cultural events, traveling to have a better sense of the lay of the land where critical events occurred, and yes, writing.
So, for the unsung and often unrecognized heroes of the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts, the indefatigable interpreters and translators, hats off to you.