(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The title of the novel refers to the route which links the ancient Cambodian city of Angkor and the lake region with the Me Nan river basin in central Siam. Claude Vannec, a young French archaeologist sent on a mission by his government, is drawn to the exploration of this route by a dual desire: to examine the archaeological treasures to be found along it and to profit from the sale of his discoveries. When he meets, in a Djibouti brothel, a Dutch adventurer by the name of Perken and later travels with him by ship to Singapore, Claude becomes convinced that he has found, in this older man, the ideal companion for his venture. Perken is a person around whom a legend has developed, because he has begun to create a kingdom in unpacified Laos. He views Claude’s mission as a means of securing money for the purchase of machine guns in order to pursue his objective. Admiring Perken’s scorn for convention and love of action, which reminds him of his revered grandfather’s outlook on life, Claude discovers that he himself shares with Perken an obsession with death—not as a negative motivation but as a stimulus for savoring the exaltation of life.

Taking leave of Perken in Singapore, after having arranged to meet him later in Phnom Penh in order to organize their expedition, Claude continues on to the French Institute in Saigon and to the bungalow of the Deputy Resident in Siem-Reap to seek assistance for his undertaking. Both the director of the French Institute, Albert Rameges, and the Deputy Resident try to dissuade Claude from making the trip into the jungle.

Undeterred, Claude and Perken set out on their adventure. Their party includes a guide; a male servant called Xa; and Svay, a Cambodian. The latter has been sent by the Deputy Resident ostensibly to recruit drivers for the carts which are to transport the archaeological treasures but his real assignment is to spy on the expedition. Perken’s plan is to accompany Claude to the Royal Way and then to make a detour through the unpacified area nearby where a former comrade of his, Grabot, is reported to have disappeared. Battling the heat and the oppressive plant and animal life of the jungle, the adventurers reach the...

(The entire section is 898 words.)