Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898
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 Royal Way and eventually come upon the coveted sculptures, managing to load them on their carts.
During the night, however, their guide, Svay, and the cart drivers abandon them. Getting a new guide locally, but now having to drive the carts themselves, Perken, Claude, and Xa press on, with Perken still determined to find Grabot. A deserter from the army, Grabot had also sought to escape from the conformism of European life, expecting to realize in Asia his sexual fantasies and dreams of political power. Because the new guide is unfamiliar with the itinerary that the expedition had planned to follow, in order to reach Grabot the party must now traverse territory inhabited by the hostile Stieng tribes.
With the help of a Cambodian slave, Claude and Perken find Grabot in the hut of a Stieng village. Grabot has been blinded by his captors and is nothing but a slave himself, attached to a mill wheel that he circles like a beast of burden. Threatened by the tribesmen, who surround them, Claude and Perken nevertheless succeed in negotiating for their freedom and Grabot’s, but in the process, Perken is wounded in the leg by a Stieng weapon:a bamboo splinter. From a Siamese town, Perken sends a telegram to the Siamese government reporting his encounter with the Stiengs. By now his wound, aggravated by the additional travel, has become infected, and his condition is diagnosed as hopeless.
Despite Perken’s physical state, the expedition heads for Laos, which Perken considers to be “his” country, since he enjoys enormous political influence there. Claude has abandoned the sculptures in order to go with him. They reach a Laotian village, where Perken hopes to receive the assistance of Savan, a local chief. At the same time, the Stiengs are attempting to invest the village, aware that Perken is there. After having released Grabot, who was sent on to a Bangkok hospital, the tribesmen have been chased from their village and pursued by the soldiers dispatched in response to Perken’s telegram. Perken sadly suspects that the punitive Siamese action may have an ulterior motive: to occupy militarily the whole of the unpacified region. Savan arrives for the meeting with Perken, but two Laotians who accompany him suddenly aim their rifles at Perken, blaming him for the presence of the Stiengs. Perken shoots first and kills them. He senses Savan’s indifference, however, and notices that the chief, like Claude, looks at him as if he were already dead.
Claude and Perken set out for the mountains of northern Laos, whose chiefs Perken believes to be more loyal to him than is Savan. Close to death, Perken meditates on the solitude of dying and the need to make death a lucid individual experience. Even as Claude contemplates with compassion the agony of his friend, the Frenchman is permeated by a sense of his own ardent attachment to life. As Perken dies, Claude, in a desperate fraternal gesture, puts his arms around him, but Perken looks at Claude as if he were a being from another world.
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