Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne
09/05/15, The Guardian
With the first two of his three elegant, stylish and ambiguous novels – The Forgiven in 2012, The Ballad of a Small Player last year, and now Hunters in the Dark – Lawrence Osborne elicited comparisons to Greene, Waugh, Salter, Bowles, among others. He seems to be a revenant from a species that has become almost extinct, paradoxically enough, after the triumph of globalisation – the traveller (or travel-writer)-novelist. Indeed, Osborne describes himself as having led ‘a nomadic life’, living in Paris, New York City, Mexico, Istanbul and Bangkok. The novels reflect this: The Forgiven is set in Morocco, Ballad in the gambling dens of Macau, Hunters in the Dark in Cambodia; all feature Westerners running up against, or adrift in, cultures that remain opaque to them. For Osborne, the mysteriousness of these non-Western cultures is not an excuse for setting out to satisfying anew the jaded Occidental appetite for exoticism. Instead, he seems to be engaged in turning inside out, in startling ways, that old Jamesian theme of the confrontation of old and new worlds, of innocence versus experience, except that the new world here is the European one, ‘dying on its feet of torpor and smugness and debt’, from which Osborne’s protagonists are in full flight.
One such figure is the twenty-eight-year old Englishman, Robert, the central character of Hunters in the Dark. A schoolteacher in the tiny Sussex village of Elmer, Robert knows that his provincial English life is a cul-de-sac. The anomie that afflicts him is really despair at the pettiness and claustrophobia of England, at ‘a way of life that justified itself as being the pinnacle of freedom, but [which] had not come up with an alternative reason for existing once the freedom had been sucked out of it’. He leaves for Thailand, slowly settling into the decision not to return to that hated old life. The novel opens with Robert crossing over the border to Cambodia and gambling with the last of his small sum of money to win two thousand dollars. This stroke of luck sets into motion an entire plot machinery that comes to resemble a Newton’s cradle, one sphere colliding with another and transferring its energy and momentum to it, and so on, in a long, complex series.
Robert hires a driver, Ouksa, to take him around the sights and before long they run into a young American man, Simon Beaucamp, urbane, well-dressed, handsome. Robert moves out of the flophouse in which he is staying and moves into the American’s beautiful house on the river, despite warnings from Ouksa. What happens next is best not revealed: although mining the generic surface of the thriller form with extraordinary and unexpected detonations that extend the horizons of that genre, Osborne’s book is a thriller, on one level, so it wouldn’t do to rob readers of the pleasures that it offers.
Robert finds himself in Phnom Penh, without any of his belongings, including his bag, his passport and his winnings. Another stroke of luck occurs: he is engaged as an English tutor to a beautiful young Khmer woman, Sophal, the daughter of the rich Dr Sar, but Robert decides to call himself Simon Beaucamp in this new life. Meanwhile, the real Simon resurfaces in another strand of the story; in this, we’ll encounter the chilling and amoral Davuth, a policeman who was a killer and torturer in the Pol Pot regime, with a key role to play in the plot. Ouksa, too, will resurface, as will Simon’s Khmer girlfriend, Sothea; both are crucial players in the story.
Dramatic irony, used sharply by Osborne, keeps the narrative edgy and gripping, but it is the meditation on luck, or chance, and the irrational, carried over from his previous novel, that give Hunters its underpinning of meaning. Robert is a deeply innocent man in an ancient land that has emerged from a period of immense trauma and while his innocence is both alluring and dangerous, his rationalist European mentality is woefully unequipped to read a culture that places such great store on the irrational – on signs, omens, dreams, on the sixth sense, on ghosts and spirits; in short, everything that the European Enlightenment taught the Western world order to deride and debunk.
As events remain inexplicable to him throughout, Robert retains his ‘beautifully ignorant and innocent’ self to the very end, but Osborne gives a sense of erosion of his European certainties: ‘Karma swirled around all things, lending them destinies over which mere desire had no control. It made one’s little calculations irrelevant.’ It is a serious curtailment of the rationalist individualism that motors Western life and has given rise, Osborne implies, to the drift and desperation of Robert’s generation. In fact, that Newton’s cradle of several unrelated lives brought into proximity by chance is the working out, on the level of plot, of the vector produced by several colliding systems of belief – Buddhist dhamma, ‘superstition’, premonition, rationalism, even the teachings of the dreaded Angkar that had resulted in one of the worst genocides of the last century. Accordingly, recurrent images, tropes, metaphors of the irrational and portentous – a colony of bats, disturbed, rising up as one black mass; ghosts; astonishing cloud formations – provide a remarkable spine of coherence to the novel. Written with unfailing precision and beauty, Hunters in the Dark stakes out territory different from all the writers to whom Osborne has been compared.