The Specters of Mekong: The Interruptions of Historical and (Trans)National Hauntologies in Paul Adirex’s Mekong
Laurence Marvin S. Castillo
The Mekong River (literally ‘Mother of Rivers’) winds across the Indochinese peninsula like a gigantic serpent, snaking its way from the Tibetan highlands through the provinces of China and entering Southeast Asia through its lower basin. The lower Mekong basin defines the transnational boundaries of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, figuring prominently as the primary water source for the region (Nguyen 4-6). The river’s topographical movement has resulted in unequal water distribution among the nations surrounding it, giving birth to diverse economic adaptation mechanisms among the riparian people settling across territories in the delta. The varying socio-economic dependability of each surrounding nation-state on the spatial trajectory of the riverflow dates back to the ancient times, making the river both nurturer and witness to the transformation of economic-driven water management strategies into mature yet highly-fragmented and localized exercises of political power in the region. As in most civilizations, the river system, in the process, functioned as an artery of political power (Suarez 16).
The river serves as a space that has conceived polysemic texts that narrate the socio-cultural, political and economic evolution of the Southeast Asian region from the pre-colonial period to the present era of globalization — a semantic thickening demonstrated by Derridean hauntology. For Derrida, haunting is a deconstructive event that subverts the hegemony of binary logic, particularly assaulting the ontological dualism of presence versus absence through the interruption of the haunting specter. The specter, a phantom, a ghost which “does not mean to be present” (161), constitutes an ontological paradox as “it is both absent (it cannot be seen) and always there” (Szeman 108), causing the demolition of the ontological binary through the inscription of its presence-in-absence. With its ontologically liminal nature, the specter/ghost/phantom functions as a powerful metaphor in interrogating the linearity of history, as it carries traces of memory and nostalgia, portent and foreboding as interrupters of the temporal present. It haunts and disrupts the timeline, erasing temporal distances and orchestrating the contemporaneous play of past, present and future. Thus, Derrida announces, “time is out of joint; time is disarticulated, dislocated, dislodged” (18). This metatemporal notion of spectrality forwards the radical overthrow of official historiography and the project of “rendering the pursuit of historical objectivity open to constant revision” (Martin 90).
Linking space to the phenomenon of haunting, Szeman asserts that “the figure of the specter is particularly evocative of the space such entities must occupy” (115). Space is necessary to the haunting, as it contains the act of returning (in the case of the spectral past), and serves as the landscape of becoming (for the spectral future). As foregrounded, among others, by Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the chronotope in which space and time are explained as necessarily interdependent, space is the receptacle of temporal interruption, the venue where “what came earlier continues to underpin what follows” (LeFebvre 229).
This essay reads cosmological, political and literary representations of the Mekong as a space permeated with spectral narratives of the past, and phantom discourses of the future. Each ghost haunts, making “itself present not by incarnating itself as flesh (thus becoming prey to ontology), but by taking on various guises” (Szeman 115). Specters of the Mekong arrive in the form of images, stories or memories that interrupt contested claims and visionings of nationhood and history.
Spatial Sacrality and the Serpent Guardian
Crucial to the formation of several cultural imaginings of the Mekong River among its riparian countries is the dominant influence of Indian civilization in the region. While Southeast Asian topography successfully isolated Indian civilization from the similarly evolving culture of China, the Mekong served as the transnational space where earliest trade contacts between Southeast Asia, China and India transpired (Stark 177). Resulting from this, the reputed ‘Indianization’ of Southeast Asia began during the first century AD, with the evolution of most of the lower Mekong basin states drawing much inspiration from Indian theology, particularly Buddhism, while Vietnam solely appropriated Chinese cultural elements in a limited, more elite configuration (Suarez 17).
The widespread influence of Indian culture in the lower basin led to the construction of the Mekong as a sacred Buddhist space. Here, hauntology enters the process of spatial sacrality, in which the space is semantically formed through the haunting of mythological, particularly cosmological, narratives situated before the birth of history. Ancient Southeast Asian cartography was haunted by the narrative of Buddha’s travels, as places were identified and sacralized according to the footprints of Buddha or Buddhapadha (Suarez 37). The Mekong, in particular, assumed locational sacredness within this Southeast Asian Buddhist paradigm, with narratives from Himalayan and Tibetan areas recounting how Lord Buddha sliced into the mountain ranges, letting the waters from the mountain-enclosed lake pass through to create this river system (Hongsuwan 34). A Chinese legend also explained that the Mekong’s characteristically muddy waters came about when Buddha and his followers washed their robes in the river (35).
The Mekong’s locational sacrality was also largely established on the ‘haunting’ of a mythical creature called Naga, a giant serpent said to be the guardian of the river. The serpent is a prominent character in Asian mythology, reputedly originating before the urbanization of the Indo-Gangetic plains, during the time when the forests in the region were inhabited by nomadic forest tribes known collectively as the Austric people. The primitive agrarian activities of these people were always confronted with unknown perils, particularly the attack of venomous snakes. The people then resorted to ritualistic snake-propitiation to exorcise their fear of snakes, a practice which developed into a complex system of snake worship that became dispersed across the region through centuries of recounted oral lore (Hāṇḍā 41-42). The Naga cult found convenient location within the foundations of Buddhism, with the Buddha commonly visually depicted seated on the serpent throne (Wright 90). Nagas are likewise regarded as “keepers of the treasures of Dharma (the Laws of Buddha)” and as water suppliers through the whole of South and Southeast Asia (Huntington & Bangdel 531).
Several narratives have tied down the Mekong with the legendary snake. A particular cosmological narrative explained how the Mekong was formed when two Nagas engaged in a fierce fight over the sharing of food. The snakes were commanded by the Great Sky God to dig the land, creating a path to the ocean. The Naga who dug the Mekong River was announced victor and awarded the golden catfish, or in some other versions, the giant catfish, which explains the exclusive abundance of this species in the river (Hongsuwan 35). Another narrative recounted how Nagas converted by the teachings of Buddha offered to serve as guardians of the sacred river (36). Here, the space clearly becomes haunted by narratives of the cosmological past.
The Mekong’s spatial sacrality has been further legitimized before the eyes of the people through the intrusion of what Mircea Eliade called hierophany. Hierophany (etymologically ‘something sacred shows itself to us’) is a sensory manifestation of the divine, a mysterious interruption of the unnatural into the space of mankind (Eliade 11). Sightings of the sacred serpents, the abundance of the giant catfish, and seasonal (and for the villagers, retributive) Mekong floods provided the people sensory validation of the sacredness of the space. These hierophanies occasioned collective resolves to sanctify the place, prompting the people to erect Buddhist temples adorned with Naga statues around the river and pay their respects to the sacred serpents through sacrifices and celebrations.
Colonial and Postcolonial Geopolitics in the Mekong
While this geocosmological figuration of the Mekong continues to be legitimized by the folk imagination of Southeast Asia, the intrusion of foreign powers in the region has led to the codification of the river as a strategic utilitarian space allowing the expedient facilitation of Western control over the Southeast Asian territory. Initially considering the Mekong as a potential navigable route to penetrate China, Western powers launched colonial expeditions during the late 19th century to penetrate the lower basin, transforming the river into a political waterway. Soon, the river became the site of Franco-British colonial rivalry, as it served as the demarcation line segregating British colonies like Burma from French-occupied areas (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). These European conquests in the region engendered several abortive undertakings to cartograph the topographical features of the mysterious river, which for centuries had been envisioned only in fragmented familiarity by even the native riparian people in the region (Nguyen 21-22). This uncanny resistance of the river to Western cartography disrupted the established logos of Western spatial control — the unmappable river became a specter interrupting the locational organization of colonial mapping.
With the eventual weakening of these colonial powers after decades of dominance, onset of the Second World War, emergence of independent nation-states and rise of intrastate armed conflicts, the river became haunted by the specters of colonial trauma. The space became hybridized by the hauntological semantics of pre-colonial sacralization, the phantoms of colonial conquests and painful memories of Western control, coupled with looming attempts to inscribe the river within the neocolonial blueprint of globalization. These spatial spectralities situated the river into what O’Riley describes as a “suspended condition, in-between because it is symptomatic of an era poised between the traces of an increasingly inoperative colonial history and uncertain transnational forms of hierarchy and oppression” (2). Free from the bondage of the colonial masters, the riparian nations experience the anxiety of forming national identities with the interruptions of these postcolonial hauntings and the ghostly threats of the future. O’Riley thus asks:
How, for instance, does one recover specific occulted colonial histories without participating in the imperialist gesture of appropriation and effacement so related to place, without inadvertently entering into the dynamics of lingering colonial specters in contemporary claims to cultural and national identity? How might one avoid the reinscription or exacerbation of continuing ideological conflicts from the colonial era in the return to sites of imperialist history and memory? (2)
In the project of building their nations, the colonized people have become haunted by the traumas of the colonial past and the spectral dangers of an equally repressive neocolonial future.
One of the crucial postcolonial moments among Asian nations is the creation of what was known as the “Bamboo Curtain,” a politico-ideological divide between anti-colonial communist states and non-communist states in Asia. Consequent of the entry of Cold War politics in Asia, this conflict penetrated the lower basin, with Thailand serving as a bastion of anti-Communism and loyal ally to the United States. During the 1960s, the US government put forward the proposition to create an Asian bank which would supposedly be instrumental in furthering economic development programs in the region and, in the process, serve as the main repository of funding for the establishment of dams and the construction of other projects in the Mekong (Nguyen 120-121). Since the Mekong areas were seen to be strategic positions for interstate linkages among communist movements in the region, this motion, which essentially envisions a US-controlled financial institution in the East, anticipates the eventual heightening of US military presence in the region in order to weaken and repudiate communist aggressions nestled by the lower basin. This penetration of a global power to exorcise the specters of Marx haunting the region is, of course, in the service of globalization, the new world order which installs neoliberalism as the gospel of modern economic activity. This global system, taking the form of transnational capitalism, positions nations in the arena of free market competition, with the West still positioned in the summit of power — a system figuring as a form of post-independence imperialism.
Caught in this neoliberal web is the Mekong. In his book Bounding the Mekong: The Asian Development Bank, China, and Thailand, Jim Glassman elaborates how the currently operational development plan for the Greater Mekong Subregion, a project propelled by the initiative of the Asian Development Bank, has at its core the praxis of globalization in the Mekong basin through regionalization — an ingenious move to establish cooperation among China, Southeast Asia’s formerly socialist states and Thailand, thus exorcising nation-state dissent against transnational capitalism.
Michael Goldman reads the promotion of this development project of the Mekong River through the lens of what he called “green neoliberalism” — the World Bank’s design for intervening in independent state affairs in the East. Green neoliberalism is primarily propelled by the rhetorical fusion of environmental sustainable development and social justice, in response to widespread protests that have forced the World Bank to “come to terms with the environmental and socially-deleterious effects of its projects” (5-6). He added that this alteration to the neoliberal face of World Bank is constituted from the start in the postcolonial capitalist relations built between the East and the West; the intervention into the “undervalued” and “undervalorized” human and natural resources in former colonies is haunted by the Messianic rhetoric of ‘civilizing the savages’ articulated by former colonial masters. But this ‘act of benevolence’ is hounded by capitalist interests, as environmental management becomes the master signifier for profit-oriented exploitation of environmental resources. The neoliberal project of regionalization, which “relies on and is intertwined with state elements,” puts the nation-states in the basin under the control of the master-capitalist powers, transforming the region into “the new battleground for the consolidation of political economic power” (Wong 273, 272). Countries are manipulated as ‘green neoliberalism stewards’ by the World Bank, pitting them against each other in the battle for economic gains from the river, leading to the “intensification of already existing social, political and economic inequalities” (273) as a result of the transnational flow of capital. Reviewing Glassman’s assertion, Wong thus elaborates regionalization as a process “fraught by existing, sometimes long-standing social, political and economic relationships between elite, state and domestic capital classes across the region” — a process parasitically reliant on “existing structures and relationships of political and economic domination […] and on the very social-economic inequalities it aims to address” (272). This order, as haunted by the postcolonial ghosts of class struggles, socio-economic inequality and crises of national formation, becomes manifest in the ensuing conflict among the riparian nations regarding the installation of nation-sponsored hydropower dams in the Mekong, in the massive dislocation of the riparian people, and in the worsening poverty in the region.
Derrida, however, warns that amidst the establishment of neo-capitalism and neoliberalism as the new global order and the perpetuation of anti-communist propaganda, “no disavowal has managed to rid itself of Marx’s ghosts. Hegemony still organizes the repression and thus the confirmation of a haunting. Haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony” (37). While the capitalist system does its very best to exorcise Marx, the threat of a communist future looms over the neoliberal space, as the inegalitarian order breeds the fantasy of a world devoid of oppression and class politics. Contemporary representations of the Mekong River are haunted by these overlapping figurations of geospirituality, colonialism, transnational capitalism and communism. Hierophanies continue to interrupt its globalized riverscape. Villagers continue to report many sightings of these sacred serpents cavorting in its waters.
From being the object of folk veneration, the serpent lore has become transformed by the Western gaze as an exotic artifact that edifies the river as globalized space. A 1973 photograph showing thirty Laos-based American soldiers holding the legendary serpent (later proven to be a dead oarfish) even found extensive circulation in US and European publications (Roberts 211), making the image of the Naga at once a global signifier appropriated by the Western logos for the river. In Thailand, villagers and foreigners gather yearly to witness a centuries-old unexplained phenomenon called bung fai paya nak (Naga fireball) in which mysterious fireballs shoot from the river. These lights are believed by the people as the Naga’s breath. In this case, the spectacle continues to ritualize the sacrality of the river, ushering pre-colonial veneration of the serpent amidst the transnational intrusions of the Western logos. This play of spectralities in the Mekong finds expression not merely in these public spectacles, but also in the realm of the literary imagination, and this will be explored in the following discussions.
The Novelization of Spectralities
In his 1995 English-language adventure novel Mekong, Western-educated Thai politician Pongpol Adireksarn, writing under the Western-sounding pen name Paul Adirex, situated the titular river within the play of the Naga spectrality and the phantom of Western neoliberal intrusion. Its central narrative, which revolves around the investigation of mysterious cases of disappearances that stretch from Laotian precolonial history to the postcolonial present, is set in the construction of a bridge connecting Thailand with Laos, “a gesture of goodwill from the US government […] intended to promote Laos’ economic development, in an effort to create ties with the nineteen-year-old Communist regime” (36). This foregrounds the river as a transnational space crucial to the exorcism of anti-colonial national formations, and at the same time, threatened by the haunting of the nation’s past and the spectral fantasy of a utopic future.
The novel follows the narrative route typical of many postcolonial literary works — the depiction of the collision between the empirical reality of the Western logos and the counter-narrative of the East represented by the logic of the supernatural. Typified by some critics under the nomenclature of magic realism, this literary technique functions to narrativize the discursive clash between the colonized East and the colonizing West. The ethos of this literary trend is regressive, as it intends to draw the limits of Western rationalism and destabilize its totalizing character by positioning it against the repressed reality of the East. As such, the text becomes “a localized region that is métonymic of the post-colonial culture as a whole” (Slemon 20), since it depicts how the people reconstruct their history against the colonial discourse imposed by the West. In Mekong, this reclaiming of national history becomes figured as a hauntological interruption of the supernatural in the colonial space; the remnants of the precolonial past emerge as spectral narratives of the fantastic interrupting the textual space, which is in itself colonized as it is drawn in the language of the colonizer.
The novel’s first part, subtitled “The Past,” archives Laotian national memory starting from the rise of its precolonial kingdoms, the French expedition in the basin, to the intrusion of the Americans as a result of the Vietnam War. This six-chapter prologue practically establishes the concept of karma as the hauntological framework that will govern the interruptions of the specters in the river’s novelistic present. Karma, the Indian civilization’s magisterial contribution to Southeast Asian philosophy, orders humanity’s existence as a chain of cause and effect concretized by the cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth known as samsara. As the antecedent decides the consequence, the past looms over the present and the future as a spectral interruption.
Haunted by Buddhist lore, Mekong constructs the Naga as a retributive karmic entity, a strong believer of Buddha’s teachings who attacks people for their past transgressions (73). Spectral manifestations of the serpent deity permeate the novelistic past — it entered the dream of corrupt Lan Chang emperor Fa Ngum to warn him of the impending doom brought about by his past transgressions; it wielded a retributively painful death to the French explorer Jean Dupree, who, in imposing his Western mode of thinking against the warnings of the locals who accompanied him, harmed the sacred white catfish; it attacked the boat carrying the treasures of the declining Laotian royal family who wanted to ensure that these would not in any way contribute to the formation of the socialist republic; it guarded the river, commanding its raging waters to take Vientaine’s sixteenth century king Settaritat and later the American prisoners-of-war (POWs) to the mysterious Puri village.
The present, haunted by these karmic specters of history and accompanied by the impending intrusion of neocolonialism in the region, pushes the thicker, second part of Mekong, aptly subtitled “The Present.” Facilitating this transition from the prologue to the present is the Buddhist monk Wasukree, whom the elder monk Puritatto enlisted to continue his monastic mission:
Your name and mine both mean ‘Naga.’ One of your past lives and mine had a common link. Therefore, you were destined to become my disciple and carry out this mission. (24)
Here, Wasukree becomes whom Derrida mentioned to be “the last one to whom a specter can appear, address itself or pay attention to” (11), the one to have “possessed the transcendental power to contact the Nagas” (Adirex 24), or in the language of deconstruction, the power to demolish the binary distance separating presence from absence, the past from the present.
As the novel’s present opens with the foregrounding of another set of unexplained disappearances and the Naga’s deathly assault on the American field manager, all transpiring within the Mekong River, Wasukree meets two outsiders who intend to locate the river’s spectral monster, investigate the disappearances, and capture the disappeared from their spatial absence — Dave Shawn, an American ex-Army engineer of native Indian ancestry assigned to finish the bridge construction after the mysterious disappearance of the original field manager; and Johnny Draco, an American DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) officer who needs to solve the ghostly disappearance of MIAs and POWs and bring them back home. Accomplishing his function as the repository of the past, the monk communicates with them, explaining the narrative of the Naga, its geospiritual function in the river, and its retributive role as the karmic specter potentially responsible for the disappearances. The dialogue, which seems impossible to take place given the linguistic differences between the Thai monk and the American outsiders, in itself becomes spectral, interrupting the existing logos of transcultural communication. Wasukree thus explains, “We do not communicate by spoken words. We communicate through our minds, in a language each of us is most familiar with. I’ve tuned my mind in such a way that it can communicate with yours” (62).
At this point, the dialogue attempts to draw the limits of textual space and the colonial tongue in representing the ethos of the colonized. It is noteworthy here that even the utterance of Wasukree is articulated by the narrative in the colonizer’s language, a crisis primarily brought in by the fact that Adirex, a postcolonial writer caught in the snares of Western education and culture, narrated the events in English. The crisis of incommunicability is thus problematically represented, since even this uttered regression of the colonized voice is still contained in the very language of repression. Nevertheless, Wasukree’s utterance stages a clash with the language that contains and represses it, as it compels the colonial language to narrativize the regression of the subaltern’s voice to the spectral “extratextual space,” transforming the narration into a location for linguistic hauntology. The colonizer’s language — the language in which the subaltern tries to speak — thus becomes the haunting site of a spectral language, through which the Western characters and the colonized subject are able to communicate. This spectral language — the language of the mind — interrupts the politico-economic logos governing the cultural and linguistic cartography of the postcolonial order — a language that haunts the colonizer’s language, seeping through its gaps, appearing in its fissures to accommodate the silenced voices of the subaltern. Unfortunately, Wasukree’s fantastic accounts of the Naga specter do not belong to the logos of these outsiders, and as such he announces, “I don’t blame you if you do not believe me” (72).
Hounded by the refusal to recognize the spectral narrative of the Naga and the karmic framework of samsara, the Western logos upheld by Shawn and Draco privileges accounts that are embedded and acceptable within the transnational imperialistic project of the US government. In an attempt to exorcise the spectral Naga narratives that interrupt the neoliberal structuring of the river’s narrative present, the novel provides two interconnected Western-sanctioned readings of the disappearances. First is the account of the Golden Triangle, an organized crime group named after Chiang Saen, the riparian transnational border point of Thailand, Laos and Burma (the Golden Triangle of the Mekong), an area also holding notoriety as the world’s largest heroin supplier (68). With the Mekong serving as its chief thoroughfare for drug-related transactions, the organization cautiously speculates that the US-sponsored bridge “will probably facilitate the suppression of narcotics production and trafficking” (75) and thus undertakes offensives to halt its construction, actions which hold them suspect in the disappearance of the construction workers.
The novel then introduces Khun Sang, the current drug lord of the organization, who forges an unholy alliance with General Kongrit, a lieutenant general of the communist Lao People’s Revolutionary Army (and, unbeknownst to many, his half-brother), to secure protection for the operation of the Golden Triangle. This narrative detail perpetuates anti-communist stereotypes, with its construction of the corrupt and ruthless general as the representative of the Left. This is enforced all the more by the novel’s foregrounding of a second Western-sanctioned account, this time involving the Lao Rightist Liberation Front (LRLF) which now intends to locate the lost treasure in the river to fund its planned takeover of power from the Laotian communist regime. The search operation for the mysterious treasure proceeds through the approval of General Kongrit, making him at once an entity exorcised of his leftist ideological position and embodying an era in which, as Fukuyama asserts, ideology is proclaimed dead and the decline of communism marks the triumph of capitalism (3). Here, through the devices of characterization, the Western-sanctioned accounts espouse the anti-communist position in order to privilege the imperial intrusion of the US in the Mekong River.
But the specters of communism interrupt these official accounts. Manifestations of what Derrida labels scathingly as the plagues of the new world order populate the lower Mekong basin — the existence of criminal activity (as evinced in the operations of the Golden Triangle), the exclusion of the people in the activities of the State (apparent in the obvious silence of ordinary citizens on the affairs in the river), and the exercise of international political control by powerful capitalist states like the US (Derrida 81-83). These political and economic maladies usher the specters of Marxism, the ghosts of anti-capitalism and the spectral polemics of communism. This regression of communist discourse against the Western neoliberal narrative is attended by the regression of the spectral Naga against the discursive repression perpetrated by the Western-sanctioned accounts. The gigantic hooded serpent manifests as the fierce stone serpent guarding Buddhist temples, as the specter in Dave’s dreams, as the phantom attacker, and as the winding Mekong itself. Daniel Martin explains this mode of spectrality as a mechanism to interrupt discourses sanctioned by the Western powers:
The trope of spectrality frequently manifests itself in literary responses to ‘official’ narratives of national histories. Specters, ghosts, phantasms, and spirits destabilize any possibility of historical periodization, and frequently disrupt ‘official’ narratives[. …] Derrida understands the project of the ghost or specter to be nothing more or less than the positing of a radical plurality of narratives and voices within official (linear) narratives of history. (90-1)
Projected within the spectral discourses interrupting the river’s Western-sanctioned narratives is Kimberly Baker, a Thai-British anthropologist who allows the intrusion of the spectral narrative in the Western logos into her academic search for a mysterious village named Puri. This village is in itself a phantom location absent from official cartography, yet haunting the river’s physical presence. This interruption in the basin’s definite space has no locatable portal — no one can enter the village “unless they were brought here by their own karma” (Adirex 13).
As the novel ascends to its climax, both spectral and official narratives overlap in the Mekong and point to Puri village, and the river becomes a fictive space for the physical intersection of Golden Triangle agents, the hunters of the lost treasure, and the trio of Dave Shawn, Johnny Draco and Kim Baker. As dictated by their karmic past, the characters find a hidden cave and enter a state of ontological liminality as they encounter the phantom Naga and penetrate Puri, a secluded community that figures as the spectral Pure Land for the lower Mekong Basin.
At this point, it is very important to take note that the concept of Pure Lands — spiritual and visionary paradises that a person could only enter after achieving spiritual enlightenment and purity of mind — is highly embedded in Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, serving as the basis for the spiritual practices of the Amidist sect in Southeast and East Asia. Moreover, the Pure Land has incarnated several cultural figurations from the Shambhala in Central Asia to the Shangri-La of Western imagination, each version of the paradise attended by socio-political semanticization. Dessi explains that the mythology of Pure Land works as a subversive trope, since its qualities “provide the standard to measure the inconsistencies of this world. This standard is one of the major premises for the realization of a society free of discrimination, oppression, and violence” (75). In order to highlight the ideal conditions in the paradise, the Puri people “lead a way of life that may seem strange to the modern world” (150). Saen, the village leader, explains to the newcomers the operant economic system in Puri:
Everyone here must contribute to the village by working in the fields and vegetable plots, in the kitchen and poultry farms, by cleaning up the village, building and repairing houses and other useful chores. We all work together for the welfare of the whole community. There is no individual ownership except that of personal belongings. (188)
Here, the village — classless, stateless, positioned outside the neoliberal hegemonies of Western temporalities and its attendant conditions of “wars, conflicts, destruction, famine, killings, vices and greed” (189) — becomes the spectral space of communism. Puri becomes the specter of the nation — located outside the official narrative of History. The village illustrates what Tom Lewis explains in his “The Politics of Hauntology in Derrida’s Specters of Marx”:
Specters may also maintain this gap between real and ideal (a gap that Fukuyama would like to close). They are indeed in many ways this gap itself, guardians of this gap, never allowing it close, since they understand the danger posed by such a closure. But unlike the historical and material suspicions that have been endlessly directed at the aesthetic that have (quite correctly) worried about its complicity with other, much less revolutionary discourses, specters are seemingly outside any such suspicions. They are immune to criticism of this kind: their ontological “nature” makes them as irreproachable as they are unapproachable. Unlike the aesthetic, there seems to be no impulse or necessity for specters to imagine their own ontology or the work they do as historically limited and circumscribed: specters operate in the vacuum of the pure present that exists at the end of history. (140)
Puri successfully conveys the regression of a communist paradise by being positioned outside the discourse of the actual, outside the reality controlled by post-Cold War hegemonies and the anti-communist aggressions that fit the neoliberal paradigm. It is enclosed in the phantom of the possible, its ontological liminality rendering it free from being assaulted by the logos that it seeks to interrupt.
The spectral positioning of this village against the Western-cartographed presence of the Mekong is bounded by a specter itself, a powerful Naga named Supoka. The giant serpent is a karmic incarnate of several past Nagas, functioning as a historical entity that haunts even the communist utopia of Puri, and signifying how the specters of Marx are primarily informed by the antecedent historical materialist past. In addition to this, the serpent guards the lost treasure that the LRLF has been searching for in its project to depose the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LPDR) and exorcise the remaining specters of communism in the lower Mekong basin. The lost treasure, semanticized in the narrative as the repository of national memories, is deliberately placed in the space of spectral danger, beyond the reach of the citizens in order to prevent any private economic hankering that might disrupt the spectral utopia of Puri.
The entry of the LRLF elements in the narrative of the Puri represents the aggression of the Western logos towards utopic phantasms. They ransack the cave and try to steal the treasure, awakening the wrath of the Naga who, in an act of karmic retribution, brings them to their death and seals the cave. Eventually, Kim Baker and Dave Shawn find themselves residing permanently in the village, as Saen reveals to them that they are incarnates of the Naga’s siblings. Using karma as the deterministic philosophy that facilitates racial erasures and thus rightfully locates these outsiders in the utopic village, the novel metaphorizes the New International — a global communist order that knows no racial boundaries, as opposed to the racialized economic order brought about by transnational capitalism.
This novelization of the specters haunting Mekong River exemplifies how the repressed dreams of nations interrupted by colonial and neocolonial systems regress against these regimes of control. Ushering spectral remnants of their precolonial histories, ghosts of colonial trauma, and specters of the desired future, the people create polysemic spaces. Their layers of meanings thickening with spectral visionings, these spaces function as locations of resistance, which reconstruct silenced national histories and protect them against the complete ideological, economic, political, social and cultural subjugations of the Western-dictated global order.
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Laurence Marvin S. Castillo teaches at the Department of Humanities, College of Arts and Sciences in the University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños where he finished his Bachelor’s degree in Communication Arts. He is currently finishing his Master’s degree in Philippine Studies at UP Diliman.