In 1936, Charlie Chaplin, fresh from the success of Modern Times, ponders his next project: ‘The details of the daily chaos of the working poor mesmerised and inspired him. Perhaps it was the comfortable distance of his wealth that made him find solace in watching their back-breaking work. Or perhaps it was the faded memory of his own childhood poverty and his time in the workhouses. Was it sympathy for their lives, or empathy – or both?’ That he might think on these lines as he contemplates ‘coolies’ doing back-breaking work is not surprising. Charlot is, however, outstanding in its setting.
Ian Masters places Chaplin in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is there along with the woman in his life (and his co-star), Paulette Goddard, on a trip to the Far East. Many things hang in the balance. Will he announce his marriage to Paulette in the famed Angkor Wat? He strikes up friendships with Cambodian theatre actors at a time when revolt against the French empire is in the air. Will he really put his weight behind the rebels? Modern Times has riled reactionary people everywhere, and the far corners of Indochina are no exception. Chaplin is only too glad to dodge the French police when they shadow him, but how far will he really go?
Sparked by an apocryphal news item about Chaplin’s death and rich in its evocation of personalities, place and time, this is a work that truly realises the possibilities of historical fiction. Readers who are familiar with the history of Indochina will like that a character named Saloth Sar makes a cameo appearance. There are times when telling dominates showing, but the passages with Chaplin’s imagined screenplays make up for them. This is a great read.