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To the End of Hell: One Woman's Struggle to Survive Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Hardcover – 30 Oct 2007
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'The sober and moving retelling of a nightmare survived' --The Economist
'Vivid and detailed' --The New York Times Review of Books
'A number of survivors of the Khmer Rouge have recorded their experience in memoirs. Affonco has written one of the best' --The Sunday Times
About the Author
As Denise Affonço herself writes - I m a pure product of colonialism, a Eurasian, born in Phnom Penh in November 1944, to a French father and a Vietnamese mother. When the Khmer Rouge seized power in April 1975 her peaceful life was torn apart. She was deported with her husband, a communist idealist, and their two children to the countryside. In 1979, four hellish years were brought to an end when the Vietnamese invaded. She and son her son Jean-Jacques survived. Today, she is remarried and lives in Paris.
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Affonco wrote the original manuscript immediately after her ordeal was over, giving it an incredible immediacy. I knew that the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge must have been tragic, but with `To the End of Hell' the oppression takes on a meaning and reality it would be impossible to glean from a text book. It feels like Denise is sitting and telling you her story herself.
The new trial for those significant leaders of the Khmer Rouge (sadly not Pol Pot as he is already dead) is coming up soon in Cambodia, backed by the UN. Undoubtedly this will garner massive press coverage, but reading this book gives a human back-story to something we've probably all heard about but know little of.
Almost as good as visiting the country itself.
Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Denise Affonço was born in Phnom Penh of a French-Indian father and a Vietnamese mother. Well-educated and fluent in French, English and Vietnamese (she learned Khmer during the Khmer Rouge years), she describes an experience that typifies the era: backbreaking physical labor, inhuman living conditions, brutality and starvation. What sets this account apart from the 15 other memoirs of this period that I've read is Affonço's careful, delicate prose and her crystal clear elaboration of the story. The author has taken pains to place her experience within the greater context of events of the period, which she does without belaboring the history; instead footnotes sprinkled throughout the book keep us informed of political and social trends that affected her survival. But more importantly, this is no mere recounting of events: Affonço does a magnificent job of describing her own emotional anguish as her life is stripped down to the bare elements of survival, and her son and daughter are exposed to the horrors of hunger and danger at the hands of their heartless Khmer Rouge guards.
The most poignant moment comes when Affonço's 9-year-old daughter Jeanie dies of starvation. Rendered in painful detail, this death is portrayed both tenderly and cruelly, imbued with a bereaved mother's endless agony and remorse. Affonço owes her decision to go on surviving after this to her son, who had apparently rejected her but was only pretending in order to conform to Khmer Rouge policies.
Hunger was the cruelest torture inflicted on the victims of Pol Pot's madness, and Affonço does not spare us the obsessive nature of her suffering. Her daily search for anything to eat in order to stave off death is almost elegant in its horrifying intensity:
"I am tormented, tortured by hunger--yes, I call this a slow-burning torture, a death sentence by degrees, because who could ever have imagined that men such as these Khmer Rouge could be perverted enough to watch us die of hunger without so much as lifting a little finger! I have no self-respect left...what pride can be left in me when I go as far as to compete with animals for their food?" (p. 130)
Affonço was at death's door when the Vietnamese invaded Kampuchea in early 1979, but she made her way to Siem Reap and found employment as a translator. She expresses immense gratitude to a Vietnamese doctor who showed compassion and kindness to her--in contrast to almost everyone else at that time who reviled the Vietnamese. Arriving in France in 1980, she was told to keep her gratitude to herself.
Altogether this is a highly readable book, rich in historical detail in addition to being a marvelously human story of survival. Affonço is a keen observer and a skillful writer. Sadly, the translation is often clumsy with occasional grammatical errors and misused words. All the same, Affonço's gift for narrative shines through and the reader is treated to a vivid and unnerving portrait of hell.