Just when you thought you'd read everything about the Khmer Rouge - and man's inhumanity to man - there comes along an eloquent and deeply thought-provoking book by celebrated film-maker Rithy Panh. So much story telling is dominated by western academics and journalists (myself included), it is really refreshing to read a Cambodian account that is beautifully written, personal and deeply reflective. An amazing book and, by far, the best to have been written about the Khmer Rouge.
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Mining similar psychological terrain to Eric Lomax’s “The Railway Man” and Helga Schneider’s “Let Me Go” Panh bravely attempts to confront an aged Comrade Duch, the man who was head of the horrendous S-21 camp in the heart of Phnom Penh, during the four year long genocide. A period that witnessed a catalogue of truly horrendous forms of torture and cruelty that served no coherent or convincing purpose.
Panh demonstrates far more patience, courage, tolerance for his subject than any man would think possible for someone who suffered and lost so much during the Khmer Rouge's regime. This is a harrowing, powerful and heartbreaking attempt to try and make sense of the madness as he tries to find some sort of meaning or justice in all of it. A highly important and compelling read on one of the 20th century's darkest periods.
This is the story of someone who lived and survived in the insane world of "Kampuchea" in the late 1970s. It's not a treatise on why these events happened.
It's as chilling as you'd expect. What makes the Cambodia story so compelling is the brevity of the events (barely four years) and the total dominance of the Khmer Rouge in that period.
Panh's story is, of course, heart-breaking. What the book doesn't give is a context for why the disaster happened; no doubt this is covered elsewhere and I'll be looking for texts on this ASAP. Suffice to say that another system founded on Marxism and the redistribution of wealth ended in mass murder.
I found the book slightly disjointed and couldn't always work out where chronologically the author was. Overall it's a good but not great book.