While studying Buddhist trance in Cambodia in 1971 the ethnologist François Bizot was ambushed and imprisoned by Khmer Rouge rebels. In his previous much lauded and horrifying book, The Gate, he described his interrogation by the prison commandant known as Comrade Duch. In a variation on the Stockholm syndrome (in which captive grows attached to captor), Bizot and Duch developed, if not a friendship, then an intimacy. Duch, persuaded that Bizot was not a CIA agent, had him released, thereby saving the Frenchman’s life. Duch acted at no little risk to himself in so doing. Bizot was the only westerner to survive incarceration by the Khmer Rouge.
Subsequently, with the triumph of the rebellion, Duch became the Khmer Rouge’s head of internal security and personally oversaw the Tuol Sleng extermination camp in Phnom Penh. Here inmates were first tortured to confess crimes against the revolution (whether real or imagined was neither here nor there) and then taken away to be bludgeoned to death, bullets being too expensive to waste. A hundred inmates died having their blood extracted for battlefield transfusions. Autopsies were performed on the living. Some 16,000 people were murdered at Tuol Sleng. Seven survived.
Bizot never denies that what Duch did was monstrous, but, in what is a meditation on original sin and the banality of evil, with a nod to the Sermon on the Mount, maintains that Duch was a man as ordinary as any other. The reader is asked — urged — to recognise that we are each born with the potential for extreme evil. Certainly the author believes it of himself.
The book is in two parts. The first charts the development of Bizot’s idea of human monstrosity, through self-examination (he once killed a pet by smashing it repeatedly against a wall) and through consideration of the nature of his relationship with Duch. The second part consists of documents relating to Duch’s trial for war crimes.
Bizot’s writing is terrifically French, full of aphorism — ‘we look at the face of the monster so as not to make out the familiar face of a human being’, or ‘present reality is never entirely real until it is consigned to memory’, or ‘our fate enters the stage through hidden doors, and always in a new costume’ — and in places so abstract or oblique that it is hard to tell what is actually meant.
Certainly the trauma of his experience, in which he neither suffered nor witnessed directly any violence, was profound, and these pages suggest a man wrestling with himself in an effort to understand what it wrought in him. The reader finds himself not so much inside the mind of a war criminal as inside the mind of a French ethnologist who owes his life to a war criminal, able to write ‘my face became his own, and that forbade him from killing me’.
Those who have read The Gate will undoubtedly want to read this, though it covers much of the same ground. For those with only a passing interest, I recommend turning straight to the last chapter, which is a transcript in court-friendly language of Bizot’s testimony at Duch’s trial, and contains the entire story. It concisely describes the struggle this book is concerned with:
I cannot rid myself of the thought that what was perpetrated by Duch could have been perpetrated by many other people… this realisation of the characteristics and ambiguity that form our humanity is at the origin of my tragedy.
And should be at ours, too, he seems to be saying. A hard and admirable book.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 12, 2012Tags: Book review, Khmer rouge, Non-fiction