BOOK REVIEW Orphan of the collective The Elimination by Rithy Panh
Reviewed by Joe Freeman
PHNOM PENH - Cambodian-born filmmaker Rithy Panh has built a career out of documenting life in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia. His topics may be set well after the killings, but they always seem to be playing out in the shadows of history, with one eye on the past and one in the present. His film Site 2 explores the lives of a Cambodian family of refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge's terror to the relative safety of a border camp in Thailand. In The Land of the Wandering Souls, development clashes with buried secrets when laborers working on a project to build a fiber optic
cable stumble across human remains.
His documentary, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, investigates the inner workings of a high school-turned-torture center in Phnom Penh. In the film, former prisoners and guards have a macabre reunion at S-21, or Tuol Sleng, now a popular tourist site advertised on several tuk-tuks throughout the city. They visit decaying brick cells and are asked to explain the methods that contributed to the deaths of about 13,000 Cambodians, who were either killed at the center or driven to the "Killing Fields" of Choeung Ek. Torturers show how they did their job, in full view of the camera.
The film shocks because Panh asks unsettling questions. The strategy, however, didn't always succeed. Interviewing a security deputy, Panh pressed him on how many people he had killed. He sarcastically answers: "Tell me, do you want a number? How high?"
The anecdote is included in Panh's brave and sometimes hard to engage with new book, The Elimination. Ostensibly a chronicle of his journey from schoolboy in Phnom Penh to a young war slave under the Khmer Rouge, The Elimination, written with French novelist Christopher Bataille and tautly translated from the 2011 French edition by John Cullen, is harder to categorize than the first person accounts and scholarly histories that commonly deal with the 1975 to 1979 period in Cambodia. Linear memoir may have proved too confining a vessel for Panh when trying to talk about his own survival in the broader context of the Democratic Kampuchea government, where almost 2 million people perished through execution, disease and starvation under Khmer Rouge rule.
Weaved like cross-stitches into this patchwork narrative of a life stripped bare, in which his parents, siblings and relatives wilted under increasingly extreme conditions, is a larger meditation on the forces galvanizing the destruction. When writing about evil, however, it helps to have evil's embodiment sitting across the table.
Panh pulled this off by securing permission to conduct a series of on-camera interviews with the detained Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, the warden of S-21 who was sentenced to life in prison by the United Nations-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh last year. Those interviews are a mainstay of the back-and-forth storytelling device in The Elimination; scenes of personal history are followed by exchanges with Duch, an inscrutable, contradictory and creepy figure.
Duch bellows at things that aren't funny. He expresses remorse and remorselessness. He reads French poetry, Alfred De Vigny's The Death of The Wolf comforts him. He makes sick jokes: "In S-21, the only person who didn't get promoted was me. Ha!" Remembering the times he examined prisoners' palms at a separate security center and saw long lifelines, he can't help but be amused by the irony. Panh asks: "And afterward you'd execute them?" Duch, laughing, answers: "Yes!"
Though a mystery, Duch is not unknown. Panh was granted access to him, but so was the world when the tribunal went ahead with the substantive part of the trial in March of 2009. On several occasions, Panh mocks the court for being too timid and asking stupid questions. In some cases, he's right, like the time a witness was asked to describe how he defecated with chains around his ankles. His criticisms, however, ignore the way the tribunal has given voice, if not reparation, to victims and survivors.
Genocidal state of mind
The book is dedicated to Panh's father and the late Vann Nath, an S-21 prisoner who survived by painting portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and who testified in Duch's trial. Duch issued a publicly available apology for his role as a Khmer Rouge executioner that is readily accessible. He is the subject of several books, which tend to give a fuller picture of Duch than Panh is able to offer.
Journalist Nic Dunlop's The Lost Executioner, for instance, gives a fuller account of how the diminutive mathematics teacher grew into his role as master inquisitor. Francois Bizot's The Gate and his follow-up Facing the Torturer are also useful as the author remembers being detained under Duch's command at M-13, a security office situated in the north of the country, before Duch moved to S-21.
Such biographical comparisons may be unfair, for Panh is clearly more interested in Duch's state of mind, the man behind the mask. He writes of Duch: "I want this son of an incompetent, debt-ridden businessman, this brilliant student, this mathematics professor so respected by his own students, this revolutionary who still quotes Balzac and Alfred de Vigny, this dialectician, this chief executioner, this master of torture - I want him to answer me, and in so doing to take a step on the road to humanity."
For instance, he highlights how obsessed Duch was with his position in the wider Khmer Rouge regime. The warden was often upset by the smallest of slights. Panh notes that Duch was miffed that the numbers two plus one in S-21 only equaled three, while one plus three in M-13 summed to four. Why does this matter? The transfer to the Phnom Penh prison did not mean a big promotion, he said, because the numbers at the new post, when added up, weren't higher than the ones at his old post. The passage's takeaway: it is going to be a long road back to humanity for someone who still thinks this way.
The Elimination is told in a past and present style more fitting for film than literature. Parts of the book served as the basis for The Missing Picture, Panh's documentary that won the "Un Certain Regard Prize" at the Cannes Film Festival this month. Paragraphs in the book rarely fill out more than a page, giving it the feel of a journal where entries have been mixed together, jumping back in time and forward again, to Phnom Penh, to Paris, to the UN tribunal, to the Khmer Rouge-occupied countryside. In a few places there is no location, only the expression of a thought that could fit on a flash card.
For the reader unschooled in French poetry, Marxist philosophy, or Holocaust literature, there may be some extra homework required to understand Panh's literary and historical references. Strangely for someone who has made a career out of sitting patiently and listening while others tell their stories, Panh is at his best when he turns the questions on himself. Memoirs from survivors of genocide and books about genocide's perpetrators generally show that the survivor's tale has a lasting quality. Panh dislikes the term "banality of evil", but by showing how his own life is more gripping than the man he is so obsessed with, he unintentionally upholds the theory that evil can be very dull indeed.
His personal journey begins as a 13-year-old on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, living a comfortable existence that changes overnight once Khmer Rouge forces seize the city and march its inhabitants out to the countryside. His family is eventually put on a train that rattles endlessly into the country's remote northwest. Panh is moved from a series of cooperatives and labor camps where he watches his family waste away from malnutrition, disease and starvation. He effectively chronicles the way that the Khmer Rouge broke down the ties that bind by banning words identified with the self: No more "husband", no more "wife", only "family".
The phrase "marriage for love" was banned and replaced by "organizing a family for the fighters and leaders". The new revolutionary language also changed people's names. Panh was not referred to as "Panh" by his tormentors. First he was named "Comrade Thy", but then acquired the title "Comrade Bald" after an infestation of lice necessitated a head shave. He underwent another change when he injured his foot and walked with a limp, but "Comrade Tractor" did not last long. "Comrade Bald" eventually stuck and he came to exist with no real name, no identity, "subsumed into the big black tunic of the organization." Elimination.
Painful family portraits
The scenes of his family members painfully drifting off into eternity are wrenching. Panh's world dwindles until finally he is left alone, an orphan among an adopted collective of killers. Before his parents die, he is old enough to watch their roles shifting under the new regime.
His father, once a high-ranking official in the Ministry of Education, a man given to reciting the poetry of Jacques Prevert ("black hair, black hair, caressed by the waves... ") is useless in a society where toil is elevated to godly status. His new occupation of weaving wicker leaves him with bloody fingers. Panh's mother steps up, using memories of her agricultural roots in the Mekong Delta to fill the void.
"She could still winnow rice and grind grain without getting exhausted. She could still 'read the wood' in order to split it with one blow of her ax. The Khmer Rouge were amazed: a bourgeois woman who worked like a peasant! The new world held some surprises. Myself, I used to watch my mother for hours, and all the more because my father, for his part, wasn't up to very much."
The skills were helpful to a point. There was never enough food and no proper medical care. There was always too much work. His father died first. His mother did not last much longer.
Panh survives by the skin of his teeth, and learns a few things along the way. He brings to mind one of the Holocaust survivors he reads later, Primo Levi, who wrote that the Auschwitz concentration camp was his real university. Panh is educated in the ways of killing cobras - bash them over the head with one enormous blow - and writes that "little by little" he became hardened. He learned to dissemble, to become a sort of simpleton, "to not be".
He had already become a practiced storyteller, with young laborers and Khmer Rouge cadres his first audience. In one of the few comical parts of the book, Panh remembers getting into trouble for regaling his group with details of the first mission to the moon. He goes over the first steps, the return to earth. The audience is fascinated and can't believe the incredible feat. His error is to tell them that the Americans were responsible. He's forced to undergo self-criticism for praising the decadent imperialists. "Comrade!" the Khmer Rouge schoolmistress barks at him, "Such tales are inventions. Lies. Your conduct is unacceptable. When you spread those fables, you betray the revolution. You betray your comrades."
The Elimination may not be the easiest memoir to read, but many parts of the book linger. I think of a small portrait, no longer than a page, of his elder sister, the former deputy director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh. Her husband was executed for being a physician, a highly targeted class of the "new people" whom the Khmer Rouge regarded as vestiges of a corrupted society. She disappeared about a year after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Earlier, when Panh was eight or nine years old, he visited her and stole fruit from the tamarind trees surrounding the red-roofed complex of the museum.
"Today I wouldn't dare do that. Because of my age? Or my memories? The royal palace, with its high walls and its traditions, isn't far. The world we knew will not return. And you, my sister, I never saw you again. I can still picture your colorful skirt when you appeared from the big, carved wooden door, and your bag filled with documents. I remember our walks together. Your words. My caprices. I see you smile. You take my childish hand."
The Elimination by Rithy Panh. Other Press (February 2013). ISBN: 159-051-5587. Price: US$22.95. 271 pages
Joe Freeman is a reporter and sub-editor at the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia.
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