Few have returned from Cambodia’s death camps, fewer still have written such a hauntingly moving account of their experience as has the French Buddhist scholar Francois Bizot. Incarcerated by the Khmer Rouge (four years before led by Pol Pot they marched on Phnom Penh and embarked on their genocidal massacre of an estimated two million fellow countrymen) on suspicion of being a CIA agent, Bizot suffered dreadful psychological torture, never knowing when his end might be delivered at the whim of his captors.
Astonishingly and bravely Bizot challenged, cajoled and confided in his interrogator, a Khmer former teacher, named Douch (who would later become the notorious central figure responsible for tens of thousands of Cambodian deaths), who in time he came to regard with respect as an intellectual sparing partner, while equally being bewildered and repulsed by Douch’s ideology and his standing as a senior figure in the murderous regime.
While an all too terrifyingly real figure, Douch can also be read as a metaphor of how a people (and country) that bewitched Bizot with their spirituality and tranquillity could turn upon their own so savagely and indiscriminately. It is this contradiction that lies at the core of Bizot’s memoir and torments him so to this day.
The subtext of this appallingly vital work reads ‘if this can happen here among all this beauty then what hope mankind’. While clearly embittered by his experience, that Bizot is able to relive his waking nightmare so unsparingly candidly and with such dignity and paradoxically so poetically is simply as beyond belief as the ordeal he somehow survived.