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by François Bizot & translated by Charlotte Mandell & Antoine Audouard

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-27350-5
Publisher: Knopf

An honest exploration of what it means to share moments of humanity with a man most people would consider inhuman.

French ethnologist Bizot has already written one book (The Gate, 2003) about his three-month stay in a Khmer Rouge prison, where he was interrogated by a man named Comrade Duch, who later went to trial for war crimes. This new work provides background about the circumstances that brought the men together in 1971, their subsequent meetings and Bizot’s decision to write The Gate. The author also writes about Duch’s trial, at which he was a witness. The author’s goal is to make sense of his feelings about Duch, in particular his conclusion that the “butcher of Tuol Sleng” was capable of acts of humanity. Bizot seems to resist this conclusion, perhaps because it makes him confront the evil in all humankind. He also has a difficult time explaining his conclusion, weaving beautiful sentences that tend toward the convoluted. More concrete information on his experiences with Duch would help readers understand Bizot’s discoveries about human nature. As it stands, eloquent language cannot obscure the fact that these unfocused, stream-of-consciousness musings have been written with an eye to aesthetics rather than concision or ease of understanding. Luckily, the book is not comprised entirely of Bizot’s maze of thoughts. Its most compelling section is the postscript, which contains his trial testimony and Duch’s reaction to The Gate. These offer insights into the Cambodian’s personality and help us understand the humanity Bizot sees in him. They also, through the words of both men during the trial, show in a more substantive way the ambivalence with which Bizot struggles.

Best for those already familiar with The Gate, but also a good choice for readers who enjoy philosophical arguments about the dichotomy between good and evil.