Breathtaking memoir by a young French scholar who twice managed to escape from the clutches of the Khmer Rouge as the Cambodian genocide was unfolding.
An ethnographer, art historian, and student of Buddhism, Bizot knew the risks he was taking when he arrived in Cambodia in 1965, just as the war sweeping through Indochina reached a fever pitch. But out in the countryside, he writes, things seemed tranquil enough: “The land was rich and beautiful, enameled with paddy fields, dotted with temples. This was a country of peace and simplicity. . . . Festivities, divine service, ordinary rituals—nothing was conceived without art, and poetry, and mystery.” All that changed with the disintegration of the Sihanouk government and Lon Nol’s coup d’état; foreign powers—Beijing, Hanoi, and Washington—converted Cambodia into a proxy battlefield, and the vengeful hillbillies called the Khmer Rouge set their awful revolution in motion. Captured by these guerrillas, Bizot proved a curious and difficult prisoner. Under interrogation as a suspected CIA agent, he retorted with Buddhist conundrums that drew on his wealth of knowledge about ancient Cambodia; for his captors’ enlightenment, for instance, he once likened the Khmer Rouge “reeducation” program to the Buddhist ideals of “renouncing material possessions; giving up family ties, which weaken us and prevent us from devoting ourselves entirely to [the people]; leaving our parents and our children in order to serve the revolution.” The Khmer Rouge were unimpressed, but at least they didn’t kill Bizot, who managed to get away in time to witness the fall of Phnom Penh and to organize an even more daring escape, this time with children in tow. Ever spiritually minded, he closes by observing, “I emerged from the Cambodian hell by crossing the bridge of transmigration. . . . I entered the land of rose-apple trees to be reborn into a new existence.”
Heartbreaking and terrifying: a superb account of the madness of war, and of a people’s wholesale self-destruction.