Bizot’s 2003 debut, The Gate, chronicled his 1971 detention in a Khmer Rouge prison camp on suspicion of spying for the CIA. His jailer was a benign, intelligent young maths teacher, the first – and in all likelihood, the last – person convicted by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, currently mired in prosecuting three of the surviving members of the Khmer Rouge’s senior leadership.
More distance has provided more perspective. After Duch’s long detention, sentencing and failed appeal, Bizot has embraced the candour evident in his first work but often inexpertly expressed.
Here, he speaks more fluidly about his personal upheavals: finding out on a 1988 visit to Tuol Sleng that his captor had assumed control of the Angkar’s most notorious liquidation centre, learning a decade later that Duch was still alive, and the belated discovery that his two Khmer colleagues had suffered the fate he dreaded for himself but from which he was spared at Duch’s behest.
The author owes a debt to the wealth of literature which explores the questions the Third Reich posed of human nature, particularly, inevitably, Hannah Arendt’s coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
The parallels are obvious: both were touched by their subjects in similar ways, both crave to understand them beyond caricature, and both are at times witnesses to and participants within the means by which society sits in their judgement.
Bizot also recalls a childhood encounter with a Nazi soldier in France, which he uses as one of many avenues to navigate the moral complexity that makes this memoir so compelling.
Facing the Torturer confronts philosophy with the same vigour as Arendt, but shuns her academic detachment. Duch is the conduit for Bizot becoming aware of his own sense of morality, for seeking understanding of the origins of his own moral transgressions, and for an unhindered account of the emotional tumult that has dogged the author since his first acquaintance with his subject.
Most valuable is Bizot’s account of testifying before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, an institution which for all its architectural pretensions to transparency remains opaque to most of Cambodia’s citizens and to the world at large.
Fifty years after Eichmann’s hanging in Jerusalem, we no longer pretend that the meticulous documentation of crimes against humanity will prevent their repetition.
Bizot spares us, only to offer instead his anguish as an elegant testament to how the unanswered and unanswerable questions raised by humanity at its worst still torment those who hear them.
Facing the Torturer is available at Monument Books for US$18.50.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]