Pierre does Angkor

pierre-loti-sit-like-an-egyptianIt’s a little difficult to take Pierre Loti (1850-1923) seriously. No: it’s bloody near impossible. His life was a bundle of weird. In 1904 (for example), in Constantinople, he was drawn into a plan to liberate a Turkish concubine from the harem; the plot was discovered, the woman died in purdah, and Loti, distraught, wrote a novel about it. (Les Désenchantées, 1906). A heartbreaking tale – except it emerged that the lady was neither dead nor Turkish, but a Frenchwoman who had taken the romantic chump for a ride because she’d thought it might be amusing, and faked her death when Pierre got a bit too much.

Pierre was always a bit too much. He loved costumes. He joined the navy as a common sailor and dressed as a Turk, and when he became an officer he dressed as a sailor. Richard Burton, of course, had done likewise, but nobody laughed at Burton, not unless they wanted an impromptu appendectomy; Loti, au contraire, was unkindly called “a dressed-up organ-grinder.”

pierre-loti-arabHe was, nevertheless, one of the most wildly successful authors of his day. Far-away, romantic places were his thing. He would travel, produce a book, and sit back and wait for the spin-offs. His Tahiti book, Le marriage de Loti, lies behind Delibes’ opera Lakme, and Miss Saigon can trace its ancestry via Madam Butterfly to his novel of Japan, Madame Chrysantheme.

How could a man like Loti resist the lure of Angkor? He first saw the liana-tangled towers as illustrations in a colonial review at the impressionable age of 15, and got there, a well established as a man of letters, in 1901. The result was Pilgrimage to Angkor (1912):

I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile, again, on another stretch of wall; then three, then five, then ten. … They smile under their great flat noses, and half close their eyelids, with an indescribable air of senile femininity, looking like aged, discreetly cunning old ladies.”

Not everything was so overwrought, thank God. Here he describes the little apsara dancers:

They twist like snakes, these little slender beings, who are so supple and seem to have no bones. Sometimes they stretch their arms like a cross, and then the serpentine ripple begins in the fingers of the right hand, ascends successively by the wrist, the forearm, upper arm and shoulder, passes across the throat, continues,on the other side, follows the other arm and dies away in the finger-tips of the left hand, covered with rings. In real life, these exquisite little ballet-dancers are carefully guarded children, often even princesses of the royal blood, whom none may approach or behold. Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.33.17 PM

After Loti there could be no turning back; he was the Paul Theroux of his day, and he put Angkor on the literary travel circuit. He defined a way of seeing it and feeling it, feminine, dark, inscrutable, through the books of professional traveller to Somerset Maugham and beyond. He’s the grandfather of Angkor gush.

He became the youngest member of the Academie Francaise, beating out Emile Zola for one of the strictly rationed chairs, and on his death was awarded a State funeral. His house in Rochefort, preserved as a museum, contains in its thirty rooms a mosque (including a small fountain and five draped coffins containing desiccated bodies), a Japanese pagoda, a medieval banqueting hall where guests were required to converse in Medieval French, and renaissance, Arabic and Turkish rooms. His own bedroom is like a monk’s cell, but mixing Christian and Muslim objects, the aesthetic, as ever, overwhelming the point.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.14.22 PMSources:

• Michael Freeman, Cambodia (2004)

• Pierre Loti, The Sacred Drama of Cambodia (Mask magazine, 1913, translated by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy).

• Wikipedia, Pierre Loti

• Loti and the Turkish lady

• Loti’s costumes

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The soul of Comrade Duch

comradeduch1.jpgIn 2008 Duch, commandant of the Khmer Rouge torture centre at S-21, was interviewed by two psychologists. Their conclusion: We could all have been Duch, given his opportunities.

His childhood was marked by hardship, but not by trauma. He was poor, he suffered from chronic skin lesions and diarrhoea – perhaps he was suffering malnutrition. His father was deeply in debt, and this seems to have been the root cause of the family’s poverty. When he was older he came to understand the lesson: if life is suffering, it is because society is unjust.

He was an outstanding student at school. He changed his name to Guek Eav, alias Duch. Standing stiffly to attention with his arms tight at his sides he explains the meaning of the name Duch: “The schoolboy who stands up when the teacher asks him to stand up.”

He discovered mathematics. He loved mathematics. In the world all was in disorder, but in mathematics  every problem had its solution, and the solution was always beautiful.

He fell in love with a girl. She was studying French literature. He tried to persuade her to take up mathematics instead, but she left him for a boy from a richer family. He was devastated.

He found inspiring teachers who introduced him to communism. Like mathematics, communism was beautiful. Its explanations held the answer to Cambodia’s poverty and social injustice, the poverty that had dogged his father and the injustice that had destroyed his hope of love. He embraced it.

He rose to become head of S-21. At first he was enthusiastic and diligent, but gradually he realised that the Organisation was arbitrary, vicious, and heartless. Anyone might be arrested, tortured, executed, despite their demonstrable innocence. The deaths of children he found inexcusable. Long before the end, he lost his faith in communism.

He found Christianity. His motive, he said, was the love of God. Also, Christianity is the most powerful organisation in the world today, for see how Christianity defeated communism in Poland. And like mathematics and communism, it was from somewhere that was not Cambodia.

Karma is impersonal, it holds out no hope of forgiveness, just an eternal cycle of sin, suffering, and death, in life after life after life. Duch doesn’t deny his sins: “I have done very bad things before in my life. Now it is time for the consequences. (…) My unique fault is that I didn’t serve God, I served men. I served communism. (…) I feel very sorry about the killings and the past. I did not take any pleasure in my work.” Duch has no hope of forgiveness, and wants only peace. Duch-007.jpg

Duch is intelligent,  obsessive, diligent and punctilious, with a keen capacity for analytical thinking. These qualities permitted him to be a brilliant administrator of S-21.

He has a great need to believe and belong. His ability to express emotion is extremely limited, and his ability to empathise with others, to imagine another person’s point of view, is almost totally absent.

He lacks a centre. He has sought certainty, first from mathematics (representing France and science), then communism, finally Christianity. He loves Cambodia and justice and hates lies (mathematics never lies). The flip side is that everything has to be clear-cut, black or white, right or wrong. When he was a communist he was right, and all those who differed from him were liars and traitors.

His advice to the youth of Cambodia: “Making a decision takes a split second, but the suffering lasts a lifetime. My life is filled with regrets. At first I thought the communists were capable of saving my country … Deciding takes a split second, (but) decisions have to be made. They must be very careful in the decisions they make.”

At the end he made two requests of his interviewers: first, a Khmer-French dictionary, French being the language of intellectual discovery; and second, the opportunity to be reunited with the girl he loved in his youth.

 Source: Psychological Assessment Report Concerning Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch.

Francoise Sironi-Guilbard and Sunbanaut Ka, for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.