Review: Meeting with torturer results in analysis of humanity

FACING THE TORTURER. By Francois Bizot. Knopf. 209 pages. $25.

As a young man fascinated with the world beyond his native France, Francois Bizot studied ethnology and Buddhism and became engrossed in the cultures of Cambodia. He went there to study the Khmer in 1971, when the country was embroiled in brutal conflict and Communist guerrillas were waging a nasty campaign against the government, backed by the U.S. and South Vietnam.

In his thoughtful and sometimes interesting book, “Facing the Torturer,” Bizot fails to explain why he chose this particular moment to live in Cambodia, other than to say he loved the place and its people.

Some of its people, the Khmer Rouge, arrested him and two of his native assistants one day and kept them prisoner in a jungle encampment where Bizot found himself face to face with Comrade Duch, a teacher-turned-torturer.

It didn’t take long for Duch to decide that the Frenchman was innocent, but it took his superiors three months to agree to release Bizot. During that period, Bizot remained shackled but unharmed, left to contemplate the nature of man, the character of Duch and the atrocities he knew were being committed all around him.

On Christmas Day 1971, he was let go — alone, despite pleas to release his two colleagues (they were later killed). Many years later, Bizot would recount the ordeal in his book “The Gate.”

The current volume is a follow-up, prompted by the capture and 2009 trial of Duch in the Extraordinary Courts of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

Duch was a mid-level operative, but powerful in his way, answerable to Pol Pot and the upper echelon of Khmer Rouge leaders. But he also was a human being, not a monster, despite his confessed guilt, insists Bizot.

This determination to reject simple labeling, and thus to separate people like Duch from the rest of humanity, became Bizot’s obsession in the years since his Cambodian imprisonment.

In his book, he refers repeatedly to the mirror into which he gazed when talking with Duch, to the fundamental capacity for evil that lay within all men, and he warns against easy vilification.

The first part of “Facing the Torturer” is, unfortunately, a lot of French philosophizing, and although Bizot’s ideas are significant and worth considering, they are not terribly original. It reads as if Bizot is on a long train trip lost in thought, the ideas swirling about in generalized clusters but never coalescing into a proper moral tale.

The second part of the book is much more perfunctory, and much more interesting. After “The Gate” was published, Bizot gave a copy to Duch and asked him for feedback. His written response is published in “Torturer,” and it’s illuminating. Duch is remorseful, honest and indeed very human, a fact difficult to reconcile with his known atrocities.

Next comes a transcript of Bizot’s deposition during the trial, also fascinating, both for its content and for the light it sheds on the process.

The nationalistic Khmer Rouge began as a leftist opposition movement but became paranoid and genocidal after it gained power. Its operatives arrested, tortured and executed anyone deemed subversive, especially ethnic Vietnamese and other foreigners, professionals and intellectuals, economic saboteurs and those associated with the old regime. By the end of the civil war, something like 2 million people were dead, maybe more, killed by execution, disease or starvation.

Bizot is acutely aware of this history, of course, though he mysteriously avoids discussing the broader context of his capture and imprisonment in any detail.

His objective descriptions are too vague, his subjective analysis too thick. He is focused exclusively on Duch and the philosophical discoveries made in contemplating this man.

In the end, the reader is left with the impression that he sat through a long session between Bizot and his therapist. The good thing is that it leaves him feeling, well, human.

Reviewer Adam Parker is the arts writer and book page editor for The Post and Courier.

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