Category Archives: Uncategorized

A fallen human world amidst natural beauty

John Steinbeck (1902-68) was a major American writer back in the days when writers mattered in America. His writings, especially The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle and Of Mice and Men, are still being censored and are anathema to California agribusiness. Although he grew up in a small city, he revered family farms and wrote compellingly about some ambitious California farmers, especially in his ambitious late novel East of Eden and in the interconnected stories of The Pastures of Heaven.


First published in 1932, The Pastures of Heaven is the work in which Steinbeck found his voice — or, more correctly, voices, since there was the wry, mock-heroic Mark Twain-like Steinbeck as well as the naturalistic chronicler of doom and degradation in the Zola tradition. Doomed semi-retarded characters pop up very often. The most famous is Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but in The Pastures of Heaven there is the artistic (idiot savant) Tularecito, Hilda Van Deventer, Alice Wicks, and Manfred Munroe, plus an epileptic, and many delusional characters, although the line between ill-founded dreams and psychopathological belief is fuzzy in Steinbeck’s stories (and in real life, I think). Pat Humbert is animated into redecorating the house he has inherited by a plan to propose marriage once he has the house perfected. The possibility may have been remote and any opportunity was lost by the delay of his project, but I’d classify this as illusion rather than delusion.

The Whiteside desire to establish a dynasty based on a dynastic castle of a house is not insane, but strains against the low fertility of an exhausted bloodline (degeneracy is the prime naturalist trope) and the more than remote possibility that the next generation will have different dreams. Molly sacrifices the life and happiness she has been building up for a fear that is not paranoid, but still seems exaggerated. I guess that the Lopez sisters are delusional in not seeing what they do as prostitution, but the ignorance of what other people (local polite society) thinks is a boon to Juntius and Robbie Maltby — as long as they are able to maintain their self-image as philosophers living happily off the land. The imaginary world (and riches) of “Shark” Wicks blocks doing what he would have needed to do to attain the image of himself he entertained and promulgated to the neighbors.


Although most of those living in the pastures of heaven are (circa the early 20th century) only second-generation residents, and more than a few move away over the course of the book, it is a new family, the Munroes, who settle in what is believed to be a haunted house and cursed farm in the center of the valley, who — mostly inadvertently — disturb the tenuous psychological balance of other characters. These outsiders are catalysts (another good naturalist notion) for other residents to attain their disasters and to recognize the unreality or failure of their dreams. Friendly, eager to help, and totally conventional, the Munroes set off disillusionment and tragedy (Tularecito being locked up in an asylum, Hilda Van Deventer’s death, the burning of the Whiteside home that was built to stand 500 years, the Maltbys leaving their pastoral idyll to make money in San Francisco, John Whiteside to go into business in Monterey, etc.)

Steinbeck (especially in Tortilla Flat and Sweet Thursday) sometimes seems to me to have condescended to his “simple people” characters. His bemused tale of the Lopez sisters comes close to this, but is not discernible in the story of Tularecito and the gnomes. There is also often a misogynist panic in Steinbeck (especially in the stories in The Long Valley) when writing about women as anything other than madonnas or prostitutes. This makes the story of the teacher Molly Morgan exceptional in the Steinbeck oeuvre: a sympathetic, rounded female character who is neither a mother nor a prostitute. It is also the most technically complex of the stories in The Pastures of Heaven.

Other than the faux-jaunty prologue about a Spanish corporal discovering the valley chasing escaped Indians from the concentration camp that was the Carmel Mission, there are no weak stories in this collection.


The second half ot the introduction to the Penguin addition by James Nagel (who also supplied notes I consider superfluous) should have been an afterword, but I think that he is right that in this story cycle, inspired in part by Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and by Stephen Crane’s Whilomville Stories, Steinbeck “discovered the central subject of his greatest work, the simple people of the Salinas Valley, struggling against the odds, against economic deprivation and the legacy of a past that threatens to overwhelm them [as in Faulkner’s fiction]…. Many of the themes of Pastures—the destructive potential of conformity, the dangers of self-delusion and false social values—he continued to explore throughout his career.” Steinbeck’s style, subject, and fundamental themes first became visible in The Pastures of Heaven.

Although his books were once burned in Salinas, and the self-annointed newspaper of record in America published in what was then his home chose to publish a dismissal of his work on the day he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, Steinbeck’s work has endured with little encouragement from academia. All of his books of fiction are in print and his sometimes sentimental, sometimes brutal lyricism continues to draw “voluntary readers” (that is, those not assigned to read “classics” for courses). For anyone unfamiliar with Steinbeck’s themes and style, or anyone who finds his big books (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden) strained, The Pastures of Heaven is an excellent point of entry, better even than the short stories collected in The Long Valley (though the latter volume contains my favorite, “Leader of the People”).

This was part of an epinions writeoff for the Steinbeck centenary.

©2002, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Sisterhood with no sibling rivalries


Though running 128 minutes Koreeda Hirokazu’s 2015 adaptation of a manga as海街diary (Umimachi Diary, or Seaside-town diary”), released in English as “Our Little Sister” seems slight to me. Many find it “heart-warming,” I find it sentimental in a Kinoshita tradition. Three sisters: 29-year-old Sachi (Ayase Haruka), 22-year-old Yoshino a (Nagasawa Masami) and 19-year-old Chika (Kaho) live in a large house in Kamakura (southeast of Tokyo). News comes that their father, whom they have not seen in 15 years, has died. They go to the funeral, where their father’s third wife claims to have nursed their father through his final illness.


They intuit that the serious-looking 14-year-old Asano Suzu (Hirose Suzu) was the one who cared for their father. Sachi invites Suzu to come and live with them rather than stay with her/their stepmother. Suzu was the offspring of the woman with whom their father decamped, his second wife.

Suzu is keenly aware that she is a very visible reminder of their common father abandoning his first wife and their three daughters. She is especially aware of her negative connections for the mother of the three older females, who also abandoned her three daughters and drops in. Sachi, who was left to raise her younger two sisters, is very antagonistic to her mother, though the immature woman tries to make Suzu comfortable in her presence.


Though the sisters experience frustration in their own love lives, there is no antagonism or even tension between any of them, and they all dote on Suzu. Suzu makes the coeducational soccer team and hangs out with one of the male players and is dutiful and grateful at her new home. Tensions are mostly between generations not between siblings (and the novel half-sibling who is something of a pet, but also arguably more mature than Chika).

Ayase Haruka, who strikes me as the most beautiful of the women in the cast, is self-sacrificing in the manner of Takamine Hideko in 1950s family dramas made by Ozu and Kinoshita. The offspring are old enough to make money in contrast to the young children huddling together in Koreeda’s 2004 “Nobody Knows,” which lessens the drama and the poignancy. Suzu not only can go to school, but fits in readily. Still, the actresses (including three of the older generation) are very good in what seems like a very gentle, muted, episodic sitcom that mostly takes place in the family house‑though when it does go out, things are beautifully photographed by Mikya Takimoto, who also shot “Like Father, Like Son” for Koreeda.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Medoruma Shun’s Akutagawa Prize-winning novella “Droplets”

Medoruma Shun won the Akutagawa Prize in 1997 for Suiteki (水滴 A Drop Of Water, translated by Michael Molasky as “Droplets“). Owing perhaps a little to Kafkza’s “Metamorphosis,” it is a work of Okinawan “magical realism.” Fifty years after the epic carnage of the Battle of Okinawa, a veteran named Tokushô wakes up one morning unable to move or speak with his right shin grotesquely bloated, resembling a gourd melon (tôgan). His hard-working wife Ushi is frustrated that she will have to do all the work in the fields. Convinced that villagers are experimented on in university hospitals, she refuses to allow their physician to have Tokushô admitted to one.


The liquid that drips out between the big toe and its neighbor is analyzed as ordinary water. Every night ghosts (I use the word since they can go through walls, they are not labeled anything in the English translation) who were left to die in a cave by Tokushô and other wounded but ambulatory soldiers come and drink the droplets from his foot. His generalized survivor guilt it concentrated on Ishimine, a comrade from the same area of Okinawa to whom Tokushô promised to bring water, but didn’t. Ishimine’s ghost does not speak, but Tokushô feels forgiven before the swelling subsides and he is able to move and speak again.


POW on Okinawa, 1945 (in public domain)

Tokushô’s cousin, Seiyû, who strikes me as a sort of minor league Milo Minderbender, discovers that the drippings can stimulate the growth of hair and also cure impotency and, unbeknownst to Tokushô or Ushi, makes a small fortune selling bottles of the drippings. The effects prove to be only temporary and the hustler is set upon by those who bought “miracle water” from him.


In common with Medoruma’s masterful novel In the Woods of Memory (first published in Japanese in 2009, just published in English), “Droplets” shows the agonies of 1945 still festering half a century later and also shows rural Okinawans as being far from noble or innocent (though those in “Droplets” do not behave as badly as the bullies and serial rapists of Woods). I find the characters less developed (though taking up equivalent space on pages) in “Droplets,” and the novella more interesting as phenomenon than as literature. I did not find it “engaging,” as Akutagawa jude Kôno Taeko did.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

War-enforced separation and diffidence providing obstacles to cross-class amour

According to André Aciman’s introduction to the New York Review publication, the first in English, of Journey Into the Past, its author Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was translated into more languages than any of his contemporaries (Freud? Mann?). A part of the novella to which Aciman (Out of Egypt) provides way-too-long an introduction-in fact a complete retelling-was published in German in 1929. A manuscript was found and published in German during the 1970s, but in English only last November.

The novella reminds me of “Brief Encounter,” though that script by Noël Coward (expanding his play “Still Life”) for David Lean’s 1945 tearjerker movies takes place entirely in a British railway station and involves a middle-class woman (Celia Johnson) and a physician (Trevor Howard) of roughly the same age, both of them married. One resemblance is that the man is going off to another continent.

Zweig’s pair differ in age (the woman is older) and their status difference is the opposite (the woman’s is much higher). They spend no time in train stations, though the flashbacks occur while they are in a train between Frankfurt and Heidelberg. The POV is that of the man, Ludwig, a chemist from a very poor family who became the in-house assistant to an unwell industrialist. The wife is very sensitive to the young man’s pride, and they fall in love, though he did not become fully aware of that until the eve of his departure to Mexico to oversee supply of some unspecified metal vital to the company.

There is not hint that the industrialist sent away a rival or had any awareness of their mutual attraction. As the job in Mexico is successfully accomplished, Europe plunges into war (WWI) and Ludwig not only cannot return, but cannot even communicate by letter with his beloved.
journey past.jpeg
I don’t want to emulate Aciman in plot-spoiling, but there are obstacles other than the class ones (which have been lessened by Ludwig’s Mexican success) to ecstatic, delayed reunion. (WWI ran August 1914- November 1918, and if Ludwig left in 1912, nine years would place the return to where he had lived in Frankfurt in 1923. Zweig did not offer any explanation of why the return wasn’t in 1919.)

For all the shared regret for the long separation-blamed on geopolitical interference-diffidence remains. (She feels old now and believes that “when a woman’s hair turns grey, she has no more to wish for, no more to give”) Ludwig remembers (not quite correctly) a couplet from Verlaine:

In the old park, in ice and snow caught fast
Two spectres walk, still searching for the past.

The regret-filled lovers are not specters, hair dye existed during the 1920s (not that Ludwig is put off by the grey of his beloved’s hair), and the past could be prologue.

The black-and-white movie-like 82-page novella is framed by substantial texts about Zweig and it. Award-winning translator Anthea Bell’s afterword should have been first and Aciman need not have told the whole story.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Not being able to write the books he wanted to write

Marcel Bénabou’s often funny, but ultimately poignant Why I Have Not Written Any of My Boosk/Pourquoi je n’ai écrit aucun de mes livres(1986), seems to me to have some continuities with the prolific (albeit once-stalled) American writer with the meteoric rise, Michael Chabon. (Meteors flash and burn out, so I don’t quite understand the analogy… There is the Jewish boy’s ontogeny of the phylogeny of being the Chosen People (“No one around me, or at least no one in the narrow confines of my family, had ever doubted that my destiny would be a singular one”-71). And the reverence for sonorous words:


“I never ran the risk of confusing things with their names. Most of the words I used were already almost entirely detached from their natural ties to things, and for this reason I found them intoxicatingly light. No heaviness came along to pull them down to the ground. The ones I loved the most (bergamot, natelle, botargo, galoubet, caillebotis) were attached to nothing I had before my eye. They were beautiful, shimmering, iridescent bubbles, and their emptiness mad them all the more precious to me.” (73-74)

And I apply Chabon’s vocation to use the resources of English words in “Things remain in existence only thanks to the effort made by a few people to recreate them day by day” (98, i.e., “if not me, who?”)

Chabon dramatized not being able to finish a book (the model for which always seemed arbitrary to him, whereas what the characters would do and say was clear to him in C&K). Bénabou addresses the multiple reasons not to write as “what had been a confident wait imperceptibly transformed itself into torpor” (62) and reading became a kind of bulimia in which he devoured much (writing by others) without retaining any trace (44).


BTW, Bénabou also published the magnum opus of his work as a historian in 1976, La Résistance africaine à la romanisation.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

The Moroccan Jewish diaspora, memory, etc.

I’m far from sure why I find Marcel Bénabou’s (1939-) knotted books interesting. The four that have been translated into English (all published by the University of Nebraska Press) are mostly about not being able to write the books he has long wanted to write. Bénabou, who was raised in a Jewish community in Meknès, Morocco and is a professor emeritus of ancient history (specializing in Roman North Africa) at the Paris Diderot University wanted what became Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic to be titled One Always Writes the Same Book. There are many “ones” about whom this is true Bénabou’s own books have different subjects, even if the books are mostly about the inability to write the book about the subject Bénabou chose. His book Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books is not about someone else having written his books but about failing to write more than fragments of the books (not just books, but masterpieces) that he planned, wanted to write, and tried to write, though only producing a few fragments that did not satisfy his high-vaulting ambitions. Along the way, that book also imparted some information about the author’s North African Jewish background.


The closest of his books to a conventional narrative is Écrire sur Tamara/To Write on Tamara?, about which—in good Bénabou fashion—I have been unable to write a review of for some time since I read it. It includes what he presents as attempts dating back to the 1950s to write about his first great love, a sickly but very romantic girl whom he loved when he first came to Paris as a student and who died. Insofar as it is a memoir rather than a book about not being able to write a memoir of his young love, it has some overlap of characters with the book about (not being able to write the epic account of) his native Moroccan Jewish community and forebearers, Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The parents and sister and his best friend who was aspiring to write a novel when both were high school students in Morocco appear in both books. There is no mention of Tamara in Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun. The three names are Bénabou’s three grandfathers, none of whom he knew. He only has three because of the endogamy of his natal community (and five instead of eight great-grandfathers).


Although not by nature (or commitment) a narrative writer, Bénabou does manage to tell something about his forebearers and about the now-vanished community of his childhood and youth in the French neo-colony (protectorate). Many of the Meknès Jews emigrated to Israel after Moroccan independence in 1956 and subsequent heightened persecution of Jews. Bénabou himself has lived in Paris since he went there as a student in 1957.

Along with some analysis of the culture and history of Moroccan Jewish communities and the place of his ancestors (both with rising and declining fortunes), he writes about how he came to view books as sacred and to want to write an epic about his unknown or forgotten people (Sephardic Jews living in a world not invoked by the various writings about Ashkenazic villages and ghettoes in Poland and the Ukraine with strange things such as fur hats: “These Jews in the cold, snow, and mud seemed to me incredibly [and therefore unusably] exotic…. I could not imagine that a Jewish life could be led in any other way than the constant complicity of the sun and the blue sky ” I can see Racine is not a suitable model, but I’m less clear about why Tacitus could not be one). He writes about various models that failed him or that he failed (including W, the recreation of a childhood about which he did not remember anything by Bénabou’s close friend and collaborator in the Workshop of Potential Literature (OULIPO), Georges Perec. There is something reminiscent of Borges in the summaries of the style and substance of books Bénabou sought to write, but didn’t. (And his position as a successful Parisian with an anti-nostalgic nostalgia for North Africa is reminiscent of the Jacques Derrida who appeared in the movie “Derrida” shortly before his death.)

Over time, the aging author’s memories faded and he discovered there was some documentation of the past that he believed would be lost if he did not write a comprehensive account. Moreover, Bénabou was put off by the egocentrism. He claimed that he “had been borne along by the illusion that I was merely a narrator whose task was to finally give a voice to all those whom I had pretensiously called ‘my people’; I realized that in fact I myself was making up most of the space in order to tell a few old personal secrets I had too carefully kept. I was afraid of having upstaged in this way the people I initially wanted to honor” (in this he would be like many contemporary “reflexive” anthropologists). He also came to recognize that his “mind was much too abstract, much too attracted to systems and combinatory games to be able to give birth to flesh and blood characters” and is much better at telling and commenting on than in showing (though better at showing than he gives himself credit for).

(Given that Bénabou has seemingly read everything, it seems odd to me that he does not mention The Tongue Set Free, the great memoir of growing up in another Sephardic community by Elias Canetti, a writer whose fictional masterpiece is about a bibliomaniac (and an unliterary housekeeper).)

The result is whatever the nonfiction analog of metafiction is. Metamemoir about trying to write a memoir and hobbled by more than doubt in the accuracy of the author’s memoir? The result, despite all the self-doubt and self-criticism, is not without charm and manages to convey some things about the vanished lifeways and about Bénabou’s mother as well as about the patriarchs named in the title. Bénabou did not deliver the book he felt that the history of Meknès Jews deserved, but did produce an often witty if generally melancholic postmodernist monument to his background. If they were not epic heroes, if Marcel Bénabou is neither an epic hero nor an epic writer, the book he did produce shows that Someone Was There. And, as with the library of titles Borges imagined, filling out the volumes might be less interesting than the sketches of the books that don’t exist.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

One of the genocidal rulers of the 20th century

David P. Chandler, who was the research director at the Centre of Southeast Asia Studies at Monash University in Australia (now emeritus there, he is also an adjunct professor at Gergetown University), is a historian of post-World War II Cambodian history rather than a biographer. The notes of Brother Number One show not only his familiarity of seemingly everything written in English about Cambodia during the second half of the twentieth century but with the archives of the torture state of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists/Angkar) and a large number of interviews with those who survived knowing Saloth Sar, who took the revolutionary name “Pol Pot.”


Chandler’s goal in Brother Number One (revised edition, 1999, first edition 1992) looking into the life of Saloth Sar (1925-1998), aka Pol Pot, is to try to understand how a not-especially-bright Khmer urbanite (who had lived in Phnom Penh and Paris) became the paramount leader of a regime that literally emptied the cities of Cambodia, pretty much destroyed its economy, mythologized peasant virtue, and killed off one out of every seven Cambodians in four years in power (and drove another one of seven into refugee camps and beyond). Chandler did not reach his goal, which seems to be an impossible one. Pol Pot covered his tracks too well, left practically no writings other than a memoir in which most everything is demonstrably false, and the disjuncture between the bland and pleasant man those who knew him recall and the delusional government he headed does not seem bridgeable.

It is not just that Chandler is interested in the policies of the Khmer Rouge more than in the private life of Saloth Sar/Pol Pot but that no one knows very much about the man’s life other than as a revolutionary. Hence the modifier “political” before “biography in the subtitle.

Chandler provides plausible views of Khmer Rouge roots in Khmer pride and Buddhist exhortation (like most males in the Thervada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia before or other than communist-ruled ones, Sar was a monk for a time) and in the Stalinist/Maoist tradition that the Khmer Rouge carried to a level of destructiveness of life and traditional lifestyles beyond even the forced collectivization and incessant search for enemies within the reigns of terror of Stalin and Mao. I want to provide my own view of this context that is only partly based on what Chandler wrote but is consistent with what he wrote. Anyone interested solely in a review of the biography as biography might skip the following section—though, as I have already said, so little is known about the interiority and very guarded private life of Saloth Sar that there is not much conventional biography that can be done.

The path from Marx to the disasters for their peoples of 20th-century communist states

The most fundamental part of the eschatology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere is that human misery in its modern form stems from private ownership of the means of production. Engels in particular saw history as proceeding from barbarism to feudalism to capitalism to communism and expected the workers (the proletariat) in industrialized capitalist societies to unite across ethnic, religious, and racial lines to seize control of the means of production and to develop the utopia of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (“his” in the generic sense).

What happened instead was that in no industrialized state did the workers seize the means of production. There was also a total failure of working-class solidarity across national lines demonstrated during the First World War… and nationalism has been very, very prominent in all the states in which communist revolutions succeeded in seizing state power (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Neither nationalisms nor the state have withered away in those countries or in the imperial conquests by postrevolutionary communist regimes. (Lenin’s linkage of imperialism to capitalism was also falsified by 20th-century history.)

Like Russia and China at the times of their communist coups, Cambodia had very little industry—and, therefore, few industrial capitalists—and in classical Marxist “science” were not ready for communism, having not reached the stage of capitalism. This is why there is some sense in the claim that, like Christianity, Marxism is an idea that has never been tried. (Unlike Christianity, the Marxist utopia was supposed to be of this world.) But history has provided abundant disconfirmations of the view that eliminating private ownership of the means of production leads to equality (or the withering away of the state). Communist regimes have somewhat masked inequality by calling everyone “comrade” or “brother,” but to borrow from George Orwell, some have been more equal than others, and/or there have been elder brothers telling younger ones what to do. State-run economies have been colossally inefficient and all communist societies developed managerial elites and political elites: a dichotomy between party members nonmembers (with party members having privileges nonmembers lacked) and hierarchies within the parties. (Managerial elites getting rich as well as powerful without owning the means of production have also typified capitalist societies, but this is nearly as contrary to Marxist “science” as the stratification within communist societies.)

Back to Pol Pot

Saloth Sar joined the communist party in France ca. 1951, before the death (in 1953) of Josef Stalin, who dictated policies to the International. (The French communist party was the most rigidly Stalinist European communist party.) Saloth Sar found reading Marx too difficult. The less subtle (less dialectical) writings of Stalin were easier to grasp, and along with 19th-century French poets, it was Stalin whom he read. (Back in Cambodia having not completed any degree, he taught French literature. His former students reported that Saloth Sar could recite many French poems from memory, but, in power, Pol Pot took particular aim at those who were biliterate.)

What the man who would later call himself “Pol Pot” emulated) many of Stalin’s traits—the relative austerity in which he lived, the continual search for traitors to blame for failures (“sabotage”) and root out, promulgation of grand plans (Stalin’s 5-year ones), an imperviousness to the cost in human life of his endeavors, and the isolation from reality that is common to rulers who are able to eliminate anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear. Chandler points out that Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was very isolated from news about what was going on in the world after fleeing to the protection of the North Vietnamese army and some Hill Tribesmen in northeastern Cambodia during the 1960s. In power in the mostly empty Phnom Penh, Pol Pot pored over confessions extracted under torture at Tuol Sleng, but had neither any training or any inclination to evaluate economic data.

Like another major influence, Mao Zedong, when Pol Pot did venture out, what he saw were charades that supported his fantasies about increasing productivity. Pol Pot directly imported the delusion that collectivized rice cultivation could triple rice production. As in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” many starved while no one dared to tell the ideologue-in-chief that his belief in agricultural magic was not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Even more than Stalin, Mao was indifferent to deaths related to advancing his agenda of collectivizing agriculture. (Mao also expressed an unconcern about tens of millions of Chinese being killed by nuclear bombs.) Pol Pot/the Khmer Rouge were unconcerned about those driven from the cities dying, valuing peasant virtues and believing city-dwellers were corrupt.

The Khmer Rouge years have been called “autogenocide.” As far as the revolution eating the revolutionaries (in the tradition of the French and Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions) this is certainly accurate, and many Cambodians were killed or starved to death during the Khmer Rouge years. The “base people” (those who did not live in cities when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975) received more food than the “new people”—that is, those driven from the cities, new to the countryside. A majority of suspect city people were of Chinese or Vietnamese descent. As in other Southeast Asia economies, much of the business (and such industry as there was) had been in the hands of Chinese. Thus, the “social cleansing” of emptying the city and discriminating for the rural natives (in this case, Khmers) cannot really be separated from “ethnic cleansing.” To a considerable extent, the Khmer Rouge was a nativist regime, glorifying the people (Khmers) who had built the monuments of Angkor civilization a millennium earlier.

Chandler makes very, very clear that the North Vietnamese defeated the US-backed Lon Nol regime, which deposed Prince Sihanouk in 1970, and that Pol Pot resented his years of dependency on the Vietnamese a great deal. Many of the Cambodian communists (including himself) had spent time in North Vietnam and been protected by the North Vietnamese army in eastern Cambodia.

The communists purported to be fighting to restore Sihanouk (who was revered by many Cambodians) and reinstalled him—under de facto house arrest—in his palace. The Chinese communists (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was still raging) were the patrons of the Pol Pot regime, supplying arms. The PRC support for the Khmer Rouge is one of Mao’s many crimes against humanity. As animosity between the PRC and USSR communist states increased, and Nixon and Kissinger curried favor with the PRC to discomfit the USSR, the PRC/USSR hostility was acted out in Southeast Asia with the Khmer Rouge backed by China (and implicitly by the US), Vietnam by the Russians.

In December of 1978 the Vietnamese (again) swept across Cambodia. This time the Thais (also complicit with the PRC and an enemy of the Vietnamese) provided protection for the Khmer Rouge, and still under the command of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge sallied across the border to raid western Cambodia. Having spent the 1960s on both sides of the eastern border of Cambodia, Pol Pot spent the 1980s and 90s on both sides of the western border, continuing civil war against a regime in Phnom Penh put in power and supported by aliens (this time the Vietnamese rather than the Americans).

Pol Pot continued to fixate on traitors and was finally deposed as head of the Khmer Rouge in November of 1997 having ordered the execution of his longtime close associate Son Sen (ten additional members of Son’s family were also murdered). Less than a year later he died (ostensibly of heart failure) unrepentant about his policies (or modus operandi of creating and eliminating traitors). He claimed “I did everything for my country,” begging the question of what his country was, but certainly showing yet again that nationalism eclipsed universalism for communist leaders (and making me wonder again if Emerson was right about patriotism being the last resort of scoundrels”—it so often seems to be the first one!)


Pol Pot remains opaque. His ability to maintain delusions about the soundness of his economic and social policies is striking. Chandler illuminates some influences, in particular China’s Cultural Revolution (though Mao only sent Red Guards who had gotten out of his control to the countryside and did not go so far as emptying China’s cities) and the ambivalence toward the patronage (and patronizing) by the Vietnamese. Chandler has sorted out where Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was most of the time, but not what he was thinking.

The book is excellent history, providing much to think about, necessarily thin as biography. Chandler seems to use all available information and seems to cut through the disinformation Pol Pot provided on the rare occasions he made autobiographical statements.

Having started reading the book in Cambodia and after reading Loung Ung’s memoir from just barely above the ground of being forced out of Phnom Penh and enduring the depredations of the Pol Pot years, I was particularly interested in sorting out blame. There is a lot to go around and multiple candidates. Certainly, the ones most responsible are the Khmer Rouge. It is clear from Chandler’s account that they would never have come to power without the North Vietnamese, and the foreign policies of Sihanouk, Nixon, and Mao. And I wouldn’t want to leave out such apologists as Noam Chomsky, either. (As far as I know, Chomsky has not recanted what he wrote about the Khmer Rouge—patriotism is not the only refuge of scoundrels…) The Vietnamese to some extent remedied their earlier errors by removing the Khmer Rouge from power, while the US, Thailand, and the PRC in various ways are responsible for the continued depredations by the Khmer Rouge after 1978.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray