bookspluslife

June 29, 2012

Book: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:58 am

Heinrich Boll is a German author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and this book is one of his better known books. However, the expectations raised by the above are completely belied by the book itself. It talks about a stunningly pretty waitress called Katharina Blum who, one day, calls a journalist to her house, calmly kills him in broad daylight, and then wanders about town for almost half a day before walking into a police station to give herself up. What makes it even more weird is that she was being investigated and interviewed by police for being an accessory to help a criminal escape, at that very time.

This is so out of character for her and the story travels back slowly to reveal what prompted the girl to go to such extreme. The author tries to describe the pressure piled upon her by the police and also the harassment at the hand of yellow journalism (“The News”) that slanders her with seeming impunity.

However, it is really hard to be sympathetic to her because she seems to be taken in by a vicious criminal and shuns the affection of a nice and well to do man; knowing what he has done, she still does everything she can to help him, even if it means breaking the law.  Her self described lifestyle itself is one of irresponsibility and lack of responsibility. Her brother, Kurt, is in jail, a criminal. Her mother was not a paragon of virtue either.

Katharina married Brett Loh, who turned out to be a scum and divorced him soon thereafter.

Other characters include Wolshteins, with whom Katharina stayed when she moved to Berlin, Beizanne and Hach, two police detectives who seem to show a shockingly lax sense of what is right.

Other characters seem to be equally bizarre. Dr and Mrs Blorna seem to like her, Dr Blorna being infatuated by her as well, despite being her father’s age. She meets one Ludwig Gotten, the criminal mentioned above, and falls for him supposedly instantly and would do anything for him. The police suspect that they must have known each other before for the same reason.

The storytelling is average and the story itself is nonintuitive. This book does not satisfy and is definitely not a good introduction to this Nobel prize winning author.

Let us say, a 2/10
— Krishna

Advertisements

June 25, 2012

Book: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:34 am

Malcolm Gladwell has written a few books almost all of them a bestseller, an impressive feat. In addition, he also has given a remarkably popular TED speech on brands and marketing, which is fascinating.

Well, this is an another book, in the vein of Freakanomics  or The Undercover Economist (Both reviewed earlier here),  that is entertaining and informative at the same time. Unlike the other two, this one talks about `social epidemics’.
The best way to describe it is, like the author, to give an example. At one point in time, the Hush Puppies were about to be decommissioned because of sluggish sales throughout its history. Then the business executives heard rumours that in the quaint shops that still sold them, there was a sudden demand for them. Very soon, the company found that suddenly the Hush Puppies had become a hot commodity and they started selling millions of pairs a year! The company was not promoting them – as they were planning to pull it from the production lines. Who made this happen? As it happens, it is
just a handful of kids who started wearing them – soon everybody started noticing it and purely by word of mouth, a revolution was started that spread like wildfire.

Tipping Point has theories about how this happens in various cases. The author’s lucid style and the examples he quotes in support of his theories are fascinating. His discussion on how the TV presenter Dan Rather’s audience voted Republican substantially more than the others is interesting.

What is even more interesting is that, like Freakanomics, he discusses the crime drop in New York City, and how suddenly it happened. However, he reaches a completely different conclusion on the causes of the drop. (Frankly, I agree with the Freakanomics author Stephen Levitt more).

It is interesting that two people, Paul Revere and “this other man” (I forgot the name) started with identical messages  (“The British are invading us”) through two separate routes to Washington, stopping at several villages in the middle and warning the villagers to be ready. While the villages in Paul’s route were well prepared and surprised the British when they came, the villages in the other person’s route were completely unprepared. Why? The answer is fascinating.

The author talks also about a Salesman who can charm the socks off anyone, a man who is obsessed about obtaining as much knowledge as he/she can about a special interest, an many other such oddities.

Some of the claims made in the book stretch your credulity: for instance, the contention that some charismatic people, just by being in the room with others – without any direct communication with the rest of the people in the room – can lift the mood of the people of the entire room. Really?

The discussions on the Power of Context are interesting as well.

On the whole, I think is it a good and entertaining read.

I will give it a 7/10

— Krishna

June 22, 2012

Book: Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:06 pm

Who can forget The English Patient (or the hilariously funny episode about how boring the movie is to the ordinary folk on the street in `Seinfeld’)?  This blog reviewed the book earlier.
This book is by Michael Ondaatje, who, after a hiatus of a few years in fictional work, had turned up this and also his more acclaimed Divisadero in quick succession.

First of all, you have to like Michael’s way of storytelling to enjoy any of his books, and this one is no exception. I can see that most will be turned off by the random walk of events that seems to happen in the story.

The Sri Lankan conflict is in the heart of Anil’s Ghost. For those familiar with Indian/ Sri Lankan names, it may come as a surprise that Anil is the name of a lady in the book – and not a man. There is an interesting side story of how Anil came to have that masculine name.

Anil Tissera is originally a Colombo girl, who moved to the UK and then to US and studied to be a forensic scientist. After being sent to investigate genocidal crimes in Africa and Central America, she comes back to Sri Lanka as a member of the UN delegation sent to investigate mass murders by the government. She is there, however, at the `request’ of the Sri Lankan government, who were under pressure to disprove allegations that they were committing atrocities to contain the insurgency.

She is asked to work with Sarath Diyasena, a government employee and she suspects that he is a spy sent there to thwart her work. The suspicion only increases when Sarath tells her that his wife has been dead a few years and a restaurant owner tells her that Sarath comes there many times with his wife.

She discovers four skeletons (named by Sarath and her as Tinker, Soldier, Sailor and Spy) and is convinced that she can uncover their killer can only belong to the government agencies.

She tries to reconstruct the face from the skull with the help of Ananda, an extraordinary sculptor who was recommended to her through Palipana through Sarath. (Details on Palipana follows)

The rest of the story tracks her and Sarath’s experiences in trying to uncover the truth.

The story is populated with memorable characters: Gamini Diyasena, Sarath’s wayward brother who is a medical officer trying to save lives in chaotic conditions where even anesthetic is sometimes unavailable to do an operation. It also includes Palipana, a brilliant scholar of ancient rock carvings who rose to the height of fame with his skill and crashed into ignominy when he started saying things those sources were proved to be his own figments of imagination.  The story touches upon Gamini’s failed marriage and his obsessive work habits, on Palipana’s withdrawal to a reclusive existence in a forest and his subsequent blindness; on Palipana’s niece who witnessed the murder of her parents in the hands of  terrorists and her subsequent shock. Also explored is Anil’s past, her unsatisfactory marriage and divorce and a passionate affair with a married man in the US. Her close friendship with a dear friend who suddenly leaves her without so much as an explanation also forms a subtext of the story. Added to it is the political atmosphere, including a suicide attack on the President.

Well, who is Anil’s Ghost? Answering that question would be to reveal the ending of the book and would be a great spoiler, and so I will not do it here.

The story is well told and stays in your mind for a long time. Do NOT read this if you did not like the English Patient, because the prose is similar and the storytelling also is very, very close to it.

Ondaatje is careful not to take sides in the ethnic conflict of Sri Lanka, and is careful to distance himself from the analysis of the rights or wrongs of the position of the various combatants involved in what is essentially a civil war through atrocities on all sides.

A great read, if you like the style and I should say 7/10

— Krishna

June 21, 2012

Movie: Men in Black 3 (2012)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:17 am

This is a sequel to the two Men in Black movies that came out earlier. Here is an ageing Will Smith playing Agent J again. This time, he is out to correct history and save Agent K, who has been whitewashed out of existence by a time travelling villain, Boris the Animal. (Yes, it follows all the traditions of the earlier movies, right down to the naming conventions)

The first Men in Black was phenomenal, the concept very cool and a playful portrayal of two Ultra Secret Service Agents with improbable gadgetry trying to control the world which is full of disguised aliens was fabulous.

The Second Men in Black was a pale shadow of the first. Where the first ends memorably with Agent K signing off saying that ‘he is too old for this’ and had a satisfying ending, the second one brought him back as Agent J recognizes that there is no one else who can partner him to fight an old super enemy. It was forgettable.

This one, the Third Installment is a lot better. Agent K, in his youth, apprehended Boris the Animal, after chopping his hand off, in a combat and sent him to an isolated prison on the moon.

He then goes off to the past to replay the combat and win this time, killing Agent K, and thereby changing history.

Agent J finds out that one day he was talking to Agent K, and the next, Agent K has ‘disappeared’ and what is even more funny, no one else but him seem to remember him, except as an agent who lost his life to Boris the Animal a very long time ago!

Agent J decides to travel back in time, find Boris and stop him from killing Agent K, thereby changing history back to what it should have been.

Well, a convoluted story, worthy of any Men in Black series, but it has its moments. Many things elevate this movie from the level of the Second Movie and almost take it to the level of the first one, where the wonder was new and the storyline was fresh.

First of all, he learns that Agent K was not always dour and laconic, and he was a fun and convivial person in the past. Why he became what he became – the famous Agent K of the first two movies? You find out in this movie. This is an interesting twist.

In the bargain, Agent J (Will Smith) finds out a lot more than what he bargained for. That is a very nice twist at the end too.

The humour is there, and is fresh as well.

Boris the Animal is interesting, where he seemingly can produce tiny hand like appendages from his one remaining hand (The other was lopped off by Agent K, remember?) and can shoot lethal dart like things at people.

The biggest surprise is Agent K. The “old” Agent K is Tommy Lee Jones in all his glory but he has a small part in the movie until he disappears soon enough.

The time travel happens and the way it occurs is also very much unexpected and fun. But when he is back in time, he meets Young Agent K, played by Josh Brolin, who has done a remarkable job of portraying the mannerisms of a young Tommy Lee Jones. You fully believe that this is a Young Agent K. By the way, Agent J (being black) discovers more than Agent K when he travels back in time. He discovers how America was in the sixties. Funny scenes follow.

The budding romance between Agent K and Agent O (and what it might have been if Agent K had not “changed” ) adds another dimension to the story.

All in all, a very enjoyable romp, if you do not look for logic – but then, all of the MIB movies were such, were they not?

I will give it a 7/10

 

— Krishna

June 19, 2012

Book: Nineteen Eighty Four (1984) by George Orwell

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:40 pm

You have heard of Tony Blair but have you heard of Eric Arthur Blair? No? Nor had I until about a month ago. I would have, like you probably would, said that I know nothing about the latter. But if someone told me that Eric Arthur Blair is the real name of George
Orwell, then suddenly you do know a lot about that man!

It is interesting to see that he was born in India, that he fought for the Republicans in Spain and was wounded in the war. It is also
interesting to note that he wrote his two most famous novels Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four after he went technically mentally unstable – in fact just before his death.

George Orwell was admitted briefly into a Sanatorium in 1938. He was discharged shortly thereafter “but never really recovered” according to most sources.

His Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four are both brilliant critiques of the communist or socialist regimes and tell the story of the
extremes to which this thinking can lead, if taken to their extreme logical conclusion. (To see a real world example of what an extremely idealistic implementation can do to people, read `Pol Pot: A History of a Nightmare‘ by Phillip Short reviewed earlier here.

This book is such a classic that many of the terminology has passed into common lore like NewSpeak, Big Brother, and ThoughtCrime, just to name a few things.

The story follows the life of Winston Smith. He is stuck in a “future” society in 1984, where Big Brother sees everything and there are telescreens in every house and every place, and every member of the family has been turned into potential spies who can rat on their own family members. The child bearing and rearing is a planned activity, and you are even taught how to think by eliminating all undesirable words from English and turning it into NewSpeak. For example, if there is really no word in the language for rebellion, how can you even think of it, let alone plan and execute it?

And all countries in the World are combined into three Mega States, called Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. These mega states are perpetually at war with each other, alliances changing by the day.

Even showing displeasure by face (a grimace or insufficient happiness at a news being telecast) can land you in prison or cost you your
life.

All Ministries have been named according to NewSpeak Principles: MiniPlenty is the Ministry of Agriculture (where there is always shortage of food), MiniPeace is Ministry of War, IngSoc is the new version of English Socialism, MiniLove is the Ministry of Punishment and so on.

The narration is chilling. One can see why it is a classic. The language is exquisite and the story flows smoothly from scene to scene. The attention to detail is amazing and really transports you into the place and “time” to give you a real feel for the story.

In the midst of all these chaos, Winston manages to cheat a little by buying a diary from an unregulated area (a crime) and recording his thoughts on it (a bigger crime). When he realizes that there is an attractive girl called Julia who seems to think like him, and what is more, there are fellow employees (like, for instance, O’Brien) who dare to think that the existing system is wrong, he contacts them at a great risk to himself. He even manages to hire a hideaway apartment, away from the cameras and meets Julia there.

The first part of the book is about Hope, which builds on his discoveries and creates an atmosphere of resistance, giving hope that one can take on established order, however much it imposes controls on the society at large.

He learns the truth about the supposedly evil resistance leader called Goldstein. He discovers that there is a quiet hatred against
the suppressive regime.

The second part of the book is about the Disappointment, where his plans go awry, and he discovers what happens to the people who dare to resist the ideology in place. This part is brilliantly narrated as well. In fact, the despair, the hopelessness introduced by the regimen, the dirigisme in almost every walk of life, and the lack of even moving space in daily life, is all brought out by the colour and texture of description, rather than in so many words.

You know why it is a classic when you read it, and it carries you along effortlessly in its flow, a hallmark of truly great writing.

It sounds exaggerated in many places but that is the whole point of the story. It is a satire told in a very somber mood.

I would give it a 8/10

— Krishna

June 18, 2012

Movie : Last Train Home (2009)

Filed under: Movies — Tags: , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:28 pm

This is a movie, but more correctly, a documentary marketed as a movie.

This movie is about the immigrant population of China, which lives in towns in China due to the demand for labour in the cities and their living conditions and the struggle they go through.

The movie stays away from the controversial rights issue – how the rural population, who comes in search of the jobs is denied the education and other rights accorded to the recognized city population – the infamous Hukou permit system. It simply sheds life on the miserable living conditions of the people in cities vs the improvement of life due to the money sent home by these people back to their rural communities.

This follows a family of five, to drive home the point and also personalize the experience. Changua Zhan, the father who travels to the city every year to stay for most of the year in a sweatshop. His wife Sugin Chen, who joins him there, the grandmother Tingsui Tang who is left back at home and who looks after Qin Zhang, a girl of 14 and Yang Zhang, a boy of about 8.

The father and mother go through enormous hazard every year to get the tickets to go back home, and ‘home’ is about 3000 km away in another province! The travel is sometimes standing room only, sometimes the trains are cancelled without notice and the milling crowd (which looks like a huge congregation assembled for the funeral of an international dignitary) waits uncertainly, pushing, shoving, and barely under control, the police struggling to keep some kind of order.

The personal travails of the family is the other side of the coin, where the grandmother brings up the kids. The life they lead is a poor person’s life, but without the money sent by the factory worker parents, they would be much more impoverished. The parents are so out of touch with the kids since they come only once a year, that the kids have no bonding with them and the elder kid even prays at Grandpa’s grave for the parents to go away. The father says to the mother that they run out of things to say when they go home.

The constant refrain of everyone to the kids is “You should study hard, or you will end up like us” from the parents and the grandparents, and when the elder kids chooses to work in a factory rather than continue school, the parents are very disappointed.

The kid shouts at the camera at one specific time after a family fight that turns physical: “You wanted to film me as I am, right? Look! This is the real me!”.

Still, the movie drags in many places and you get a sense of déjà vu when the same scenes are repeated with minor variations. We get what it is to go home every year in the peak season, and to see them do it at least three times is like watching the same movie again. Sometimes, the movie has the look of the New Age Movie, less substance and more visuals and mundane themes, so you frankly get bored part of the time.

Interesting subject, but could have had a much better narration.

 

I will give it a 3/10

 

— Krishna

June 13, 2012

Book: The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Agren

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:43 pm

This is a story about Francis Majcinek, or “Frankie Machine” as he is known and his cohorts. They all live in a suburb – the poorest underbelly – of the 1950s Chicago. Frankie is the man with the “Golden Arm”; he is a card sharp (card dealer) in a club.

This book is ahead of times. It was published in 1959, and it was one of the very few books that dealt with the unsavoury parts of the modern society, the people left behind by progress, struggling to survive. The style takes some getting used to: you need to read about 50 odd pages of the book before you begin to see their world and start getting into the story per se.

The characterizations are well done. There is Frankie who dated and married Sophie. Sophie has been quietly controlling, always quarrelling, and when in an accident she gets hurt and cannot (or does not want to) walk again, spending her life in a wheelchair, she uses the guilt successfully to keep Frankie bound to her.

Molly-O, a rival for Frankie’s attention initially before giving way to Sophie, lives with Drunkie John who regularly abuses and beats her. Frankie can never figure out why she does not throw him out or walk out.

Violet, the gorgeous redhead, is stuck with the elderly Stash, who seems to lock up all the valuables in the house so that his wife could not get her hands on them. Vi finds solace in the arms of Solly Saltskin (alias “Punk”) whom Frankie rescued from certain perdition and `adopted’ to be his partner in petty crimes (dog stealing, shoplifting). Frankie dreams of escaping the life of a dealer and becoming a Drummer in a Band, where his interest is, and where he believes his true talents lie.

Frankie, in a weak moment, gives in to Niftie Louie and his drugs which seem to capture him and lead him in a downward spiral. He finds solace in the arms of Molly-O, who makes it her life’s mission to rescue him from the drug habit.

The misery and the futility of the lives lived, dreams dreamt, plans made, and disappointments swallowed regularly make this an interesting read.

The story is populated by further interesting characters like the Umbrella Man who goes everywhere with his umbrella, Piggy-O, a blind and dirty person perpetually cajoling people for a drink until he comes into a fortune unexpectedly by using his head at the right time, and who also inherits Louie’s drug trade after the latter’s untimely death, Antek, the owner of the pub, Record Head, the warden of the police station who struggles with his conscience and pity for the poor criminals, Jailor, who is a landlord for Frankie and others and others who are equally interesting.

The story style is interesting and the metaphors are riveting. The author talks about a person with a 35lb pound monkey on his back constantly, until you realize that it is a metaphor for his unbreakable drug habit. Also there is the repeated tear of the uniform of Frankie’s at the sleeve, which is a metaphor for his drug addiction. Molly tries to repair both with only temporary periods of success, after which they both revert to their state of disrepair.

The agony of the people is well brought out. The interplay of the characters is good.

All in all, a very different kind of read, and I think it deserves a 6/10

— Krishna

June 12, 2012

Movie: Prometheus (2012)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:04 pm

The movie has its moments, I will grant you that. The special effects are good, and the tie ins on how Alien became Alien (ie how it came to take the dreaded shape in the series) is well told.

But there is a lot that jars in the movie. First, a synopsis of the story. An old man Peter funds the research into an alien race, and this funding is started by a holographic presentation where Peter informs the group that he recorded this when he was alive and that he is dead many years if they are watching this. Thus starts an expedition into an alien planet in a space ship. Joining the scientific crew is Peter’s own daughter, Meredith Wickers (Charlize Theron) who is the mission director and therefore is in command of the operation.

When they land on a planet called Achelon, they go into a cave and are startled to discover that there are many drums sealed – thousands and thousands, which they are not used to. There is an android called David (just as in Aliens  or was it Aliens 3?)  who keeps awake during the travel while the travellers are frozen since the travel takes very many years, just to be unfrozen close to the end of the journey.

What follows is an adventure of a lifetime, where the alien race’s history is discovered, and finally, most of the crew meets its end.

The Aliens are created by a kind of a creature that absorbs the DNA of their victims and slowly changes form as it gets more and more victims…. until….

Anyway, the movie feels like it was written by a fifth grader. The dialogues are childish and the behaviour is bizzare. An example: Remember that these are trained scientists, grouped together because they are the best? They have to be repeatedly warned not to touch a gunky ooze that comes out of the sealed camps when they “disturb something in the atmosphere” and start a transformation. What?

You think that is crazy? How about this? The air in the new planet is highly toxic (as indicated by some kind of spectrometer thingie attached to their space suit).  But inside the cave, there is 25% Oxygen and 75% Nitrogen, again as indicated by the machine. What do these professional scientists do? Take their headgear off and breath the air! No thought about the strangeness of the land and even any microbes that may be there with unknown effects. No… Just try breathing air, that would solve the problem. And since this person who did this survived for 10 seconds, every one else decide it is safe to remove their breathing apparatus. Brilliant.

The history of the place is recorded in some kind of weird, static filled 3D film, where people who flicker run along and repeat what they have done.

Want more? When a snake like thing comes out of water and looks at one person in the face, he goes near it  at once and decides it is cute enough to try and touch it. Trained scientists, people! And of course it kills him instantly.

Or the scientists just running for their lives but go back to retrieve a “head” they collected in spite of the surety of their dying in a storm. It is not even as if they had to leave the planet. They just want to stay in the space ship until morning, when the storm has hopefully passed. Can anyone tell me why the head, sealed in a bag could not be left out in an uninhabited planet until morning?

Charlize Theron has a very minor role, and is almost insignificant in the movie, which is a surprise. While she is not heroic, hers (Meredith) seems to be the only character which has any sense. When she finds a dead man become undead and approach the space ship, she just fries him with fire. Finally, you say, someone with some semblance of sense.

All in all, despite references to the earlier movies of Aliens, this is a damp squib.

Not more than a 3/10

 

— Krishna

 

June 11, 2012

Book: Lucky Jim by Kinsley Amis

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:09 pm

Hailed as a masterpiece in comic writing, this story follows the life of Jim Dixon and is written in 1959, in the same era as such comic geniuses like PG Wodehouse were at the peak of their powers. (PG Wodehouse biography, Wodehouse – A Life , was reviewed here earlier. )

This book comes nowhere near the creation of Wodehouse. In fact, much of it is extremely annoying. The main characteristic of Jim is shirking work, trying to get by in life without making any effort, and also making a number of faces appropriate to the occasion whenever annoyed, taking care to ensure that no one is watching when he does make these faces. He comes across as completely lazy and irresponsible.

The story also has Professor Welch, an absent minded principal of the college where Jim is a lecturer waiting for confirmation of his appointment, hating his work, well into drinks and pranks. His son Bertrand Welch is a painter, untalented but a social climber using his father’s contacts shamelessly. His new love is Christine Callaghan, a sophisticated and pretty girl. He is of course two timing her with an adulterous affair with Carol Goldsmith.

James is tied to Margaret who was in love with Catchpole and tried to kill herself when he did not return her commitment to a long, married life. Jim saves her and has an affair with her at the same time, all the while longing for Christine, who is unattainable, according to Margaret’s disparaging remark when she catches on to his dog like adoration of Christine.

Well, he just stumbles through life, burning the quilt by falling asleep with a burning cigarette in his mouth, and also staining the priceless wooden side table with cigarette left lit on it, and in the bargain, manages to burn the carpet too. He hides the table in a junk room, he turns the carper over and cuts off the burnt bits of the quilt, in an attempt at cover up until at least he has left the house of the Professor and hopes that the wife will not tell the professor before his confirmation in the post – wow, a picture of organized planning! (This is all supposed to be hilariously funny)

Gore-Urquhart, an uncle of Christine, a celebrity in his own right, is thrown into the mix.

Very few scenes are even interesting – Jim discovering Bertrand Welch’s infidelity or the scene where he escorts Christine back to the room or the final scene where he dashes off to meet her leaving on the train.

Most of it is excruciatingly boring or plain childish.

Would give this one a 2/10

— Krishna

June 8, 2012

Book: Pol Pot – A History of Nightmare by Philip Short

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:01 am

Like, Hitler, Pol Pot arouses curiosity among those who knew what he did: How was one mad man allowed to do what he did to a whole nation, without any revolt? In modern times, Pol Pot is always depicted with a huge number of human skulls associated with him in pictures, including the one on the cover of this very comprehensive book.

Pol Pot was responsible for the death of about 1.5 million people in the very short time (about three years) of the rule of Khmer Rouge, the communist outfit that captured power in Combodia at the same time Vietnam and Laos were swept by the Communist armies, and at about the time US withdrew from Vietnam, after unsuccessfully trying to dislodge and defeat the Viet Cong. (See the excellent novel Dispatches by Michael Herr of an inside story of what it was to be in
the US army at that time.  )

In fact, this book is a revelation in more ways than one. We learn, for instance, how brutal Combodian life was, even before Pol Pot or Khmer Rouge. There were widespread reports of war victims being eaten by the conquerors, pillage, rape and looting were commonplace, and human rights as we know them in contemporary times nonexistent as a concept.

Pol Pot was a typical product of his times. He was a typical product of his times, and always had a polite smile on his face, even when he completely disagreed with you or even if he hated you!

He started life as Saloth Sar, and had numerous titles along the way, Pol and Pol Pot being just two of these. The interesting thing is that, even when he was at the top of the echelon of the CPK (Communist party of Kampuchea, or Khmer Rouge) he was so secretive that he did not even sit in the middle of the meetings with outsiders. Everyone else thought that Kieu Samphan, the erudite face of the movement, was its leaders. In earlier photos, you see Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) sitting on a side, even half cut off from the camera angle, leaning attentively to listen to what was being said. This allowed most to underestimate him until he came to power and had to reluctantly step into the limelight.

He said later that his enemies knew who he was but not what he was. The communists included Nuon Chea, whom everyone knew as a Trader (of Sino Vietnamese origin) and whose trade helped as a cover to allow him to travel far and wide, rallying supporters. What is the most surprising is that three brothers from the wealthy aristocratic family including Thiounn Thiounn joined the unlikely party of communists. His wife Mala once boasted that `only kings have more than what we had’. But they also suffered after Khmer Rouge came to power, even when Thiounn was a Minister. Mala saw her partents only once briefly after the revolution, when they had lost all their possessions, and shortly thereafter they starved to death, along with many others in the camps they stayed in.

Pol Pot’s victims (1.5 million) may have been smaller in number than people who suffered in the Great Leap Forward in China but as a percentage of population, these were higher.

Combodia was almost lawless even before Pol Pot and remained so after his death. As recently as 1998. a sixteen year old girl was quietly having soup in a small nondescript restaurant with her younger brother, when a well dressed woman came behind her with bodyguards, gripped her hair and dragged her to the ground, and the guards calmly poured nitric acid on her face and body, irredeemably disfiguring her and almost killing her in the process. Her crime? She was Tat Marina, a stunningly beautiful actress who caught the eye of a Minister called Sray Sittha, who seduced her and put her up in an apartment as his concubine. The wife of the minister, Khoun Sophal, whom a friend described later as `the gentlest soul; a delightful person’ was the woman who took her revenge with acid on the hapless actress.

Pol Pot was able to capture power because the brutality of the previous regimes had already made life hell for the citizens, especially those away from towns like Phnom Penh. The culture is full of cruel images and stories. Their version of the Indian Epic Ramayana (called `Reamker’) is much more violent and gory than the original. The other major religion, Theravada Buddhism, has Dante-esque  descriptions of hell where the torture of souls is described in gory details.

They had to be tough and rough because all their neighbours were too. For many decades, Combodia was repeatedly conquered and oppressed by the Vietnamese and the Thais, who plundered, raped, looted and tortured the vanquished race without mercy. Even Buddhist schools were very strict, where the slightest disobedience earned you a thrashing, and where some teachers made errant students lie down on red anthills swarming with ants as a punishment.

The King was revered as divine and even after French occupation and French rule, was revered within the Royal Palace as an absolute monarch. Sar’s two sisters reached a very coveted status as the King’s concubines.

The King’s court was a strange sight for the uninitiated. Even the princes, mandarins, and other dignitaries (Frenchmen excluded, of course) had to crawl on all fours in the King’s presence. No one had the right to speak unless addressed first. What about those not of Royal blood? They had to address themselves in his presence with “We, who carry the King’s excrement on our heads…” (Really! I am not making this up….)

And they had really strict notions on what a woman’s place in the world is. Their moral code or “cpap”, advised women thus: “Never turn your back on your husband when he sleeps and never touch his head without first bowing in his honour. Respect and fear his wishes and take his advise to heart. If he gives an order, don’t hesitate a moment in responding… Avoid posing as an equal to your husband – and never above he, who is your master. If he insults you, go to your quarters and reflect. Never insult or talk back to him….”

Vietnamese were the enemies. Most extreme and unlikely stories were believed about them, like this one: “Vietnamese captured three Khmer (Combodian) princes and buried them upto their neck in the earth. Then they put a large plate that straddled their heads, lit a fire in between and made tea on a pot on the plate, enjoining the princes not to move lest they spill the master’s tea.” Every Khmer knew that sugar plums stop growing a few miles from Vietnamese border “because they don’t want to grow in Vietnam”. Though Thai’s also had conquered Combodia many times, they were somehow not as resented.

The French, after conquering Lower Combodia, encouraged Vietnamese migration in such large numbers that it eventually became South Vietnam.

It is easy to imagine one oppressive form of government replacing another, and it makes clear how a regime like Khmer Rouge could take over the country – even welcomed initially by the people…

When the French were defeated and Germany occupied France in World War II, the Vichy regime inherited Combodia but the French were seen as weak and the Vietnamese and Chinese governments worked full time to implant Communism and overthrow the French and the King together from Combodia. Saloth Sar, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and other future
leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement went to France to study and formed Celeste Marxiste, a communist organization. Their model was, oddly enough, the French Revolution, rather than the Marxist ideals. By culture and background, rather than intent, they also sprinkled principles of Theravada Buddhist notions of renunciation, sacrifice of the self and other concepts – but not to the higher power but to the State. This was fortuitous, as this helped create a flavour of Communism that was palatable to the masses.

Sensing French weakness, the Prince Norohom Sihanouk, declared Independence of Combodia and also renounced the throne in favour of his father, the ex-King, in order to form a National Party. He ruled but unfortunately with a lot of oppression and authoritarian tendencies, which alienated the population and increased poverty and misery of the people.

In the meanwhile Saloth Sar, the future Pol Pot, came back and joined the Vietnamese organized Communist party. Since the Vietnamese needed the help of the Prince in their struggele against the US, based in South Vietnam, Pol Pot did not get any support and then decided to break away from the Vietnamese tutelage and launch an armed struggle. In the meanwhile, Prince Sihanouk was overthrown by his own Prime Minister, Lon Nol, and took refuge in China. After occupying part of Combodia for years, Khmer Rouge captured Phom Penh, executed Lon Nol and others and formed the government in 1975.

The people danced in the street when the troops entered but next day were ordered en masse out to live in communes. All property was confiscated. All land was confiscated. No use of cars were allowed. People were marched without rest, and many thousands perished, unused to all the hard labour, even before they reached the destimation. All houses had to be identical, thatched roof structures. Even families were not allowed to be together and the men, women and children were all segregated. The weak and the “unreformable” were murdered on the spot. A reign of terror was unleased, the likelihood of which Combodia had never seen. In spite of it, Pol Pot did not reveal that the government was even Marxist! His soldiers looted and pillaged in the name of `Angkor’ the earlier kingdom that signified, for most Combodians, what was the peak of glory of Combodia and also built the world famous “Angkor Wat”. Even Mao Tse Tung, on whose help they were totally dependent, cautioned him several times to tone down his idealism. He got the enigmatic smile in reply and his advice was completely ignored.

The S-71 camp on the border with Thailand became the dreaded “Auschwitz” of Combodia. Those, including the deputies that were close to Pol Pot and fell out with him later, who were sent there never returned alive. Stalinistic purges became the norm and a culture of fear permeated the society and the party itself.

In personal life, after rejection from the girl he loved as a youngster, he marries Khieu Ponnari, who became schizophrenic and unmanageable. After sending her away to her parent’s house, many years later, he married a young girl and fathered a child named Sitha.

His government was chaotic with instructions interpreted differently in different areas and no apparent central control.

Quixotic decisions were taken. The currency was abolished for good, and throughout Combodia, there was only a barter system in place (apparently in accordance with “pure” communist principles). Any real or imagined slight was punishable by death. Private scores were settled in the name of ideology.

When he was finally overthrown, he retreated to the mountains, in a small area still in control of Khmer Rouge, when, finally, aged 71, he was captured. While being tried for war crimes, he passed away peacefully in sleep. He remained unrepentant to his end.

The government that replaced him was beholden to Vietnamese, and after a brief interregnum of democracy, a coup by Hun Sen established another Marxist dictatorship that endures till today.

A really sad tale of an unfortunate country, with seemingly never ending problems. The current economic miracle must be doubly miraculous for them!

The book itself is a mixed bag. The story is interesting but the storytelling is not outstanding – it conveys the story adequately. A huge cast of characters makes the first half very confusing. Throughout the book, events unfold without the full import of the drama being fully explained. Still it is worth a read.

I would say, it deserves overall a 6/10

— Krishna

Older Posts »

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: