Saturday, February 03, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Cambodia

Before reading William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down," the geography and politics of the far east (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam) has been a big muddle to me. Other than the obvious events, I viewed it as a confusing place where wars spread back and forth across mountainous borders, politicians switched sides, and lots of people keep dying in wartime fighting that mutates into new forms every generation.

Now I'm on volume five of the book, so I've started my crash course in eastern history. The book consists of several "studies in consequences," and are written in that captivating style of Vollmann-Investigative-Reporting. In this volume, Vollmann travels to war-torn regions of southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa, trying to clarify the studies in the previous four volumes: when do soldiers, politicians, and citizens in these countries feel that violence is justified?

I love the way he writes. He immerses himself in the region, and likewise immerses himself in the report: I'm not reading about Cambodia here, I'm reading about William T. Vollmann in Cambodia. What stands out in these painfully gorgeous stories is Vollmann's sense of helplessness and his guilty reliance on good-natured locals to help and protect him. This mixture goes all the way back to "An Afghanistan Picture Show, Or How I Saved the World," where he travelled to Afghanistan in 1980 to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviet invasion. He wanted to take pictures of the fighters and find out what they needed, then create an "Afghanistan Picture Show" in America to raise money to buy necessities for them. Instead he found himself a terrible burden to the Afghanis, they had to feed him and support him constantly, and they didn't give a damn about his picture show; all they wanted from him was guns (which, since he was a rich American, they felt he was horribly rude in not providing) . His Afghanistan Picture Show fund-raiser managed to raise about $100...who wants to give gun-money to a cause they don't understand? So he wrote a book about his failure and his gratitude.

This feeling of guilt and helplessness pervades "The Skulls on the Shelves," the first "study in consequences." Fifteen years after "An Afghanistan Picture Show" he has hardened himself to some simple and unpleasant realities, but he's still a liability to his new-found friends, though he buys them a lot of expensive dinners. In this story, Vollmann zig-zags between Thailand and Cambodia in a five-year attempt to interview Pol Pot, or at least a high-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge. Helping him are his friends Vanny and D., locals who spend much of their time interpreting for him, going the places he can't go, and deterring him from potentially suicidal activities.

As I read the 150-page story I became aware that much of it is really told through D.'s experiences. Though she doesn't say much about how she feels, Vollmann shows the way she responds when they meet different people from different prominent groups in Cambodian and Thai society: rich, amoral business-people like "Wall Save" and "Madam Black Eyes," the ineffectual Thai policemen (who occasionally crack down on Vollmann's activies), the Cambodian "White" soldiers (corrupt and needy) and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (supposedly honest, but still brutal extortionists).

The people that Vollmann meets -- both Cambodian and Thai -- are shockingly sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge. They tend to make excuses for the horrible atrocities of "Pol Pot Time," blaming the Killing Fields on the Vietnamese or Chinese, or on "politics." When even D. begins to admire the Khmer Rouge, it becomes apparent that what people like about them is that they are "honest." They'll extort your money or kill you, but they tell you about it first and they are consistent in their approach.

What's more, the Reds are the enemies of the opposing "White" soldiers who are equally brutal and corrupt, but inconsistent in their approach, largely because they lack popular they can't extort enough money to make a profit.

I had learned that Thais who liked the Reds usually didn't like the Whites. The driver fell into this mold. He had once been involved in some gold business with the Reds, but the Whites kept shaking him down. The last straw came when he was doing a dinnerplate business with the Whites and then the border suddenly closed at a time when he happened to owe the Whites money. They took it out on his sister.

Vollmann keeps asking Khmer Rouge admirers if the Khmer Rouge are "Communist." The admirers always say no. Showing his many years of experience in journalism, Vollmann presses them to explain what Communism IS. Nobody knows, not even the Khmer Rouge members he eventually meets. To them, Communism is simply a rigid, hard way of doing things. Even "General X," who turns out to be one of the top-ranking Khmer generals, says this when Vollmann asks him who Karl Marx was (as translated by D.):

He don't know too much, but he know. Marx-Lenin system is very strong and strict. If they tell you do, then you must do, dead or alive. About the rule of Karl Marx they always make the tough rule. If they want you to go you have to go; if they tell you to stop you have to stop, tell you to turn right and you have to turn right; you can't say no. If you say no they are going to punish you.

Though Vollmann doesn't have enough of a sample to make a statement about this, the implication is that -- during "Pol Pot Time" -- the Khmer Rouge were torturing and murdering Cambodian undesireables without ever knowing the reasons behind it. It was just "politics." Which opened my eyes a little bit...we tend to such people as motivated by deep political ideals and convictions, as opposed to some mixture of compulsion, expediency, sadism, and basic class hatred.

Vollmann never does find Pol Pot, but the story is really about the people he meets along the way, and the way D. gradually degenerates into cynical boredom. If 1.5 million people in the killing fields can be excused as "just politics," and if the never-ending stream of disfigured land mine victims are no longer even noticed by the people who live there, how can you pick a side?

Easy: forget about their brutality, extortion, and illegitimacy. Just pick the group that is more honest. D. literally BEAMS when she hears stories about Khmer Rouge honesty. It all comes down to that.

Here are the last lines of the story, which (to me) is a collection of most of the themes rolled into a single paragraph:

Leaving behind me the spies and the lolling shop-ladies in their folding chairs, I looked across the frontier to Poipet, and then I looked across the street at the Thai immigration checkpoint, where the usual gaggle of submissive Thai journalists sat waiting to be told the news (like me, they were not allowed to cross the border; D. said that while I'd been in Phnom Penh she'd called some journalist friends of hers together for lunch and asked them if they had any leads on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; they told her that they could never even think of writing a story like that, because if they did they'd lose their jobs at the very least, and probably much, much worse); and just then I heard the dull sound of a big gun ten kilometers away; the police general said that that was White artillery; and I heard another shot and then another.


VanillaJ said...

It's a bizzare human attribute to have greater affection for "the devil you know", even if that devil is irrationally and unspeakably cruel. As long as they are consistently cruel, and in the ways you come to expect. Tsk-tsk, when it's put that way, it sounds so negative. Instead, let's dwell on the postive: the Khmer Rouge are honest folk!

Adam Thornton said...

When seeking a relationship, I tend to put "honesty" below "cruelty." But that's just me and it's a tight race...

Anonymous said...

I think I have to read this book. Some time, when I'm feeling brave.

Adam Thornton said...

I think it's worth it. A reader doesn't need to agree with every conclusion to appreciate the thought that's gone into it...and these "Case Studies" at the end are both illuminating and heartbreaking.