Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

4.5 32
by Philip Short

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Biography of the Khmer Rouge leaderSee more details below


Biography of the Khmer Rouge leader

Editorial Reviews

William Grimes
"Money, law courts, newspapers, the postal system and foreign telecommunications - even the concept of the city - were all simply abolished," Philip Short writes in his superb, authoritative account of the man and the madness that transformed Cambodia, almost overnight, into hell on earth. "Individual rights were not curtailed in favor of the collective, but extinguished altogether. Individual creativity, initiative, originality were condemned per se. Individual consciousness was systematically demolished."
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
Pol Pot once remarked that the Cambodian authorities in the nineteen-fifties “knew who I was; but they did not know what I was.” Short, in his attempt to explain how a young man known for his bland amiability came to preside over the deaths of a million and a half people, follows the dictator from a childhood spent partly among palace concubines through his student days in Paris (where he read Stalin because Marx was over his head) to his imposition of a “slave state.” Short does a good job on the political context of Pol Pot’s rise, on his Buddhist influences, and on his gift for subterfuge. He remained almost invisible until the moment he took power. Later, busy killing his aides, he hid a Vietnamese invasion from his Army—then lived on for two decades, drinking whiskey and reading Paris-Match at his jungle base, before dying peacefully in his own bed.
William T. Vollmann
No doubt some people will be offended by this book, not only for its indiscretions, but also for its restraint. Wasn't Pol Pot a monster pure and simple? How dare Short imply otherwise! This attitude, understandable though it is, hinders our apprehension of reality. The truth is that even now you can find poor people in Cambodia who -- no matter that they lost relatives in the Pol Pot time -- wish for the return of the Khmer Rouge.
— The New York Times Sunday Book Review
Library Journal
One and a half million Cambodians died at the hands of Pol Pot during his brief rule. More than a biography of the Cambodian leader, this work provides an informative political history of Cambodia over the past 50 years. A journalist with 25 years of reporting experience with the BBC, Short (Mao: A Life) has crafted a well-written narrative possessing both shocking detail and thoughtful analysis. The incredible history of murder and death by starvation and disease is widely known, but its origins are not. Short points to the influence of Cambodia's medieval past, the interplay of the tenets of Theravada Buddhism, and the insidious political roles played by the West. For example, he outlines how the United States helped maintain Pol Pot in office as a pawn to be used against the Soviet Union and Vietnam. Short extends his interpretation to demonstrate parallels in the breakdown of the Cambodian civilization with that of Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, and Mao's China. At times, the horrible nature of the subject elicits a haunting feeling when one contemplates the future of civilization. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/04.]-John F. Riddick, Central Michigan Univ. Lib., Mt. Pleasant Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
"He was very likeable, a really nice person. He was friendly, and everything he said seemed very sensible." But he was also one of history's most accomplished mass murderers, as this portrait shows. The man born Saloth Sar in 1925 was something of an accidental communist, suggests former Beijing BBC correspondent Short (Mao: A Life, 2000). As a young foreign-exchange student in 1950 Paris, Sar had the chance to go camping for a month in Switzerland but, unable to afford the $70 fee, instead took a free work-study trip to Yugoslavia. A revolutionary was thus born, though it appears that Sar was pushed hard to the left by the intransigent, newly installed Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who suppressed the democratic reform movements of the time. As a guerrilla living among the Montagnard people in Cambodia's eastern highlands, Sar slowly elaborated a city-dweller-hating ideology that, Short writes, would form the basis of a modern slave state: farmers outside the zone of urban corruption were the vanguard of a nativist revolutionary movement; urbanites were first in line to be imprisoned and executed. He adopted his new name (the Pols had been royal slaves) in 1970, the year the American invasion of Cambodia swelled the ranks of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot's peasant cadres drove the Americans away and, once the foreigners were gone, turned their weapons on their own people-often, Short writes, cannibalizing their victims. As many as 1.5 million Cambodians died from 1975 to 1978, when a Vietnamese invasion ended the terror. (Pol fled, dying 20 years later, still "chillingly unrepentant.") Yet, Short argues, recent attempts to try the surviving Khmer Rouge leadership for genocide are legally inexactand in all events seem intended to disguise America's role in the bloodbath, as well as the involvement of still-powerful figures like Sihanouk, who only recently abdicated. A superbly wrought, richly nuanced study in evil, though more likely to attract discussion for its controversial conclusion than its careful rendering of its murderous subject. Agent: Jacqueline Korn/David Higham Associates
From the Publisher
"A superb, authoritative account of the man and the madness that transformed Cambodia, almost overnight, into hell on earth" —William Grimes, New York Times

"Readable and capacious...the most thorough-going, most closely argued study of the Khmer Rouge to appear to date." —David Chandler, Far Eastern Economic Review

"Vividly drawn . . . Short's text sparkles with shrewdly plausible inferences mortared into a compelling narrative." —William T. Vollman, New York Times Book Review

"A well-written narrative possessing both shocking detail and thoughtful analysis. Highly recommended." —starred Library Journal

"A superbly wrought, richly nuanced study in evil." —starred Kirkus Reviews

"Broaden[s} the inquiry to the point where serious history begins, and serious judgments can be made." —Justin Wintle, Financial Times

“Philip Short’s Pol Pot is an almanac of extermination that achieves the near impossible feat of translating madness into logic. This biography is a tour de force.”—David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of W. E. B. DuBois

“An intelligent and compassionate account of the Cambodian nightmare.”—The Spectator

“Extraordinary and brilliant... This hugely impressive book is more than just the life story of an individual. It is also the biography of a nation... Short has exposed secrets, knitting together a story which it once seemed would never be told. The result is horrific, but it must be read.”—The Scotsman

“Unerringly broadens the enquiry to the point where serious history begins and serious judgments can be made.”—Financial Times

“A comprehensive and eloquent biography...This is a long, dark and necessary book..”—Literary Review, London

“Short is a gifted biographer who knows his communists. [His account] is the most definitive yet.”—Time [Asian edition]

“Short’s most valuable contribution is to bring clear thinking to the question of blame... He is brisk about the cynical policy of Vietnam... and also indicts the Chinese, who have largely escaped censure for their complicity with the Khmer Rouge.”—Sunday Times, London

“A brilliantly detailed account and a salutary one.”—Sunday Herald, Glasgow

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Meet the Author

Philip Short has been a foreign correspondent for The Times (London), The Economist, and the BBC in Uganda, Moscow, China, and Washington, D.C. He is the author of the definitive biography of Mao Tse-tung, and lived in China and Cambodia in the 1970s and early 1980s, where he has returned regularly ever since. He now lives in southern France with his Chinese wife.

Philip Short is the author of several books, among them the definitive biographies Mao: A Life and Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. He has been a foreign correspondent for The Times (London), The Economist, and the BBC in Uganda, Moscow, China, and Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

From Pol Pot:
There were many causes of the egregious tragedy that befell Cambodia in the last quarter of the twentieth century, and many actors amongst whom responsibility must be shared. The over-confidence of the country's new leaders, above all of its principal leader, the man who would become Pol Pot, was but one element among them, and at the time of the Khmer Rouge victory, one that was skillfully dissembled.

Another full year would pass before the reclusive figure who had directed the war on the communist side would emerge from clandestinity and take the name by which his compatriots, and the rest of the world, would remember him.

Even then, he did so reluctantly. For two decades he had operated under multiple aliases: Phouk, Hay, Pol, "87," Grand-Uncle, Elder Brother-to be followed in later years by "99" and Phem. "It is good to change your name," he once told one of his secretaries. "The more often you change your name the better. It confuses the enemy." Then he added, in a phrase which would become a Khmer Rouge mantra: "If you preserve secrecy, half the battle is already won." The architect of the Cambodian nightmare was not a man who liked working out in the open.

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