The torment of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge is often lost in the shadow of Mao's reign of terror. But in many ways, Pol Pot's frenzied genocide was far more frightening and far less contained, more psychosis than calculated political machination. Nic Dunlop couldn't get Cambodia off his mind—and in 1997 he traveled there to piece together what exactly had happened, and to hunt down Comrade Duch, Pot's chief executioner responsible for the deaths of over 2 million people.
Both horror story and political history, The Lost Executioner chronicles a terrifying self-imposed bit of investigative journalism in a land still dangerous and violent. In the '80s Dunlop read about Cambodia in National Geographic and watched the film The Killing Fields 15 times in the theater, becoming filled with curiosity and concern about the region. He discovered a photograph of the enigmatic Comrade Duch, and his obsession with finding the man led him to set out in 1997 to do so.
Dunlop's style is journalistic yet personal. This makes his story immediate and chilling, and helps clarify the often complicated forces at work in the Khmer Rouge takeover and genocide. It can feel like what he's describing isn't real, that it didn't happen, that things so horrifying are just sick fantasies. The brutality of the Khmer Rouge, bizarrely juxtaposed against the evolving image of Duch presented by Dunlop as he gains more and more clues, is more awful than any human imagination could conjure.
This is not pleasant reading. It's harsh, cruel, and scary as hell. There's a pervasive irony in the text—the men responsible for the carnage supposedly began their work intending to improve the world. Dunlop's intensely visual language is perhaps so haunting because he's a photographer. We see what he saw years after the devastation, and what the Cambodian people saw, herded to their deaths in the darkness by their own people. The haunting conclusion is one of the best in literature.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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