Brother Number One

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Pol Pot, leader of the brutal Khmer Rouge faction in Cambodia and architect of one of this century’s worst genocides, is easy fodder for hyperbole. “Much of what has been written about Pol Pot since his time in power has been reckless and intemperate,” asserts Professor David P. Chandler. Chandler claims that “calling him a ‘moon-faced monster,’ a ‘genocidal maniac’ or ‘worse than Hitler’ has no explanatory power. To understand the man, and what happened in DK [Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia’s name from 1975 through 1978], it is crucial to place him inside his own Cambodian context and inside a wider set of influences from abroad.”

Chandler, one of the world’s leading authorities on Cambodia, does this with great skill and confidence. A woeful shortage of sources makes this book less a biography than an extended exercise in speculation and the drawing of parallels. But Chandler appropriately makes much of Pol Pot’s very elusiveness (the outside world did not know that he was the French-educated Saloth Sar until he appeared in public in China in 1977), which in itself is telling. Chandler also is an excellent, careful historian and writes with a salutary calm, pointedly eschewing “reckless and intemperate” language and conclusions.

He demonstrates persuasively that its claimed uniqueness notwithstanding, the Cambodian revolution had clear precedents in China’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution (and in Stalin’s Soviet collectivization program in the 1920’s), and that Pol Pot’s life and reign partake of recognizable patterns for totalitarian leaders. (Unlike Hitler, Stalin and others, though, Pol Pot’s obsession with secrecy seems to have discouraged a cult of personality.) Chandler also is supremely qualified, as author of the superb A HISTORY OF CAMBODIA (with which this book necessarily overlaps), to place his subject within Khmer (Cambodian) cultural and political traditions. “[T]he parallels with Stalin are suggestive,” he writes, “but Pol Pot’s half-warm, half-cool impersonal style was recognizably Khmer.”