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From the Magazine

By David Varno

This week, we are highlighting an excerpt from journalist-cum-fiction writer Peter Fröberg Idling's Pol Pots leende (Pol Pot's Smile), translated from the Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella

First published in Sweden by Atlas in 2006, Peter Fröberg Idling's debut was highly praised for originality in the reportage genre. Idling's writing is equally speculative and authoritative, and has been compared by Dagens Nyheter in Sweden with other authors of his generation, "young journalists [who] have left home with more questions than answers...return[ing] with stories, with testimonies from people who lead their lives on the underside of global reality."

Pol Pot's Smile is a powerful account of the author's investigations into the life of the man who would become Pol Pot. The piece is an expansive and deeply-felt history of Cambodia and the former Democratic Kampuchea and the struggles the author goes through in trying to uncover the truth about what took place there in the years after the Vietnam War, and what happened to turn Saloth Sar, the young football-playing fan of French Romantic poetry into a tyrant the whole world would know.

As you may have seen, the October issue of Words Without Borders is dedicated to the genre-bending, truth-seeking legacy of Ryszard Kapuściński, who is currently the subject for a symposium at NYU called After Kapuściński: The Art of Reportage in the 21st Century, for which WWB is serving as co-partner. Of all the definitions of reportage, and the varying ideas on the use of "I" in journalistic narrative, at least one sentiment, from Alastair Reid, could be applied to all examples: "Reportage must be something that is lived."

Idling, in his search to understand a band of Swedish intellectuals led by the eminent Jan Myrdal who attempted to glorify Kampuchea's revolutionary ideals, has certainly lived out the experience.

Ed. Susan Harris writes:

"This is dazzling, one of the best things we've ever published: kaleidoscopic, probing, deeply sorrowful. The author...went to Cambodia as a legal advisor to an aid agency, and poking around the tiny Swedish library in Phnom Penh discovered an overwhelmingly positive report submitted by a Swedish delegation, one of the first allowed into the country after the 1978 revolution. How could the delegates travel through Cambodia at the height of Pol Pot's genocide without seeing anything? The author investigates the power and deceitfulness of ideology and looks into the capabilities and limits of the human mind."

Here is Idling in the Library, looking for what his precedents saw:

"The microfilmed newspaper pages flutter by, projected by white light on the screen in front of me. The projectors stand in rows in the dimly lit hall under the Royal Library in Stockholm. Most are in use, and clatter as researchers spool microfilm backwards and forwards. Each sits with his square of light full of forgotten news and photographs.


April 17, 1975. The front pages of the evening papers Aftonbladet and Expressen carry the same news: 'Phnom Penh has fallen.'


The leaders of the revolution are Prince Sihanouk and Khieu Samphan. Khieu Samphan is yet another photogenic intellectual revolutionary. A sort of Cambodian Che Guevara. So different from Western sympathizers with the Left, and yet so similar. A man who practices what he preaches."

Idling examines a film produced by Myrdal that aired on Swedish television in 1978; the rigged documentary is an incomprehensible attempt to call Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea a "just revolution" in the spirit of Sweden's own independence in 1433.

And in exploring Saloth Sar, Idling uses authorial speculation to describe a breakfast he is having with his mentor, with broad historical facts to suggest dual possibilities:

"Pink and white bougainvillea, bowls of noodle soup with innards. Fresh herbs to crush and mix with the soup. Segments of lime. Ice-cold jasmine tea in tall glasses.

"Or had they been so influenced by their time in France that they preferred coffee and croissants?"

The pictures, beginning with a blur of microfiche, begin to crystalize.

Read the excerpt here: Pol Pot's Smile

Published Oct 7, 2009   Copyright 2009 David Varno

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