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WWB Weekend: Pol Pot’s Smile

By Savannah Whiting

This month’s issue of Words without Borders brings readers a delightfully diverse selection of Cambodian literature ranging from ancient poetry to rap music. But this isn’t our first foray into Cambodia. In our October 2009 issue, “Foreign Correspondents: International Reporting,” we published a piece of reportage about Cambodia by Swedish journalist Peter Fröberg Idling (who, coincidentally, is on this year’s International Dublin Literary Award longlist for his Cambodian political thriller Song for an Approaching Storm).

In this excerpt from Idling’s Pol Pot’s Smile, the author discovers that a Swedish delegation visited Phnom Penh at the height of the Khmer Rouge rule. The result? A documentary film stating that people were happy and healthy—no starving, no massacres to be seen. “The four Swedes [. . .] had visited Cambodia at a time when almost no one was allowed over the border,” he writes. “A land where a well-lubricated hellish machinery was working ceaselessly and more than a thousand children, women, and men were dying everyday. [. . .] They documented their journey carefully. Surely the terror must be detectable somewhere?”

Were the delegates blind to reality, Idling wonders, or were they motivated by something more sinister? “Had their mouths been full of well-meaning white lies to ‘conceal deficiencies for the time being’? Or were they completely taken in?” He investigates how the Swedes could have produced such enthusiastic testimony amidst a scene of mass murder, entwining his investigation with a reconstruction of Pol Pot’s evolution from apolitical student to genocidal dictator. 

Photo: Cover of Pol Pots leende (Bokförlaget Atlas, 2006).

Published Nov 20, 2015   Copyright 2015 Savannah Whiting

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