Friday, March 16, 2012

First They Killed My Father--Review

Loung Ung was a cosseted younger daughter of a high-ranking military policeman when the Khmer Rouge overran the capitol. During the first chaotic days after the invasion, her father managed to slip his family north to a village where members of his wife's family lived; they hoped that in rural obscurity they could somehow live undetected. Unfortunately, staying with family only put them in danger as well, and eventually, as the Communists tightened their control over the entire country, the Ung family, during one of their continual evacuations, fell into the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Their capture was surprisingly anti-climactic, almost perfunctory in its off-handed bureaucratic indifference. During the following years, as the Ungs tried to keep their enemy-of-the-state status secret, family members were pulled away through death, the exigencies of the work camp, or by the  desperate actions of the Ungs themselves as the parents struggled to find a way to keep at least some of them alive.

There's no doubt that this is a harrowing and moving tale. However, just as with Pauline Nguyen's acounting of fleeing Vietnam when she was also a small child like Loung, I have to wonder at the clarity of some of her recollections, particularly those of pre-invasion Phnom Pehn. There's no doubt that her descriptions of going to the market with her mother, or acquiring a headful of curls at the beauty parlor are evocative, but how factual can they be? I was particularly confounded by her claim that she took a trip to Angkor Wat with her father when that area of the country was particularly unstable. Many Cambodians who lived through that era also point out that Ms Ung's portrait of the city being quiet just before the invasion is also inaccurate, though I think that a small child could be somewhat oblivious and that the final takeover of the city would come as a surprise to her. Difficult to assess, too, are the sophisticated conversations she claims to have had with both her parents on the Khmer and American political systems; when they are coupled with other passages of naive questioning on why the Communists want to hurt them it makes these talks hard to believe. I understand that the author is trying to put things into context so that a foreign reader can understand, but the political backdrop is handled a bit clumsily. This problem of shifting uneasily from a child's to an adult's perspective is a continual problem in the book, which unfortunately gives Loung's detractors further ammunition when they say the book is implausible.

As Loung grows older in the work camps, her viewpoint matures and the story grows more powerful; I had less difficulty doubting her veracity. The psychological tensions between the family members, and the terrible toll it exacted, the suspicions the Ungs held towards outsiders who might guess their secret identities, the hierarchy of the villagers as to whom was a displaced person and who was not--are to me the most interesting part of the book. The accounts of the indoctrination from the Khmer Rouge, when the exhausted family had to listen to nightly lectures from party readers though they had all ready spent twelve to fifteen hours working in the fields, makes for gripping reading, particularly when Loung must endure them alone. 

It was during this time that the most traumatic events of the story occur. Unfortunately, Ms. Ung never really resolves the problem of how to present material that she was either too young to understand, or not present to witness. She resorts to a vague claim that she has always had ESP to detail how several of her family perished; some readers might call it unflinching, but I was rather troubled by these sections of the book, and would almost call them exploitative. I certainly understand why she felt to describe these terrible occurences, but I felt a bit queasy nonetheless.

It is easy to see why other readers might have objections to this book, and why Khmer Rouge apologists or even Cambodians with a more objective viewpoint might have difficulties with Ung's account. Loung worshiped her father and called him a good man who would never hurt a flea--an understandable portrayal from a sheltered young daughter; other Cambodians might very well have a more jaundiced view of a military intelligence officer whose principle job was to extract information out of people using any method possible. Even a Westerner such as myself was irritated by her insistence that her family was only middle class; it's quite clear that her family, with its enormous apartment sheltering a family of nine, three cars and a motorcycle at their disposal, plus her mother's collection of jewelry was far more than that. Her identity as an ethnic Chinese, and the continual reference to her white skin (after living in Japan I am well aware of what an explosive topic this can be in Asia) and her belief that she was singled out because of her racial background have also ruffled more than a few sensibilities. For those individuals who want to continue the battle for Cambodia, its past, and its future, the ammunition is there.

It is my personal stance not to rate memoirs that are written as an account of a tragedy. I feel uncomfortable demanding that a description of a horrific event could have been written better in order to satisfy me, the person who is merely standing on the sidelines. It is enough that I bear witness. I will say the Loung's prose is serviceable, though often tipping into what I would overblown, but as someone who is more of a survivor who wants to relate her story rather than an experienced author I find that understandable.( Tavia


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