The Cambodian novelist and poet Khun Srun was born in 1945. A child of the impoverished countryside, Khun began his schooling during the country’s first years of independence, when the doors to higher education and professionalization were inching open to all Cambodians, regardless of their social and economic class. Shaped equally by French learning and existentialism and Buddhist tradition and philosophy, Khun chose mathematics as a career and writing as a vocation. By his mid-twenties, he was part of Phnom Penh’s intellectual and progressive circles, but his social class continued to mark him as an outsider.
In a country that was, and remains, violently divided by rural poverty and urban wealth, Khun focused his gaze on the class lines of Cambodian society and on the profound injustices exacerbated by war. Beginning in 1969, the Cambodian conflict, a proxy war, escalated alongside the Vietnam War in what seemed a house of mirrors from which there was no escape. Cambodia, considered the “sideshow,” became the most heavily bombed country in history. In the space of four years, the United States dropped 2,756,941 tons of bombs on Cambodia, a neutral nation with whom they were not at war. The consequences were catastrophic. In the ensuing famine, people flocked to the Communist resistance, the Khmer Rouge, which according to its leader, Pol Pot, grew from “fewer than five thousand poorly armed guerrillas” to an army of more than two hundred thousand.
As the war accelerated, Khun continued to write. Between 1969 and 1971, he published five books of poetry, fiction, and essays, which established him, as his brother later said, as a writer who told “too many truths.” Considered a progressive and a Communist sympathizer, he was imprisoned for seven months. Two years later, in 1973, he was imprisoned a second time. Upon his release, he felt the walls closing in. The time had come to make a choice between leaving and staying, between his own personal freedom and Cambodia’s future. He wrote, “I must choose the path of desire or the path of wisdom.”
Khun’s last novel, The Accused, published in 1973, is narrated by a writer imprisoned by Cambodia’s military government. The accused asserts that he is not a person of politics or even a man of conviction, simply an observer and a writer. He, a lover of literature, wants to flee the country and be part of the wider world; yet he wants, also, to have the courage to risk his life for his principles. Shortly after The Accused was published, Khun left Phnom Penh and joined the Khmer Rouge.
In 1975, after the Khmer Rouge won the war, Khun, now a cadre, was assigned work as a railway engineer. Within four years, 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives as the Khmer Rouge sought to implement the fastest, purist Communist revolution in human history. In December 1978, Khun, like so many who had committed their lives to the socialist ideals of the revolution, was arrested. He was held in the school where he once taught mathematics, and which had become the most notorious prison of the regime. Days after his arrest, Khun, his wife, and three of his children were executed. Only Khun’s nine-year-old daughter, Khun Khem, survived, taken by the Khmer Rouge and forced to live among them at the Cambodian border. Two weeks after Khun’s execution, the Khmer Rouge fell from power.
I first read an excerpt of Khun’s work nearly a decade ago. I was struck by the deep turmoil beneath the disturbing calm of his prose. Lines written at the height of Cambodia’s civil war have a conscious dissonance with his collapsing society: the words are measured, reserved, quiet as the nation explodes in war.
Last year, I unexpectedly encountered Khun’s work again when French filmmaker Eric Galmard screened his documentary, Un tombeau pour Khun Srun, at the 2015 Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh. The film affected me deeply. Afterwards, I sought out Galmard, who had portrayed, so powerfully, the dissonances as well as the longing in Khun’s work. “There is a repulsion to violence,” Galmard told me, “but, at the same time, a critique of populist Buddhism, of fatalism and accepting things as they are.” He said that Khun had a Socratic impulse, and in his brief life sought to live an examined existence, true to his principles. Galmard sent me the few translated fragments he had of The Accused and put me in contact with Khmer–French translator and scholar Christophe Macquet, who kindly gave his permission for this translation.
— Madeleine Thien
My name is Khun Srun. I was born in 1945, in the province of Takeo, Roveang Commune, Samrong District, the son of shopkeepers Khun Kim Chheng and Chi Eng. In 1953, the year my father died, I began my studies at l’École du Temple de la Dame Noire. From the beginning, I cherished my education.
We are in 1973, 73, 7+3, which adds up to 10, the sum of the numbers of my employment number, 118.
Could this be the year that brings good fortune?
And yet I have never succeeded in believing such things . . .
I fear guns, knives, and batons and do everything in my power to escape conflict. What little I possess comes from my salary and the extort of my labours.
I have never brought harm to my mother, teachers, brothers, or friends. And I love my country, the same as any citizen.
I love art and literature, and I believe that everything attained by a nation’s art is attained for its spirit, but I haven’t the optimism with which Solzhenitsyn writes in his Nobel lecture,
So perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth? If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, not allowed through—then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very same place, and in so doing will fulfill the work of all three?
I ask myself, Could art really possess so great a power?
Between politics and me, there are just too many complications. The government and the National Police take me for a political person, and yet I see myself in an entirely different light.
I have never wanted to govern another, and all this scheming for power disturbs me. My curiosities lie in the moral, philosophical, and anthropological. I have neither the taste nor the talent for manipulation, only I do not wish to be a victim.
I live like every other human being, profiting from my free time by gazing at the sky, the stars, by letting my spirit drift, by trying to come to an understanding, however small, of others.
I know that the true person of politics does not fear permanent disquiet, separation from family, imprisonment, torture, or even assassination.
Whereas all I want is to live, sheltered from physical harm, surrounded by my loved ones.
When my curiosity and desire to write perish, then, dear reader, you must consider me gone.
I live confined between walls. I have known this since I reached the age of reason. I am obliged to live with them. I am obliged to live like them. I have to adapt myself, there is no other way. I would prefer not to obey, but I am besieged by their laws, their prisons, their police, their shotguns, their profiteers, by all those who live on the backs of others and treat humans like things. They surround me.
I would like to discuss. I would like to oppose. I would like to remove these walls and live as I have heard it is possible, free from the imposition of their rules. But I am nothing more than a grain of dust.
When I think of my eyes, my ears, my heart, my skin, fear paralyzes me. One day, one day to come, all that is mine will be hastened down the road to oblivion.
There are times when I imagine my corpse. Someone takes hold of me, they are going to bury me. What pity I feel for my hands, my skin, my heart, my lungs! Why am I dead? Will I ever again see the others? I feel so much fear! But there is no end.
When I consider the ways in which people quarrel, clash, and kill one another, I think: Such impressive talent! But I would like to know: For what good? What purpose will it serve to kill the other? Even such an act will not bring the killer closer to immortality.
Each time I see the face of my mother, my father, my children, the grandparents in my family, the elderly in general, I am terriffied: do they understand that they will soon be sinking into nothingness?
If I die at this time today, what will occur? Eventually my books will disappear from the cupboard. My family will arrange the funeral without considering my wishes . . . of course this hardly matters, since I will be unaware.
Will I be a soul taking leave of substance, or will I be reborn into another existence?
They will speak of me, and afterwards, perhaps, they will cease to recall me because I will no longer be in daily contact with the living. Little by little, my wife and son will no longer remember me, just as I forgot, little by little, the deaths in my family. That is how it is.
Are they afraid, these men in the twilight of their lives, those who struggle in their beds, who endure hopeless operations, who are condemned and brought to the site of execution?
Are they afraid, and where does the fear go? And the young who don’t believe in death, are they fearless because they feel so full of life, because they have experienced so little, because they have nothing to lose?
The young are exploited by every revolution. The young are sent out to wage every war, forced to the front, because they are much more efficient than the old.
And the ones used like pawns? The ones who, under orders, give away their lives? And the Japanese kamikaze? And the ones who commit suicide attacks?
And the unfortunate Jews, the scapegoats, assassinated in the millions?
If a death is horrific, does a person have the right to murder another? I answer: No.
No, he does not have the right.
In Solzhenitsyn’s novella [Matryona’s House], the widow, Matryona, possesses nothing. Why accumulate goods, she wonders, only to live in fear of dispossession, only to hold fast to our belongings rather than our lives? Hers is in an uncommon way of seeing, certainly, yet I find myself in kinship with her. I have never wanted to possess villas nor land nor wealth because I imagine that, at the moment of my death, my attachment to them would bring me only sorrow. Far better to lead an untethered existence.
Night. Fifteenth of the seventh lunar month. The moon, a quarter full, visible behind the bars of the prison window, shines more luminously now than on previous nights.
Ah, moon, elixir of the heavens, you are a freedom within the quiet sound of the wind. You bring consolation. You are the smile, the open space of a long moment of forgetfulness. You are so lovely, moon, your pure surface like the gold leaf an artist lays on the ceiling of the sky. Despite the miasma of our world, despite the impurities displayed before you by our greed, you retain the same radiance, beautiful, immaculate, integral.
The distance between us, moon, is the only fault you possess.
I remember myself, a little boy at the pagoda. I remember myself, seated, bowed, both legs folded alongside my body, in the company of classmates the same age who have since disappeared from my life. Nearby, a half-dozen monks, emblems of the tranquility of the soul, of virtue and the renunciation of personal desire, rest; nearby, two or three candles and a few sticks of incense gently diminish, releasing thick curls of smoke. I prostrate myself from time to time, palms pressed together, before the smile and serenity of the Master.
I know it is dangerous to live among men. I have known it for more than twenty years, ever since I reached the age of reason.
But twenty years ago, I never felt terror as I feel it now. Never.
The inspector interrogates me from every conceivable angle before rising, brutally, and moving quickly to the cupboard beside me. A grand cupboard, large, solid, heavy, which had assessed me with a sinister and oblique gaze. What is the inspector reaching for? What will he withdraw from its body? My heart hammers. I think of a train in the night. I am trembling everywhere. My lungs burn. My hands and feet are ice. I try to suppress my bodily responses, but my nerves no longer obey the dictates of my mind. Abruptly, an old expression returns to me: to piss myself from fear.
A kind of hope remains in me. Microscopic. I know that I am innocent and wrongly accused. So I try to change my thoughts, I try to be hopeful: the inspector is Khmer, he has the same dark skin and the same blood as me.
Will someone let my mother know? Of this, they say nothing. She lives far from this place. Still, I’ve been dreaming of her. So I am no different from the other prisoners. Our nights are identical. We are all people of laughter, tears, and nightmares.
In my dream, my mother no longer wears her familiar smile. Her face is gaunt and her hair is greying; normally her cheeks are round and her hair jet black. Panic-stricken, she holds my eldest daughter by the hand. She hurries forward, gripped by a single desire: to secure me in her arms, with all the clumsiness of too long an absence, with all the force of her love . . . but she is blocked by a guard who forces her to stop and turn around. She begins to weep, looking at me for a long time without moving until at last she says to me in a frail voice, choked by sobs, “My child, what have you done?”
My daughter, she, too, gazes at me. Her small hand beckons, as if she were trying to tell me, “Come home.”
Her gesture shattered me and I woke with a start, my eyes filled with tears.
I wanted to rejoin them, to embrace them, but in this place where I remained, all I could hold was the night.
I was freed on September 6 at 1 p.m. I said goodbye to everyone, even the guards. Too much joy! My feet barely felt the ground. I had the unreal impression of having been summoned to an examination, a trial.
In the hospital, I stayed five nights at the bedside of my mother. Five long nights before she was allowed to leave. On entering these sick rooms, I was overcome by dizziness, the same dizziness that swept over me last year when I came to this very same hospital to help the wounded. Ah, cast your eyes on all the maimed, all those at death’s door. Naked life! A great spectacle! Men enacting massacres on other men. I wanted to cry out, Enough! But already I heard the comrade revolutionaries mocking me: Enough of your pathetic humanism.
In the hospital, my mother’s breath was cold.
That night, the moon shone with an unfamiliar light. The sky was clear.
Since then, on many nights, the moon has shone with the same strange light.
Since then, on many nights, questions have twisted inside my mind. The same questions. Forever the same, unanswerable questions.
Sleepless, I remember Les Misérables. A storm in the mind. Jean Valjean, pseudonym Monsieur Madeleine, could have passed a life of ease, basking in the esteem of others, if only he had remained in his home. An innocent had been condemned in his place. However, the innocent could be freed if Valjean confessed, but then Valjean would be the one to end his life in prison, the object of derision.
This scorn, he is familiar with. When he was nineteen, he stole a loaf of bread and was condemned to a penal colony. He does not want to return there. He is old. He no longer has the same fortitude as in the past.
At last, he chooses to turn himself in to the tribunal.
I must choose between the path of wisdom and the path of desire, between city and countryside, between Cambodia and the world, between the present situation and a future I must make for myself. In short, to stay or to go. I must choose. No one can do it for me. And I will be responsible for my choice.
I think of my aging mother. I think of my little room. I think of my writing desk, the cupboard I would open to take out my books, the chair on which I would sit. I think of my family, friends, loved ones. Their faces smile at me. My lips return their smile. A courgette soup with anchovies brings me pleasure. I think of the surface of the river. I think of the vast sky. I think of the light breeze. I think of my salary of more than ten thousand riels. I think of my electric lamp. I think of asphalt roads, running water, the radio, the television, all the beautiful songs we listen to. I remember everything.
How can it be that my anger is never aroused? When another looks at me with hostility, I react with pain. I do not have material assets, and when I see the conditions in which the majority of people on this earth live, I have no ambition to acquire them. I have never known an enemy.
If I do not move from this place, my life will contract. I must go. I need to explore the chasms and the wide spaces. I must come to know the places of which I’ve been told. I fear to get my hopes up, yet France, England, America, China, Japan, I feel these countries await me. I want to go very far away and turn my back on war. Oh! How I wish men would stop their killing and finally be reconciled. Finally, only compassion can salvage the world.
There are others who work for the common good. There exists a political movement that fights for the benefit of humanity. I find this right and good, but I do not participate. I want neither to exploit nor be exploited, neither to command nor be commanded. All I want is to let go of the comfort of my habits and seek a guiding philosophy for my life.
Khun Srun (1945–1978), born in the province of Takeo, Cambodia, was a writer, mathematics teacher, and journalist. He is the author of two novels, Last Habitation and The Accused, a book of poetry, For a Woman, and three collections of poems, stories, and philosophical essays.
Christophe Macquet lived more than ten years in Cambodia. A photographer as well as a scholar of Khmer language and literature, he is the author and co-author of multiple Khmer–French and French– Khmer translations. His most recent work, a literary-photographic series of livres muets, is forthcoming.
Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of four books of fiction, most recently, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel.