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The Performance of His Life : HAING NGOR A Cambodian Odyssey with Roger Warner (Macmillan: $19.95; 224 pp.)

January 31, 1988|Lynne Bundesen | Bundesen covered Cambodia from 1977-1979 from Bangkok and the Cambodian border

Tied to a cross, feet burning, finger cut off, head in a vise, watching pregnant women raped and split apart by knives and riding in a limousine to accept an Academy Award--all in less than a decade for Haing Ngor (the Westernized version of his Cambodian name).

Everything about his life is incredible and yet oh so painfully the fact. Ngor is remembered by some as the Cambodian actor who played the part of a fellow Cambodian, Dith Pran, in the movie "The Killing Field." Others remember Ngor as the doctor who himself survived the Cambodian autogenocide and became an award-winning actor. Others still remember his performance as opening the doors of popular Western consciousness to the admission that a terrible, terrible thing had happened in a gentle country far away.

Ngor's autobiography, "Haing Ngor, a Cambodian Odyssey" is profound, peculiar, political, personal, proud and petulant. It is a fascinating story and a painful read.

Ngor, the self-described hot-tempered, self-indulgent doctor from a wealthy Chinese-Khmer family, would be a complex and difficult man in any culture. He is also a survivor of Cambodia in its final agony, a survivor the bestiality of the Khmer Rouge, of the escape route to Thailand, of pirates, of refugee camps, of the loss of most of his family, his culture, but strangely enough, not of his aspirations.

The story is about Ngor, about his temperament, about his life and tortures and loves, about the history and politics of Cambodia, about his opinions, about his judgments and about human nature and Southeast Asia. It is also a love story, the story of a man who lived through hell in spite of or because of his faults and failings. If there were not "The Killing Fields," his story would be made into a movie and if Cambodia was of as much interest to movie makers as Germany or England or the United States or Israel, it would be.

During the four years from 1975-79 that he was a "war slave" in Cambodia, Ngor pretended that he had been a taxicab driver, not a doctor, not a wealthy businessman in pre-Khmer Rouge days. Acting saved his life. If he had not acted the part of a taxi driver, he would have been killed as all educated, professional people not in the Khmer Rouge were executed.

Haing Ngor did not survive because he was a saint or above the human passion for self-preservation. He describes his temper, alludes to his machismo and sexual triumphs and by his own admission, as a doctor, he let a man die on the operating table while he escaped the Khmer. The expectant mother of his child died in his arms because he was unable or did not practice his medical skills on her at the final hour.

How in God's name did he survive three mind- and body-numbing experiences with the soulless Khmer Rouge--probably the only man to do so? How did it come to be that he is the visible representation in the public world today of survival in the midst of mindlessness? Was it really "karma," as he describes it? Although these questions are addressed in the book (co-written with Roger Warner who is the author of "Invisible Hand," a book on the illicit drug trade and who is described only as a free-lance journalist that Ngor met in Thailand) they are not really explored for the serious reader of autobiography. The story and the political importance of the story overtake what might have been a more reflective approach.

Ngor is a theological question, an individual human, transparent and at the same time an enigma. And his life reminds all mankind that the horrors of the Inquisition and the Holocaust do not belong to another day or time. He reminds and recounts, he is graphic and visual and factual, he lays his life bare to the eyes of interested and uninterested non-believers. This is a most profound undertaking.

Ngor's book is not the best history of Cambodia. "When the War Was Over" by Elizabeth Becker holds that distinction. Nor is it the most literary of Cambodian survivors tales. "The Stones Cry Out" by Molyda Szymusiak wears that hard-earned laurel. Yet Ngor's story itself is so riveting, horrifying, so triumphantly Western, so essential to our understanding of history and of the minds and souls and the needs of the age that it deserves, because of its circumstances and the questions that it raises, to be considered as one of the more important autobiographies of our time.

Ngor's politics are frank, laudably candid, not uniquely his and worth noting in a time when the future of Cambodia is still at stake. Ngor says that the former king, then prime minister and prince, then Chinese puppet, now "bending in the breeze," (as the Thais like to say about how to survive politically in Southeast Asia) Sihanouk, was unliked by the Americans because "he wouldn't let U.S. troops come openly into Cambodia to fight the North Vietnamese."

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