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Published in Sweden 2006, Peter Fröberg Idling’s Pol Pots leende (“Pol Pot’s Smile”) is dazzling, one of the best things we’ve ever excerpted on Words Without Borders: kaleidoscopic, probing, deeply sorrowful. In this expansive and deeply felt history of Cambodia and the former Democratic Kampuchea, the Swedish author struggles 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 the tyrant the world would come to know as Pol Pot. Idling 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 the capabilities and limits of the human mind.
Susan Harris is an editor at Words Without Borders, the former director and editor-in-chief of Northwestern University Press, and the founding editor of Northwestern’s Hydra imprint of literature in translation.
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