500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their newly-published books. Here Harriette Rinaldi explains the background behind Four Faces of Truth, published by Fireship Press.
Harriette Rinaldi, an American, had a long career with the Central Intelligence Agency. During her time as a spook she undertook many challenging overseas assignments, and held several leadership positions – she founded the CIA’s Women’s Leadership Forum.
Four Faces of Truth is Harriette’s first novel. It is set in Cambodia, from the early 1960s until the present day – so including the time of the rise and dominance of the Khmer Rouge. It interweaves the stories of four narrators; like the four faces which stare out from the towers of the famous Bayon temple, at Angkor Thom, each narrator views the world from a different perspective.
Hem Narong, a former Buddhist monk, serves on the staff of General Lon Nol, the first President of the Khmer Republic. He sees how the General’s ineptitude and failings as a leader facilitate the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Sophana, a young graduate of an elite secondary school, joins the Woman’s Communist Organization. She is ultimately betrayed by the revolution she once supported, loses her entire family in the killing fields, and continues to be haunted by brooding shadows and visions of the horrors she has witnessed.
Eng Maly, a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, specializes in diseases of the mind. Maly treats Pol Pot’s wife, Khieu Ponnary, for paranoid schizophrenia and accompanies Ponnary on dangerous treks across the country on behalf of the revolution. Maly witnesses Ponnary's malign influence on her husband.
Marcel Blanchette, a French-Canadian archaeologist restoring ancient temples, must today contend with the damage inflicted on Cambodia’s architectural heritage and natural resources by the Khmer Rouge. He decries efforts by contemporary Cambodian rulers to foster national amnesia regarding the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, which he terms patriacide - the attempted annihilation of an entire country and its people, including its collective memory.
So: 500 Words From…. Harriette Rinaldi
Why did I decide to write this novel now, almost forty years after the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia? Because too many people throughout the world are either unaware of or have forgotten about the horrible crimes of the Khmer Rouge. There are important parallels and lessons that apply to what is happening elsewhere in the world today.
I lived in Cambodia during the 1970s, met key government as well as Khmer Rouge personalities (including the sister of Pol Pot’s wife), and was able to travel to many parts of the country despite the ongoing war between government and Khmer Rouge forces. I had a unique opportunity to observe the folly of U.S. policies and the failings of Cambodian government leaders, and the beauty of Cambodia’s amazing natural resources, in contrast to the looming specter of a nightmarish regime intent on destroying everything and everyone in its path.
I used the vehicle of historical fiction to tell this story and to present it through the voices of four fictional narrators whose lives often intersect, forming a unified mosaic. Books by historians about the Khmer Rouge are largely inaccessible to lay readers, while memoirs by Khmer Rouge survivors are often devoid of any wider historical context. My goal was to enable the lay reader to understand not only the suffering of the Khmer people, but also the overarching political and cultural influences that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge.
To write this book, I had access to unique source material, including the recently declassified correspondence between U.S. President Richard Nixon and Cambodian President Lon Nol. I also enjoyed full access to the treasure trove of information found in the Khmer Rouge secret archives in the 1990s by a Yale University team led by historian Ben Kiernan, who encouraged me to write this book.
Another topic briefly touched upon by historians and journalists is the extent to which Pol Pot was influenced by his wife, who is usually described as mentally unstable or emotionally fragile. In fact, she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. I used material from a variety of sources, including doctors who treated her in Beijing, to demonstrate just how she enabled her husband’s descent into evil while she was gradually consumed by madness.