Poetic Allusion at KR Tribunal Sparks Literary Tug of War

Amid the legal debates and the grim recitations to torture methods and death tolls, a curious motif has emerged in the war crimes trial of Kaing Guek Eav: a 19th-century French poem called “The Death of the Wolf.”

Composed by the soldier-poet Alfred de Vigny in 1843, it describes the stoic and silent death of a “sublime” wolf killed by hunters. Ever since Duch cited the poem as a strong influence on his outlook, “The Death of the Wolf” has taken on a life of its own. It has been invoked several times–often at length–by both Duch’s defense team and his victims as each side has tried to claim moral ownership of the work.

A pillar of Duch’s defense is that the accused is himself a victim, that he had no choice but to accept the unsavory tasks thrust upon him by his superiors. Co-defense counsel Francois Roux, a master of judicial stagecraft, seems to have cannily highlighted Duch’s attraction to “The Death of the Wolf” in order to paint the accused as a man whose stoicism and sense of duty led him astray.

On April 6, the fourth day of his trial, Duch testified on his stint as chairman of the M-13 prison camp in Kompong Speu province’s Thpong district, describing himself as a reluctant killer who unsuccessfully begged his boss to remove him from his post. Then he quoted the last lines of the poem:

“Wailing, weeping and praying are equally cowardly./Carry out with vigor thy long and heavy task/Along the path to which destiny has called thee/Then, later, as I do, suffer and die in silence.” “So,” Duch concluded, “probably that was my fate to do that job. And I recited the poem just to comfort myself…. In order to resolve the conflict within myself, that’s what I did.”

Although little known in English, “The Death of the Wolf” has a long history in Cambodia.

Ros Chantrabot, a historian and the vice president of the Royal Academy, said yesterday that the piece was required reading in mid-20th century Cambodian schools. “We knew then about French literature more than Khmer,” he said. “They all studied [the poem], because it was on the curriculum in schools.” Pol Pot also apparently had a passion for de Vigny. In a 2004 interview, Cambodian author Soth Polin recalled the former Khmer Rouge leader, who was his French teacher in the 1950s.

“I remember he loved Alfred de Vigny, the French poet who wrote “The Death of the Wolf,” Mr Polin said of Pol Pot. “He talked about the stoicism of the wolf…. He admired the courage needed for that kind of death–the courage of dying without crying out.”

Duch himself has been drawn to Stoicism–a philosophy that espouses a studied indifference to human emotion and weakness–since his college days, according to psychologist Francoise Sironi-Guilbaud, who testified as an expert witness in August. Mr Roux often tries to emphasize this aspect of his client’s character. While questioning character witness Stephane Hessel in September, the defense lawyer recited again the last lines of the poem.

“These are the stanzas which the man who was to become an executioner was reciting to himself…which enabled him to cope with the task he had been assigned,” he said. “Mr Hessel, you are familiar with this poem about stoicism. What does it tell us?” Mr Hessel gave an ornate and impassioned response, encouraging Duch “to suffer through his possible sentence with the same strength and the same courage as the wolf.”

Victims and their lawyers have objected several times to the use of the poem in the courtroom, seeming to take particular offense at the implication that S-21 detainees who wept or cried out during torture were cowardly. Civil party Chum Sarath in August criticized what he saw as the melodrama of the original recitation, suggesting that Duch and Mr Roux “join as a team to play theater in France.”

And during closing arguments on Monday, civil party lawyer Philippe Canonne chided Duch for his literary allusions.

“Do you understand that now, when you’re being tried for crimes against humanity, you are quoting the Romantic poets?” Mr Canonne asked.

“We are not here in a trial dealing with elegance,” he added. “We are not here in a literary discussion. I am speaking to you about the 12,000 people who died in Tuol Sleng, some even say 16,000. So where is the Romanticism in this?”

Mr Chantrabot also had harsh words for Duch’s conception of himself as a wolf in the de Vigny mold.

“Duch wants to compare himself to the wolf, but his wolf is different from Alfred’s wolf,” he said. “It is not a correct comparison…. He is a brutal wolf that killed his own people”

(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)

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