Monday, May 11, 2015

The Years of Zero - Seng Ty

Summary:  The Years of Zero-Coming of Age Under the Khmer Rouge is a survivor's account of the Cambodian genocide carried out by Pol Pot's sadistic and terrifying Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s. It follows the author, Seng Ty, from the age of seven as he is plucked from his comfortable, middle-class home in a Phnom Penh suburb, marched along a blistering, black strip of highway into the jungle, and thrust headlong into the unspeakable barbarities of an agricultural labor camp. Seng's mother was worked to death while his siblings succumbed to starvation. His oldest brother was brought back from France and tortured in the secret prison of Tuol Sleng. His family's only survivor and a mere child, Seng was forced to fend for himself, navigating the brainwashing campaigns and random depravities of the Khmer Rouge, determined to survive so he could bear witness to what happened in the camp. The Years of Zero guides the reader through the author's long, desperate periods of harrowing darkness, each chapter a painting of cruelty, caprice, and courage. It follows Seng as he sneaks mice and other living food from the rice paddies where he labors, knowing that the penalty for such defiance is death. It tracks him as he tries to escape into the jungle, only to be dragged back to his camp and severely beaten. Through it all, Seng finds a way to remain whole both in body and in mind. He rallies past torture, betrayal, disease and despair, refusing at every juncture to surrender to the murderers who have stolen everything he had. As The Years of Zero concludes, the reader will have lived what Seng lived, risked what he risked, endured what he endured, and finally celebrate with him his unlikeliest of triumphs.  (Summary and review from I was provided a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.)

Review:  My goodreads page says it took me four months to finish this book. It didn't. I started the book in December, things got busy, and I picked it up yesterday. And finished it in an afternoon. It stole my breath, broke my heart, and left me filled with hope. 

Ty's story is not an easy one to read. Born to a large family with an educated background in prewar Phnom Penh, his life was devastated when at five years old, the Khmer Rouge took over the city and drove all residents out. Ty fled with his family, was separated from four of his siblings shortly after, and as the youngest, had to watch helplessly as his parents and his closest brother died. He stole to survive, smuggling frogs, snails, or tiny shrimp from the rice fields. He endured mental and physical torture. But he survived. 

He was able to reunite with his surviving family for a time before he realized Cambodia was no longer the place for him. Embarking on his own, at only nine, he crossed the border to Thailand, found a refugee camp, and found himself the focus of a Time article, "The Children of War". This led to his eventual adoption by his American family. 

Ty has seem more and survived more than many of us ever will, but his resilience and his attitude touched me. As he says, "Suffering has demanded that I become better than myself." His further observations  about how doing good and living a full, educated life is the best revenge he could give his former oppressors was so inspiring. Attitudes like that just aren't as prevalent anymore. 

Despite the heavy subject material, this is a fast read. It's obvious that English isn't Ty's first language, but his voice is clear throughout the book, and it somehow purified the narrative for me. I wish I could explain it better. 

The atrocities wrought by the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide are not as familiar to me as others that have occurred in the past 100 years. But I maintain that the burden of educating us falls to individuals like Seng Ty. In this case, he has borne the burden well. 

Rating: Five stars

For the sensitive reader: As a book about revolution and genocide, clearly this is a difficult book. There are numerous recountings of beatings, torture, murder, and the deplorable stare of starvation endured by the people. There are also many mentions of how many bodies littered the roads, lakes, and streams. It isn't for the faint of heart. 

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