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  • Breakfast with the Dictator:Memory, Atrocity, and Affect
  • Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim (bio)

In early August 2007, I accompanied Frank Cibulka, a Czech political scientist, and Thet Sambath, a senior journalist with the Phnom Penh Post, to the town of Pailin on the Cambodian border with Thailand. We were there to meet Nuon Chea, the chief ideologue of the Khmer Rouge and the regime's Brother Number 2, for an interview. This interview was to be one of his last before his arrest the following month on charges of crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), popularly known as the Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal. For me this interview generated a conflicted sensory bloc. Noun Chea had suffered a stroke several years earlier, and as such suffered bodily impediments. Underneath these, his sternness of speech and demeanor reflected a fanatical discipline that Slavoj Žižek would probably acknowledge as that of an authentic revolutionary. I could not fail to recognize that Nuon Chea, under Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea regime, was most certainly not a moderate who sought "revolution without a revolution," that is, as Žižek explains, "a revolution deprived of the excess in which democracy and terror coincide, a revolution respecting social rules, subordinated to preexisting norms."1 Despite his physical frailty, this octogenarian, who is accused of the extermination of almost a third of Cambodia's population, terrified me.

As our interview was at 6 a.m., Nuon Chea invited us to join him and his family for breakfast. Mrs. Nuon Chea had prepared a simple but quite delicious Sino-Khmer breakfast. There was fried chicken, sour soup with pork and preserved mustard leaves, fatty roast pork, and generous helpings of rice. The rich flavors, and the hearty quality and quantity of the meal all reflected plenitude, and my sense of fear clashed with, but failed to kill, my gustatory enjoyment. I ended up having three helpings, to the delight of Mrs. Nuon Chea. Her cooking generated in me a strong sense of nostalgia, which was interesting because this was the first time I had met her. "Patrick," the neuroscientist who runs the Very Evolved blog, explains this sensation of false nostalgia as "nostalgia by association."2 That is, my gustatory enjoyment triggered in my mind my childhood memories of gustatory enjoyment of family meals. (But of course this breakfast was very different from the family meals of my childhood.) As Jonah Lehrer points out, "our senses of smell and taste are uniquely sentimental."3

This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain's long-term memory. Their mark is indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus, the source of language and the front door to consciousness. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past.4

My gustatory encounter with Nuon Chea – the very embodiment of Cambodia's recent memory of genocide – is an instance of the affective intersection of haptic space with places of memory. Building on Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's valorization of the haptic over the tactile on the basis that the former "does not establish an opposition between two sense organs but rather invites the assumption that the eye itself may fulfill this nonoptical function,"5 I interpret haptic space as the ever-changing phenomenological space that the exterior senses constantly construct and reveal of the world. This essay seeks to explore such affective intersections of haptic space with places of memory.

Benny Widyono, the "shadow governor" of Siem Reap province under the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia, describes in his memoirs a similar gustatory encounter with the Khmer Rouge. In September 1992 Prince Sihanouk and Princess Monique paid a visit to the Khmer Rouge-held town of Pailin, and Mr. Widyono accompanied them. As he recounts:

At lunchtime I was invited to join a banquet of Khmer Rouge top brass in honor of the royal couple. Khieu Samphan, Son Sann and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Thioun Munn, and I flanked the Prince and Princess; Pol Pot...