Monday, 6 February 2017

The Professor's Last Day

[Media prompt] “I’m a professor! How dare you! How dare you fucking assholes protect neo-Nazis? Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
The Professor's Last Day

Night was falling and someone had started to cook kuy teav.

Sopheak Sok was lying in bed, his eyes closed, when, borne on a languid puff of wind, the first volatilised compounds that comprised his favourite noodle soup dish settled on the olfactory receptor cells at the back of his nasal cavity. He was a chemist, and he often saw the molecular building blocks of his life. It was also a way to take his mind off the cramps in his abdomen, which were associated with a feeling not unlike vertigo; from the moment he smelled the kuy teav, he had started calculating its chemical composition.

But he faced an immediate barrier; although he knew that kuy teav was made from rice noodles, he started to seriously doubt the current national rice yield was sufficient to produce enough flour to make noodles ordinary citizens could afford. Anybody with skills enough to mill flour and manufacture noodles, let alone transport, distribute and sell them, was long dead. Besides, it was anybody’s guess how many farmers had been rounded up to serve in the army; or how many acres now lay fallow for want of an expert pair of hands. For all Sopheak Sok knew, he and his fellow prisoners and guards in Tuol Sleng High School were the only people alive in the entire country. Then he remembered the kuy teav cuisinier, and added her to his list of the alive.

He made a list of what other grains or seeds could be be milled to make noodle flour. Then he thought of Paris. 

Before his detention, Professor Fournier’s wife had written to notify Sopheak of her husband’s death. In their apartment on Rue de Poissy, a short walk from the Sorbonne’s department of chemistry, the molecules of her beef bourguignon, cauliflower gratin, raspberry tarts, had also assailed his olfactory receptor cells. Whenever he asked she refrain from cooking meals beyond the stature of a lowly and impoverished Cambodian postgraduate student, Mme Fournier parried his polite demurrals with a gentle laugh that he could recall even now: “But my dear Sopheak,” she would say, “you are so thin. For the sake of our reputation, we must fatten you a little before you go home.”

Sopheak did go home, in 1964, no heavier than when he left, lured by an inaugural chair of chemistry at the newly established Royal Khmer University. He threw himself into establishing a generation of chemists who would in turn form the foundation of a new Cambodia. He nurtured each student, watching patiently with the pride of a farmer who brings a bountiful crop to fruition. Lately, he had heard their screams in Tuol Sleng as guards tortured and then butchered them one by one. He was grateful that Professor Fournier did not live to hear about it, or that his wife saw how thin he had become.

Yesterday, Phung Ton, the former dean of the university, was bayonetted in the courtyard. Sopheak heard him read out a list of crimes against the state, the same crimes to which everyone confessed, before some farm boy too scared to disobey ran him through to the cheers of his squad.   

The smell of kuy teav abated. The prison was silent.

When his time came, Sopheak prayed he would die with dignity. He didn’t regret his education that condemned him to death. His only regret was that he had not fulfilled his promise.   

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