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  A history of celebrity would obviously include the uncommon criminal, a figure made great by his transgressions: at the dawn of the modern novel, Henry Fielding--who was also a magistrate and had seen it all--showed a perfect understanding, in Jonathan Wild, of the dark deeds and chicanery by which great men, by and large, achieve the condition of greatness. It is not a digression to tell you that one morning in 1981, when I was working on a film in Bangkok, the French cinematographer banged on my door and insisted I come out to the balcony of my apartment, which overlooked the grounds of the British embassy: "See that guy walking there in the garden? That's Pol Pot." And there he was, a perfectly innocent-looking little figure enfeebled by a bout of malaria, the murderer of two million human beings. Thanks to the covert protection of governments that still deny having helped him, Pol Pot remains in the mix of Cambodian politics. As of last week, he was still ordering grisly executions in the depths of the jungle. That western countries could find him useful to their own ends after the holocaust of 1975-1979--more useful, say, than a quick bullet to the back of his brain--gives us some insight into the mechanics of greatness and the distinction between goodness and fame.

Pol Pot is not an icon, not really: almost unique among modern monsters, he's more like a smudged newspaper photo. Most people could not pick him out of a line-up the way they could, say, Jeffrey Dahmer or Mao Zedong. I recognized him years ago simply because pictures of Pol Pot were more ubiquitous in Thailand than in most other places in the world. They were still rare pictures, in the sense that Pol Pot had seldom been photographed. Most free-lance criminals avoid the camera during their lives of crime; so it was with Charles Sobhraj, of whom I possess a considerable photo archive, in which no one picture much resembles another. Today it is easy to get a decent photo of Charles; my understanding is that for $5,000, members of the press can sit with Charles in his favorite Paris cafe, have a nice chat, and snap a high-quality picture. He phoned me a couple of weeks ago, a free man, looking for a collaborator to write his version of his life story. My hand was almost on the telephone when I realized whose voice it was. I didn't pick up. Some things are fated, other things...hopefully not.

I'd heard of Charles before that time in Bangkok. As I was recovering from a bad reaction to the myriad shots required for a Thai visa, a friend who'd spent the '60s living la dolce vita in Ibiza described two friends from the island who had gone to Thailand on a smack run and been "lured to their deaths" by a handsome, charismatic young man posing as a gem dealer. He had an apartment in Kanit House that became for a time a regular party stop on the magical mystery tour, a magnet for rich hippies passing through Bangkok. In the winter of 1974-75, "Alain Gautier," his Canadian "wife," Marie-Andree Leclerc, and a beautiful Indian boy named Ajay Chowdhury had incapacitated a number of vagabond houseguests with infusions of laxatives and Quaaludes, and pretended to nurse them back to health in two spare Kanit House apartments while Charles zipped around Asia and the Middle East on their passports, smuggling weapons, drugs, and gemstones.

Some of these hapless people were set free after a few days, or a few weeks, unclear about precisely what had happened to them. Several, however, were taken out of the apartment complex in the dead of night, pushed into Charles's car, and driven down the coast to Pattaya Beach and other locations where Charles and Ajay stabbed or bludgeoned or drowned them, in a few cases dousing their still-struggling bodies with gasoline and setting them ablaze. At Christmastime that year, Charles and Ajay and Marie-Andree flew up to Nepal for the holidays, where they butchered and then incinerated two backpacking heroin addicts--a couple, killed separately, in rice fields outside Katmandu.

Today Charles denies ever murdering anyone. He admitted to these killings twenty years ago, shortly after the Indian police arrested him at the Vikram Hotel in New Delhi. He had been attempting to drug a tourist group of 60 French engineering students on their last night in India, with the help of an accomplice posing as a doctor. There were Interpol warrants for Charles on three continents. He had escaped from jails in Greece, Afghanistan, and India; since the age of 6, when he belonged to a street gang in Saigon, Charles had done every sort of robbery, con, and petty crime on the books, in every country between France and Hong Kong. Even before the so-called Bikini Murders in Bangkok, Charles was a legendary phantom on the subcontinent, famous for a spectacular jewelry heist at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi. He spoke 12 or 13 languages and dialects, and could pass himself off as almost anything, any sort of professional, nearly any nationality; a master of disguise, gorgeous, seductive, with beautiful manners, etc., etc. This paragon had been a busboy in La Coupole at age 16....

The day I met Charles he was manacled to a guard at the Tiz Hazari Courthouse in New Delhi. We spent the day together, surrounded by six soldiers packing submachine guns that stayed aimed at Charles as he signed autographs for all sorts of people, including a banker who shyly claimed the autograph was for his wife. You have to understand that most prisoners taken to court under guard in India hold hands with their keepers: no handcuffs, no pointed weapons, no military honor guard. Charles, who had a dispute being arbitrated in one courtroom, claimed he was posting bail in another. We sat on a bench for several hours waiting for one of Charles's rich patrons to arrive with the pink slip of a Mercedez to post as surety. The patron never arrived. Charles went back to a holding cell, where we continued our conversation through a barred window cut into a five-foot-thick cement wall. One bought more time by bribing the guards with the equivalent of two-dollar bills.

It was obvious that Charles Sobhraj had achieved a real, lasting fame in India. That he was a popular figure, his doings in Tihar Prison constant fodder for the daily press--which is, by the way, much more diverse and quirky than our own daily press in New York. Another then-beloved figure, now a member of Congress in Delhi, was Phoolan Devi, the so-called Bandit Queen, who had murdered countless enemies in the ravines of Rajistan. I visited this rather disagreeable, tiny woman in her efficiency apartment near Connaught Circle; she is illiterate, not at all pretty, and demands little gifts in exchange for a half hour or so of basking in her powerful aura. She chain-smoked Marlboros the whole time and jabbered like a little bird to her entourage. Yet another Indian icon at the time was Jalilayatha, a former Bollywood starlet who'd become state minister from Kerala: under investigation for corruption, Jalilyatha was then running a heavy PR campaign to rally support. To appeal to her Christian voters, Jalilayatha greeted them at Christmas with a 30-foot billboard of herself costumed as the Virgin Mary.

In India I came to realize that the criminal-as-superstar is by no means a phenomenon of Western mass media, nor a symptom of contemporary malaise, but an expression of nonconformity sustained by a public that wouldn't dream of doing what its transgressive icons have done. To make someone like Charles Sobhraj or Phoolan Devi a folkloric hero is simply to say that one refuses to blindly embrace the moral aporias of one's society; that one's taste in people, and stories, and legends can be rangier than what's prescribed for us to like and believe in by the press, the government, the religions of the moment. In other words, our interest in these figures doesn't have to boil down to a banal disapproval of their no doubt heinous deeds; it just isn't interesting to say that it's wrong to slaughter people in Beverly Hills, whereas it is interesting if a bunch of crazies shave their heads and carve Xs in their foreheads outside the courthouse where the case is being tried. Not good, not enviable, definitely grotesque, but also interesting.

Of course the most interesting thing about Charles Sobhraj, today, is that he no longer resides in Tihar Prison, but in a Paris apartment. One can only hope that this prolific serial killer has, at 53, run out of testosterone. He was always immensely clever, and he beat the rap on his murders in Bangkok and Nepal through remarkable guile and extraordinary patience. He could not be extradited out of India until he'd served time for a variety of minor crimes committed in India; evidence crumbles to dust very quickly in sleepy Nepal, and Thailand, having no extradition treaty with India, obtained a non-renewable, 20-year warrant on Charles back in 1977. Having beat several murder charges and pled guilty to selected smaller things, Charles's jail time had almost elapsed at Tihar in 1986; so he escaped from prison and fled to Goa, where he was soon recaptured thanks to an Interpol wiretap. But this was all calculated. He knew the maximum sentence for his jail break would be approximately 10 years; because of the congestion of the court system, he spent 11 years as an "undertrial." By 1986, he had already served more time than any court in India could sentence him to, and could bail himself out whenever he pleased. So he simply waited until the Thai extradition warrant had definitively expired, and through various powerful friends (it was, and still is, very chic in India to befriend Charles) he engineered the reclaiming of his French identity documents and his deportation to France.

Where he now gives interviews at $5,000 a pop. Because he is a star, a somebody, a certain candidate for a Vanity Fair profile, Charles may never return to his life of crime--why would he need to? And what real difference can be said to exist between a sociopath like Charles and a sociopath like...well, you can insert the name of any major movie studio executive, any Donald Trump clone, any number of successful sociopaths we know as captains of industry and great men, who may not leave a trail of obvious dead bodies in their wake, but nonetheless move through our world like sharks, their jaws busy even in sleep. We have made these people stars because their implacable nature is somehow unbelievable, and utterly fascinating in a nauseating sort of way.
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Copyright © 1997 Gary Indiana.

Photo of Gary Indiana © Bill Rice.