When Francois Bizot was a jungle prisoner of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla army, which had never before or afterward freed a foreign captive, there came a time when -- by dint of Bizot's command of the Khmer language and the sui generis relationship he developed with his jailer -- freedom was suddenly granted him. Before releasing him, the jailer, a man known by his pseudonym Douch, gave Bizot a kind of campfire party where revolutionary songs were sung, led by one of the young prison-camp soldiers. Bizot describes the boy soldier-singer and the moment:
"He sat down shyly, opposite us, wearing an oversized Chinese cap
This mesmeric book is much more than a survivor's story. It is an agonizing effort to understand what produced such horror and to get inside the Khmer mind that, before these events, Bizot thought he had come to understand rather well.
I am drawn to this tale because it is so resistant to comprehension and because Bizot -- a delver into ancient Tantric texts and temple inscriptions and the secrets of Asian peasant life -- has dug further into these mysteries and into the darkness of the Khmer Rouge than any other contemporary I know of. You will find unspoken echoes here of Hitlerism and Stalinism and Maoism, and every other mass slaughter carried out in the name of ideology and purification. Cambodia is no more dated than Srebrenica, especially at a moment when the clank of war machinery is in the global air again.
"The Gate" also captivates me because I was in Cambodia for much of the history it tells. As did he, I watched, stunned, on April 17, 1975, as the victorious Khmer Rouge communist army herded all 2 million Cambodian residents out of Phnom Penh to join the "glorious revolution" in the countryside. Then, interned by the Khmer Rouge in the French embassy compound along with more than 2,000 foreigners and desperate Khmers who had scaled "the gate," I watched Bizot fairly close up as this tall, composed 35-year-old outdoorsman in walking shorts, his boxer dog at his side, would go about solving human problems and giving solace to frantic, sometimes hysterical refugees. Just his presence was a calming influence amid the inmates' petty squabbles over everything from food to sleeping space.
This is not to suggest that Bizot, an ethnologist studying Buddhism in Cambodia at the time, is some kind of flawless paragon. He sometimes sees himself as a superior being and can be arrogant in his judgment of others. For example, he seems to look upon Americans generally from an elitist perch -- as shallow and unformed. But he hides none of this in "The Gate." He spills out his viscera, and we see him as whole and as candidly as anyone can expect from a memoirist. He is almost as keen an observer of himself as he is of all things around him.
One is struck by Bizot's constant descriptions of the natural world, even as he is surrounded by an apocalypse. He identifies the foliage, the trees, the flowers. Similarly, he limns the clouds and the weather and the colors of the earth as light changes with the time of day. It is as if he were able -- or perhaps determined -- to feel the beauty in Cambodia's Buddhism and its pastoral life despite the carnage that was swallowing this little country.
Indeed, one truth this book affirms is that little countries regularly get swallowed, or at least "used," by nations with muscle. All the top musclemen -- the United States, the Soviet Union and China -- came to Cambodia and laid waste to it in the name of the Cold War, using surrogate, native armies and expressions of brotherhood that meant nothing. Today, 30 years later, Cambodia has yet to climb out of the dysfunction the "users" created.
After the capital's fall, Bizot repeated the success he had with Douch by gaining courier status from the Khmer Rouge occupation force. He alone was permitted to leave the embassy to roam a virtually empty and looted Phnom Penh in a jeep, searching for missing French nationals, foraging for food for the embassy throng and recovering family memorabilia left behind in homes in the initial chaos.
For nearly three decades, Bizot kept his story bottled inside him, which perhaps explains much of its power, belching forth all at once from its personal snake pit. Many passages burn with a lyricism that reminds one of books we call classic literature:
"As I crossed a large room ... I noticed a figure beneath a mosquito net. An elderly nun, still alive and of French appearance, lay motionless on a mattress that smelled of urine. Her eyes smiled at me. I told her gently that I was going to take her to the embassy, where she would be looked after, and leaned down to lift her up. But she wanted to stay where she was and stopped me with a slight gesture of her bony hand. Her face remained impassive. She did not reply when I asked her name.
"I set off again and ... passed the National Bank of Cambodia. Tens of thousands of 500-riel notes lay strewn over the road. ... What even yesterday had represented a huge fortune fluttered about in front of me, ephemeral banknotes that in a few hours had lost all their value. ... There was not a single child, not one living creature. ... I imagined myself in a dead world, deserted in the wake of some cataclysm, where I, without knowing it, was the only survivor. I shut my eyes as I plunged into this empty womb like someone in a futurist comic strip, and I confess that this melancholy wandering may have afforded me some kind of pleasure."
Repeatedly, as I turned the pages of "The Gate," I kept thinking about Albert Camus' novel "The Plague," in which Oran, Algeria's port city, is swept by bubonic plague carried by rats (a metaphor for the Nazi occupation). At the end, as the plague lifts, a central character, Dr. Rieux, who has been looking after the afflicted around the clock, meets with a friend, Tarrou, who wants to confide how this tragedy has affected him.
Tarrou: It comes to this: what interests me is learning how to become a saint.
Rieux: Perhaps. But you know, I feel more fellowship with the defeated than with saints. Heroism and sanctity don't really appeal to me, I imagine. What interests me is being a man.
Tarrou: Yes, we're both after the same thing, but I'm less ambitious.
I come away from "The Gate" thinking that Bizot -- who helped many people in Cambodia and took brave risks for others, yet was unable to save some and had to watch them being dragged off -- is someone who is interested in being a man.
More than a decade after the fall of Phnom Penh, Bizot made a pilgrimage to his prison camp, to the embassy and to other venues of his worst dreams. He writes at the very end of his book that with this journey into his past, he finally has purged himself of his ghosts and his dark memories. I have to say that as someone else who has watched friends marched toward their almost certain doom, that was the one sentence in his beautiful book that, for me, did not ring true.