1971, François Bizot, a French scholar studying
Buddhist rituals and art in rural Cambodia, was
arrested by a contingent of Khmer Rouge guerillas
as he traveled by foot with two Cambodian co-workers.
All three men were taken to a primitive prison camp
in the jungle.
As a European,
Bizot enjoyed small privileges—he was allowed
to bathe in the nearby stream every day, for instance—but
the camp’s conditions were harsh, and as he
later discovered, many of his fellow prisoners were
being tortured and quietly cudgeled to death only
a few hundred yards from him. Nonetheless, he developed
a quasi-friendship with the prison camp’s
leader, a young Chinese revolutionary named Douch,
and after three months, Douch managed to win Bizot’s
It was a singular
victory. Of the thirty Westerners held in Khmer
Rouge prison camps, Bizot was the only one ever
memoir, The Gate (recently released in
the U.S. but already a bestseller in France), brilliantly
captures the complex range of emotions and the stunning
level of awareness Bizot experienced in the prison
camp. In this passage, he describes his feelings
during the moments when he was not chained up:
of freedom set me alight. The difference between
being chained and not being chained had become
overwhelming. I wavered now between the urge to
escape and the desire to live better.
And then, right
there, like shafts of sunlight in so much suffering,
moments of euphoria would sweep over me. Bathing
in the river, I stumbled as I stood up, trying
to find a foothold on the uneven pebbles, my body
suddenly heavy, the water now only around my feet.
I kept my eyes closed and cupped my dripping face
with my hands. Between those riverbanks, cleanly
cut into the rich earth, my spirit soared. The
elation overwhelmed me as time slowed down. I
peered intensely into the undergrowth, which was
surrounded with a halo of light.
The clear water
gurgled and pushed my feet onward. My skin prickled
as the gentle shiver of the breeze ran over it.
These exhilarating sensations were abruptly followed
by total destitution. The best moments of emotion
are gifts of chance. Monks, in their quest for
a frugal and severe existence, aspire to such
flashes of radiance.
end his memoir with his release, though. Instead,
he picks up his narrative four years after his release
and recounts his experience as one of the last Europeans
to leave Cambodia. Bizot’s prose captures
the uncertainties he faced as a virtual prisoner
in the French embassy in those final days, but it’s
unfortunate that he didn’t choose to mention
what he had done in the years in between his release
from jungle prison camp and his final days in the
capital. It’s also disturbing that Bizot elected
to refer only fleetingly to his daughter and her
mother throughout his account: what became of them?
Did they escape Cambodia with Bizot?
As troubling as
these omissions are, Bizot’s account, never
fails to move, detail by detail. Wordsworth famously
described poetry as the overflowing of emotion recollected
in moments of tranquillity. Bizot certainly waited
long enough to recount his ordeals, but by his own
account, the tranquility will never come. “I
have written this book in a bitterness that knows
no limit,” he writes. “A sense of hopelessness
runs through it.”
In the epilogue,
Bizot describes his return to the prison camp in
the year 2000. A few of the locals remember him,
but it’s a poignant journey largely because
so much has changed physically. While Bizot’s
memories remain bitterly fresh, the jungle itself
has proved indifferent.
Bizot also pursues the prison camp leader who won
his freedom against all odds. He learns, belatedly,
about the troubles Douch experienced with his superiors
and rivals over his French prisoner, and he tours
the Tuol Sleng prison for which Douch would ultimately
serve as director. (Under Douch’s direction,
thousands of people were tortured and killed at
is a harrowing, moving account, and its flaws are
ultimately irrelevant to the impact the book has
on its readers.