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The Gate
Alfred A. Knopf
281 pp.



A Voice in the Darkness
François Bizot's The Gate

In The Gate, François Bizot recounts his harrowing experience as the only Westerner to escape from a Khmer Rouge prison camp.

In 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 freedom.

It was a singular victory. Of the thirty Westerners held in Khmer Rouge prison camps, Bizot was the only one ever released.

Bizot’s 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:


These moments 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.


Bizot doesn’t 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 the prison.)

The Gate is a harrowing, moving account, and its flaws are ultimately irrelevant to the impact the book has on its readers.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted May 1, 2003



About the Author

François Bizot is an ethnologist who has spent the greater part of his career studying Buddhism. He is the Director of Studies at the École Pratique des Hautes-éetudes and holds the chair in Southeast Asian Buddhiism at the Sorbonne. He lives in Paris.



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