A literary and historical tour de force: what one man saw and did in a land of pristine beauty on the eve of one of the twentieth century’s most barbaric spectacles.
In 1971, François Bizot was a young French scholar of Khmer pottery and Buddhist ritual working in rural Cambodia. Now, more than thirty years later, he has summoned up the unbearable memory of that moment, letting us see as never before those years leading inexorably to genocide. Perfectly recalled, in-delibly written, The Gate recounts the nightmare of Bizot’s arrest and captivity on suspicion of being an American spy, and his nearly miraculous survival as the only Westerner ever to escape a Khmer Rouge prison. It is the story, as well, of Bizot’s unlikely friendship with his captor, Douch–a figure today better remembered as a ruthless perpetrator of the then-looming terror, about which Bizot tried, without success, to warn his government.
Bizot’s experience to that point would itself have merited report. But upon his return to Cambodia four years later, chance ordained a second remarkable act in this drama. As the sole individual fluent in both French and Khmer, Bizot found himself playing the intermediary in a surreal standoff when the Communist-backed guerillas, now ascendant, laid siege to the French Embassy compound in Phnom Penh. Finally it would fall to Bizot to lead the desperate retreat of the colonial population: here he re-counts how he helped the remaining Westerners–and any Cambodians he could–to escape the doomed capital.
Both beautiful and devastating, The Gate is a searing and unforgettable act of witness and remembrance.
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French ethnologist Francois Bizot's The Gate offers a unique insight into the rise of the Khmer Rouge. In 1971 Bizot was studying ancient Buddhist traditions and living with his Khmer partner and daughter in a small village in the environs of the Angkor temple complex. The Khmer Rouge was fighting a guerilla war in rural Cambodia; during a routine visit to a nearby temple, Bizot and his two Khmer colleagues were captured by them and imprisoned deep in the jungle on suspicion of working for the CIA. On trial for his life, over the next three months Bizot developed a strong relationship with his captor, Comrade Douch, who would later become the Khmer Rouge's chief interrogator and commandant of the horrifying Tuol Sleng prison where thousands of captives were tortured prior to execution. The portrait Bizot gives of the young schoolteacher-turned revolutionary and their interaction is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying.
Finally freed after Douch had pleaded his case with the leadership, Bizot became the only Western captive of the Khmer Rouge ever to be released alive, but his story does not end there. On his return to Phnom Penh, due to his fluency in Khmer, he was appointed interpreter between the occupying forces and the remaining western nationals holed up in the French embassy. As the interlocutor at the eponymous gate, he relates with dreadful resignation the moment when the Khmer nationals in the compound were ordered out by the Khmer Rouge forces for "resettlement."
Bizot's is a touching and gripping account of one of the darkest moments in modern history and it is told with a unique voice. As a Cambodian resident, a lover of Cambodia and a fluent Khmer speaker, Bizot shows an understanding of the prevailing mood in the country that other Western commentators have failed to capture effectively, while as a Western academic he is able to see the forces at work and how Cambodia fits into the bigger picture of South East Asian conflict. What emerges is a tale of a land plunged into insanity and Bizot tells it like a eulogy for a dead friend and a confrontation of old demons. The Gate is a stunning book and a must for anyone interested in this grim period of Asian history. --Duncan ThomsonFrom the Back Cover:
“A harrowing narrative, worthy of a novel by Graham Greene or John le Carré… possesses the indelible power of a survivor’s testimony.”--Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“This mesmeric book is much more than a survivor's story…. Bizot spills out his viscera, and we see him as whole and as candidly as anyone can expect from a memoirist…..Many passages burn with a lyricism that reminds one of books we call classic literature”
--Sidney H. Schanberg, LA Times Book Review
“There are scenes of such dramatic power and clarity – the frantic, nerve-rasping chaos as freedom lies just yards away– that The Gate could be not unfairly called, if not categorized as, a thriller.”
--Arthur Salm, San Diego Union Tribune
“A powerful, disturbing book.”
--Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
“[A] fascinating book, to say the least, passages of The Gate are riveting, some scenes heartbreaking.”
--Michael J. Ybarra, Wall Street Journal
“An unnerving and miraculous mixture of beauty and horror.”
–Lucretia Stewart, Times Literary Supplement
“A tour de force . . . as gripping and as revealing as anything to have come from the time when this once beautiful country descended into hell.”
–Michael Binyon, The Times (London)
“Memorably astonishing . . . I gasped time and again during the . . . reading of a book that manages to combine a spare and classical literary elegance with the recounting of a tidal wave of appalling episodes . . . I have never read a book like this. It is deeply moving and ineffably terrible; every intelligent person who has a care about this world and its people should read it. Bizot has done humankind a great service.”
–Simon Winchester, The Sunday Times (London)
“Distinguished by its intense dignity, by its unexpected attention to beauty, and by a discretion which never shades into coyness, The Gate should immediately be numbered among the great post-Second World-War memoirs of incarceration.”
—Robert MacFarlane, The Guardian (London)
“Breathtaking . . . Heartbreaking and terrifying: a superb account of the madness of war, and of a people’s wholesale self-destruction.”
" The Gate is a thrilling, exquisitely observed and terrifying account of the world trapped in the moral cul de sac of absolute revolution. It reads like a novel and it sears both the conscience and the heart. If you only ever read one book on Cambodia, make sure it is this one."
—William Shawcross, The Sunday Telegraph (London)
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Book Description Knopf, 2003. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M037541293X
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