Cambodia Book Reviews: The Gate

Posted on by Mac Hathaway


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It was two years ago that I read Francois Bizot’s The Gate for the first time. Lying in bed on the fourth floor of a Khmer hotel, the window open next to me, the sun pounring through threadbare curtains, the book drew me into seductive a world of equal parts probing, philosophical questions and rich, sensual imagery.

Reading it again recently, what struck me most was the book’s creative elements. Both Khmers and foreigners have written eloquent memoirs about the years when Cambodia was under the brutal communist rule of the Khmer Rouge. Yet, Bizot’s The Gate stands out as one that combines devotion to the facts with literary craft.

The story can broadly be separated into two parts. The first recounts Bizot’s early years in Cambodia, starting in 1965, as a researcher of ancient Khmer art and religion in the vicinity of Angkor Wat and tells of the two occasions when he was imprisoned by revolutionary forces.

He was first captured by Vietnamese troops sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge while working in the field and kept for a short time before being released with a note granting him safe passage. He was later captured by the Khmer Rouge while working near Oudong, the old capital thirty kilometers northeast of Phnom Penh, and held in captivity for three months with two of his Khmer colleagues.

During this later period of confinement, he was interrogated by the school teacher turned revolutionary, Comrade Douch, who later became notorious as the head of Phnom Penh’s most brutal prison camp, Toul Sleng, code named S-21, where hundreds were tortured before being executed at Cambodia?s most infamous ‘killing field,’ Chhoung Ek.

The second part of the narrative describes how Bizot watched first hand as the corrupt government of General Lon Nol fell to the Khmer Rouge, all foreigners were expelled, and the country closed to foreign eyes to proceed with a program of ‘purification’ that would see the entire population forced out of the cities and into the rice fields and the deaths of millions from hunger, disease, overwork, and politically motivated executions.

The Gate, therefore, is a memoir of those years from the beginning of the war in 1970, after Bizot had lived peacefully in the country for five years, until the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975. But it is unique in combining the author’s intense personal experiences in the country, his profound understanding of its culture and religion, and his extensive reading on the politics of the time with the artist’s devotion to the craft of storytelling.

There has been growing theoretical interest in literary circles in certain hybrid genres of writing based on meticulous research, or at least factual accuracy, and a creativity that brings it to life in structured scenes with dialogue, symbolism, and even thematisation. These forms of writing, broadly grouped under the rubric ‘creative nonfiction,’ encompass such celebrated literary movements as ‘new journalism’ or ‘gonzo journalism,’ as well as a range of sub-genres from memoir to travel writing to the personal essay, and locate their roots as far back as Defoe and trace them through Dickens, Orwell, and Capote to the modern day.

Reading The Gate, I was struck by the extent to which the author was able to adapt novelistic conventions and features of the personal essay to a memoir. Bizot is up-front with the reader as to how his book was written. He says that he ‘did not have to invent any of the events, characters, feelings, conversations, or landscapes.’ But he made ‘them come alive through writing and imagination and in doing so created an optical instrument.’ In its lyrical descriptions, structural organisation, symbolism, and use of dramatic scenes and imaginatively reconstructed dialogue, The Gate is an exemplar of creative nonfiction.

The book begins with an unnumbered chapter printed entirely in italics that functions as a frame for the main narrative. In this chapter, Bizot stands outside of the story to reflect on his earliest memories of Cambodia, when the country was still under peaceful French colonial rule, to gloss over the decades of internal conflict that would follow, and finally to ponder his own motivations for writing the memoir.

The chapter is structured much like Bizot’s overall experience of the country. He begins with wistful, idyllic memories: ‘The gibbons’ exasperated complaint would cut through the muffled hum of the villages every morning. Sunlight hovered on the still pools streaked with green and gold, dispersing the sleepy vapours of the night ? The land was rich and beautiful, enamelled with paddy fields, dotted with temples. This was a country of peace and simplicity.’

But after a break in the text, these poetic images are followed by sharply contrasting sections delving into the historical minutiae of the ensuing war and mass killings. At the end, the chapter returns to the author, exploring the feelings that motivated him to write the memoir, including ‘a bitterness that knows no limit,’ and he wonders aloud whether we will ‘never learn this lesson’ that utopianism has led to ‘the bloodiest exterminations in history.’

The next chapter, the fist one that is numbered, does not mark the beginning of the narrative proper. Instead, it introduces yet another frame. The author tells the story of his return to Phnom Penh in 1988, thirteen years after he was forced out by the Khmer Rouge, at a time when the Vietnamese forces that had liberated the country were in firm control.

This chapter explores the concrete experiences, like going to see the eponymous gate at the French embassy, which brought back all the bitter memories that inspired his memoir. The memories that he evokes, and the detail and vividness of the scenes, suck the reader into a world comprised of a single, focussed, intense mind urgently attempting to understand a colossal tragedy.

The chapter also introduces the book?s dominant symbol, the gate. Part of the book’s artfulness comes from the author’s poetic mind, which isolates details, not just for the sake of veracity, but to explore some deeper meaning. The gate represents beginnings and endings, the old French Indochina and the new Democratic Kampuchea, and, of course, the author’s own feeling, like a gate left open, that something was left unresolved when he was forced out of Cambodia.

It was this gate that separated the two worlds of the foreigners and the Khmers. It was this gate that protected the foreigners from the fate of the Khmers. But it also prevented innocent Khmers ‘ the colleagues, friends, lovers, wives, and husbands of foreigners ? from entering the safety of the embassy?s grounds.

This gate has special significance for Bizot because he was in a sense the gatekeeper to the last remaining holdout of the old, French Indochina after the country had laid down to the Khmer Rouge. Having lived for many years in rural villages, learning to speak fluent Khmer, becoming intimately familiar with Khmer customs, he became the foreign community?s translator and main intermediary between embassy officials and Khmer Rouge officers.

He was himself a gate, a barrier, turning away desperate refugees like Madame Long Boret and her tiny baby, forcing out terrified officials from the old regime like Prince Sirik Matak, who was part of the corrupt Lon Nol government that had overthrown King Norodom Sihanouk, but also keeping out the angry forces, full of hatred of all foreign influence, who were at that moment beginning the genocide of their own people.

But he was a gate, not only in the sense of a barrier, but also in the sense of a doorway to some other place. For, it was he who, almost more than anyone, helped to bring the foreign community out of the chaos. Only he was allowed to go outside the embassy to scavenge through the abandoned houses of the capital for supplies. He negotiated with the Khmer Rouge for food, water, and medicine. He brokered the escape that saw them, not airlifted by helicopter like those who fled at the beginning of the end, but by a convoy to the Thai border on hundreds of kilometres of Cambodia?s prehistoric roads.

The loss that Bizot suffered at that time was as heavy as that of any foreigner. He lost his home of ten years, all of his Khmer friends, and his Khmer wife. The gate was, therefore, also a doorway in Bizot?s life through which he could never return.

The Gate is such an artful book, not only because of the frame narratives used to introduce the story and the heavy symbolic overtones, but also because of the way the author structures the main narrative into scenes and uses carefully reconstructed dialogue.

While he employs summary narrative as a way to bridge gaps in the story, which spans the five years from the beginning of the war in 1970 to the fall of Phnom Penh and the evacuation of its few remaining foreign residents in 1975, the narrative is largely comprised of pages of dialogue supposedly remembered over decades.

The dialogue is particularly engaging because Bizot had the opportunity to speak fluently in Khmer with some of the big players in the Khmer Rouge. He talks politics, for example, with Comrade Douch, the future head of the Toul Sleng prison camp. He overhears conversations between Douch and Douch’s immediate superior, as Ta Mok, now known as ‘The Butcher,’ one of the highest ranking and the most cruel of the Khmer Rouge, ordered Bizot’s execution contrary to orders from on high.

Despite the way he reconstructs conversations and crafts events into long scenes, he is devoted to the factual accuracy of his work and carefully contextualises his personal ordeals in a larger historical perspective. Yet, he is careful to keep this second order analysis from pressing to strongly to the fore of his very immediate narrative, and he spurns the historian’s pose of cool objectivity in order to deliver searing criticism of Parisian intellectuals, American politicians, and the revolutionary forces of the Khmer Rouge. This is a book suffused with outrage at ignorance, shortsightedness, self-interest, and stupidity.

Bizot’s story is as relevant today as it was when it was written eighteen years ago. Comrade Douch, as well as such higher up cadres as Ta Mok, still awaits the Khmer Rouge trials in Phnom Penh. Other Khmer Rouge leaders live in luxurious freedom after brokering amnesty and semi-autonomy deals for their holdout regions in the 1990s. But for Bizot, the story is, in a sense, finished. In an epilogue from 2000, he writes of how he was compelled to ‘revisit the other side of the gate of my life’ and return to Cambodia, where his captor, Comrade Douch, was awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, and through delving into the memories from the other side of the gate, he was able to ‘close the gate behind’ him.

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