SAN DIEGO, March 11 (UPI) -- "The Gate" by François Bizot is a gripping account of a young Frenchman's love for Cambodia, his capture and torture by the Khmer Rouge and his futile attempts to alert the West to what was happening in that country.
In reading "The Gate" one feels a reticence to reveal what happened, as well as a desire to unburden oneself. As John Le Carré points out in his foreword, one cannot begin by identifying with such circumstances, unless one has been through something similar.
Yet, the anguish, the anger and the bewilderment are palpable in every line, in every word. How can human beings be so cruel to each other? How can people survive such cruelty? How can we allow it to happen?
Unfortunately, this is by now a familiar leitmotiv: Biafra, Lebanon, Kosovo and Rwanda are only a few of the countries where brother turned against brother, and neighbor against neighbor, to exhaust their rage and anger and, eventually, live in comparative peace side by side again.
Bizot traces the chronology of events that led to the American-sponsored coup and the accession to power of Lon Nol, then his overthrow by the Khmer Rouge and the ensuing massacres.
While researching meditation rituals in a remote village, Bizot was captured and imprisoned, for three months, in camp Aulong Veng, the only Westerner to be released. His jailer, with whom he spent long hours in philosophical discussion, was an earnest young revolutionary called Douch, later known as the butcher of Tuol Sleng, the infamous prison of Phnom Penh.
An ethnologist more concerned with Buddhist temples and texts than with politics, Bizot was more a fan than an adversary of the United States. His idols, as he points out in his introduction, were the artist Saul Steinberg and the musician Charlie Parker. But he soon changed his mind. "From 1970, when the Americans arrived, until 1975, their irresponsibility, their colossal tactlessness, their inexcusable and false naiveté, even their cynicism, aroused more anger and outrage in me than did, very frequently, the lies of the communists ... Yet today I do not know what I reproach them for more, their intervention or their withdrawal."
Sad to say, the same could be said, still today, about American foreign policy and intervention in many other countries.
Ironically, Bizot is accused of being a spy for the CIA. He describes the hardships of the camp: the lack of food, the promiscuity, the lack of hygiene, the interrogations, the terror and the pain. He also examines the relationships between the prisoners, and between them and their guards.
He "adopts" a little girl who had followed her father to the camp. The child cried constantly, refused to eat and speak, and Bizot managed to coax her out of her depression. He eventually got her to eat, and she followed him everywhere.
One day, she finally crept up to him and touched his ankle where the chains chafed against his skin. "The touch of this finger on my bruised skin did me good. Moved by her concern, I quickly did my best to minimize the pain caused by the irons that gripped my ankles by nodding my head in a gesture of denial and smiling reassurance.
"She skipped away and returned with a bunch of keys in her hand. I looked at her in astonishment. She unlocked the padlock and, with some difficulty, carefully retightened the chain."
Like other captivity narratives, "The Gate" highlights the inhumanity of some people and the lengths of devotion of which yet others are capable. In the prison camp, as well as later, besieged in the compound of the French embassy in Phnom Penh, Bizot ponders the complexity of human nature, and the circumstances that lead people to display their basest instincts: "theft, jealousy, selfishness, aggression," and how quick they are to seize "every opportunity for gain, and (their) instinctive attraction to defilement and desecration."
There are surreal moments, like the time Douch summoned a young boy to sing revolutionary songs in front of a campfire. The young silvery voice soaring in the silence of the dark jungle, mouthing words of "love and hatred" left Bizot with an indelible feeling of horror and disgust.
His long conversations with Douch led him to wonder at the capacity of an intelligent, educated man to revert to animal status.
"I would never have believed that this mathematics teacher, this committed communist and conscientious leader, could also be a violent henchman." But Douch did indeed bludgeon countless people to death in the camp, and committed unspeakable horrors at Tuol Sleng.
Douch spouted communist ideology, maybe convinced and utterly honest, but ready to commit atrocities to bring about his ideal society. The irony was that, together with his colleagues, who had no concept of farming or rural life, he tried to use the peasants as the conduit of the revolution. Their doctrine and their methods were so oblivious to centuries-old traditions and the needs of the soil that their first clash was with the peasants whom they were seeking to "liberate."
Throughout the siege of the French embassy, Bizot encounters a variety of characters that seem to come straight from the pages of a Graham Greene novel: the planters, missionaries and diplomats of the foreign community of Cambodia, as well as their Cambodian colleagues, wives, husbands, friends and lovers.
There was the famed Borella, the mercenary so committed to fighting communism that he refused to be paid. On the other hand, there were the misguided Westerners who lauded the Khmer Rouge efforts and were ready to support and encourage them, either unable or unwilling to admit to the horrors committed by them.
More than 1,000 people sought refuge at the embassy as well as political asylum. Eventually, the foreigners were allowed to leave as well as any Asians who legitimately held a French passport. But many of the locals were asked to surrender to the authorities who assured the French consul of their safety, but everyone knew they were going to imprisonment and almost certain death. Several of the wives, although foreign, refused to abandon their husbands and chose to go with them, despite their visible fear.
There also, Bizot recounts episodes of heroism and selflessness, as well as instances of unbelievable selfishness. The most striking is the one of Laporte, a French journalist, who came to the embassy with his Cambodian mistress and their daughter. Like many of the expatriates, he had a wife in France and a family in Cambodia. The only way to save his Cambodian family was to declare the woman as his wife, which the consul was perfectly willing to do. At the last minute, at the Thai border, to everyone's surprise and horror, Laporte reneged and shouted, "Shit, I can't say we're married! No!" The woman and her child were held back, and Laporte went into Thailand, and freedom, on his own.
Yet others were ready to adopt an abandoned Cambodian baby and take him home to France with them.
In the chaos, with both Cambodian and Thai army and customs officers trying to process hundreds of people at the same time, several refugees managed to slip through. Many years later Bizot went back to Cambodia and revisited the site of his imprisonment. He talked to Douch, who was now a prisoner himself, arrested for "crimes against humanity." He visited the Museum of Genocide, the site of Douch's exploits, where the instruments of torture are on display: the stick, the shovel and the butcher's knife.
Bizot tells a compelling story, but one that left this reader a little perplexed. He often mentions his daughter, Hélène, and has her sent to safety in France. But his companion, he always refers to as "Hélène's mother." We never get to know her name, and do not know much about her, except that she is Cambodian. Does he leave her behind? In the acknowledgements, he thanks his wife Catherine. Is it the same person? What happened to Hélène's mother?
At some point in his narrative the author imagines his future life. "I had only three plans, the mere thought of which threw me into a fit of impatience: to live peacefully at Hélène's mother's side, to ride my motorbike along silent tracks, to resume my research into Khmer Buddhism."
By the end of the story, he is able to resume his research and presumably to ride his motorbike. I wonder if Hélène's mother is at his side?
("The Gate" by François Bizot, Knopf, 275 pages, $24)