Top critical review
46 people found this helpful
There's Just Something Missing...
on December 29, 2004
"The Gate" is a true life tale of someone with a close-up view on the precursor to one of the world's most horrific events, the assumption of power by the Khmer Rouge Party in Cambodia in 1975. The author, Frenchman Francois Bizot, lived in Cambodia in the early 1970's and was briefly detained by the Khmer Rouge before being released - purportedly the only westerner to receieve such a release. After his release, Bizot relates how he became a major player in the negotiations between the Khmer Rouge and the French diplomatic mission in Phnom Penh for essentially safe conduct out of Cambodia for most of the westerners remaining in the country at that time.
Ordinarily, this is the type of story that would just be amazing; indeed, two of the three stars I give in my rating are mostly for the story alone. In a setting where just to survive was exceedingly rare, rarer still is the kind of picture Bizot has the potential to paint -- a close look at the captor and captive, doomed and fated to be freed, side by side. If you are looking for a general history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, this book isn't it. But if you are looking for a more intimate portrait of what happened under the Khmer Rouge (at least at the ascendency of their power), then "The Gate" will intrigue you.
At the end of the day, however, "The Gate" is lacking in both heart and serious reflection. It would seem silly to say this about a book in which a person describes what might have been the most horrific time in his life. Unfortunately, Bizot's descriptions simply don't go far enough. The absence of introspection in this book -- to go along with a measure of self-aggrandizement and political pontificiation -- turns what could have been a seminal read into a merely interesting one.
One example that bears repeating throughout these reviews that Bizot provides little detail about the unnamed person ambiguously and variously described as his "wife", "the mother of [his] daugher", and "the mother of the blond girl." One would think that such a person deserves at least a name, if not at least a single paragraph as to her fate; this woman gets neither. Interestingly, Bizot mentions the fact that several married French men living in Cambodia sometimes took and even married Cambodian lovers; he even goes so far as to detail the scene of one Frechman giving his Cambodian wife over to certain death for the simple reason that the the Frenchman would not tell the Khmer Rouge authorities that he was married to the Cambodian woman, the man's French wife back in France notwithstanding. It would not be far-fetched to read into the text that this scene was about Bizot himself, which would provide an explanation about what happened to his "wife" and why he does not (or perhaps cannot) even refer to her by name.
Bizot heaps scorn on the U.S. for the "naivete" of its foreign policy in Southeast Asia, yet he has no such contempt for his own naivete when leaving his friend and a co-worker in a prison camp to die after his own release is won. Rather than take any concrete action, Bizot simply requests that the Khmer Rouge leaders promise him that his friend and co-worker will eventually be released. Despite having first-hand knowledge of the Khmer Rouge's brutal practices, Bizot walks out on his friends satisfied that the Khmer Rouge will honor the Frenchman's request. Many years later, it is a shock only to Bizot -- not to the reader -- that the friend and co-worker were executed shortly after Bizot left the camp. What more could Bizot have done, I don't know. But to leave happy with what was essentially a "pinkie promise" with the Khmer Rouge is nothing about which to be pleased.
Bizot also notably leaves out any discussion of France's own culpability in bringing the Khmer Rouge to power. Bizot makes no mention about the abuses suffered by southeast asians at the hands of their French colonial masters in French Indochina, or how the French essentially abandoned the entire region after being defeated by the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Rather, the entirety of the problems in the region are once again set at the feet of the Americans, although Bizot is thoughtful enough to note that his native servants are overjoyed to see him upon his return from the prison camp. I know this isn't supposed to be a comprehensive history of southeast asia, but if you're going to talk about the causes of the problem -- as Bizot does -- then let's talk about all of them.
And that, perhaps, is the greatest failing of this book -- it is simply inconsistent. There is not enough detail where the reader wants it the most, which is in how Bizot's experiences affected him personally. I'm not going to even describe the "cold soup incident", which is so shallow as to be laughable. Where there is great detail -- such as in some of the conversations that Bizot allegedly had with his captor and later the Khmer Rouge leadership -- there is so much as to strain credibility. Bizot himself admits that these dialogues are not verbatim but, rather, designed to give the reader the "gist" of what was said. Bizot, however, simply goes overboard and often ends up detracting from the power of the what is being said through sheer verbosity.
I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for something in this book - a lesson, a moral, a feeling, I don't know - something. It never comes. I hope it did for Bizot.