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on March 5, 2003
Since I met the author in Chiang Mai a decade ago -- when he somewhat reluctantly described his experiences as a prisoner inside the infamous Khmer Rouge M13 prison camp commanded by "Douch" and gave me a copy of the safe-travel pass written for him by a North Vietnamese officer during the first of Bizot's many brushes with death -- this was the one great book I impatiently awaited. As it turns out, "The Gate" is far more powerful than I could ever have imagined. Readers will find it painful to read through their tears, but will be unable to lay the book down. As John Le Carre writes in the foreword, "Now and then you read a book, and, as you put it down, you realize that you envy everybody who has not read it, simply because, unlike you, they will have the experience before them." The brilliantly written introduction shows how little the world has changed since the historic disaster in Cambodia. In contrast to many Frenchmen, Bizot saw the Americans as allies in 1970, but recognized an "inexcusable naivete" in the Americans, and he comments, "I do not know what to reproach them for more, their intervention or their withdrawal." As for the French government of that day he comments, "... fear of appearing to support the Americans so froze minds that nowhere in Europe were people free enough to voice their indignation and denounce the lies (of the Vietnamese and Cambodian communist revolutions)." In one of his verbal duels with his interrogator, Bizot questions the insane logic of the revolutionary, asking if the Khmer Rouge cadre did not see that the revolutionary line was just a trick constructed using basic Buddhist traditions to deceive the people and itself, just as it used the name of Sihanouk as a mask. For me there will never be another book quite like Bizot's to come from a Westerner. Bizot is a man who lives life his way, thinks his own thoughts, follows no man or no government blindly. A true citizen of the world. Fortunately, Cambodians have recently started writing their own stories, and it will truly take river of ink to record the horrors they have experienced. New books by the Documentation Center of Cambodia ( go into great detail on the barbaric tortures used at camp M13 and at Tuol Sleng, tortures which even Bizot could not have dreamed of at the time he was held there.
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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.
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on November 7, 2014
I bought The Gate half a year ago but have put off reading it because I knew it would be depressing. However, since I’ll be living in Cambodia next year, I want to know something of the Khmer Rouge period. Bizot describes certain events of his imprisonment and the entrance of the Khmer Rouge into Phnom Penh lucidly with heartbreaking lucidity that stays in the mind.

It is difficult to determine to what extent America’s role in the events of the region might have contributed to the Khmer Rouge revolution. The CIA (I suppose) had helped stage a coup d'état against Prince Sihanouk and installed pro-U.S .General Lon Nol as head of the new republic. The country fell into complete dependence upon American aid. It was the complicity of those people seduced by American money whom the Khmer Rouge despised, although in their fanaticism they associated anyone educated, who wore glasses or fingernail polish, as traitors to Cambodia.

North Viet Nam used America’s coup as a pretext to invade, presenting themselves as liberators. The Khmer Rouge considered themselves at war with American Imperialism, or at least used that as their justification for their revolution. Of course, there are those who claim that if America had persisted in the Viet Nam war to victory, at the cost of merely another 20,000 or so Americans, the genocide would have been averted. Maybe, but given that the royalty in Cambodia had a history of soaking up wealth and doing very little for the people, the country was sufficiently stratified for an ambitious scoundrel to arm the peasants and stage a revolt. At any rate, when Viet Nam invaded to oust the Khmer Rouge from power, The United States, rather than recognizing Viet Nam’s regime, continued to recognize Pol Pot as the legitimate government. Expediency always wins out over morality, sanity, and long-term effectiveness in foreign policy.

Bizot’s friendship with Douch, the Khmer Rouge leader who eventually helped him get released, against others who were convinced that he as a CIA spy and wanted to execute him, is especially interesting. Douch, capable of brutally torturing people whom he perceived as enemies of the revolution, was devoted to achieving democracy in Cambodia, with a sort of perverted innocence that gave “his still-youthful face the gentle expression of a cherub . . . the same childlike characteristics in the faces of all revolutionaries.” One can see that same seeming innocence in photographs of young Nazis in Germany singing songs around a campfire.

When the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh and forcefully evacuated the entire populace, supposedly to escape American bombing, Bizot describes young anti-American French people who lauded their arrival, and even dressed like the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. Many of the worst atrocities of the past couple of centuries have been caused by democracy-loving with a sense of brotherhood to peasants trying to impose their values on people who live in an entirely different reality. It takes very little sophistication to use a machine gun, but a great deal of civilizing influence to understand that people in different social strata are fellow humans. I just happened to read a novella by a science fiction author of the fifties, Black Man’s Burden, that presented that idea that social evolution must revolution, if the revolution is not to be staged by a power-hungry psychopath.
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on November 6, 2008
François Bizot's memories paint the Cambodian power struggle between the Khmer Rouges and their enemies, as well as the fall of Phnom Penh, from an original point of view. He was as a Western citizen directly involved in the action; first, as a prisoner accused of being an American spy, and later as an official intermediary between the French Embassy and the new regime.

As a prisoner, he was confronted and discussed heavily with the latter chief of the horrible S21 death camp, a teacher of mathematics and a staunch ideologue: Douch.
As all Red Khmer leaders, Douch had absolutely no respect for individual lives (except his own): `it's the same with the monuments at Angkor ... who now thinks about the countless individuals who died for the endless labor? The extent of the sacrifice matters little; what counts is the greatness of the goal.'
But F. Bizot unveils the disastrous result of this policy. Douch was `a cog in a vast machine' from which he could no longer escape. Like everyone else, from his fellow leaders to the humblest conscripts, he was ruled by fear. His lot was to obey the rule of terror.

As an intermediary, F. Bizot had to negotiate with the new leaders in Phnom Penh about who could leave the French Embassy as a free citizen. He saw the danger of the `revolutionary fervor, which authorizes all crimes, the very basic instincts from malice to sadism, cruelty to madness.'

F. Bizot stresses also the heavy responsibility of the Western ideologues who directly influenced the Khmer Rouges leaders: `Motivated by a serious sense of brotherhood, they had heaped their models and ideas on a totally alien world.' Today, they are silent ...

In sometimes heavy emotional sentences, F. Bizot evokes the highly dramatic events in a human tragedy, called the Khmer Rouges regime.

This book is a must read for all those interested in `human' history.
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on March 4, 2014
This book has an introduction which states that the reader is "lucky" because they have not read this book yet and they are about to have that feeling of reading something that they wish would not come to an end. That is high praise for a book and much to live up to, but this book actually does meet the mark.
Francois Bizot' writing comes alive. His descriptions are vivid and natural and the tension of the moment is clear, even as the beauty of a small object he notices shines through the horror he is experiencing. This is human feeling at its best. Bizot is contemplative, even amusing, highly adept at describing human relationships and seemingly odd actions people take under pressure. This book is something I feel that should be read in schools as part of history but certainly for pleasure as a way of adding understanding to the complex and often dark times in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, and the time when America was struggling fruitlessly to understand the cultures they clashed with.
Bizot himself is a man who has undergone incredible hardship, who has the capacity to understand and reach out to humanity in any form, and who would probably be one of the most interesting people to sit down to dinner with and have a long conversation. I would be absolutely honored to be the recipient of such an honor. The discussion would go on for days!
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on June 14, 2003
If you're looking for a history book-this is not the one for you.
I greatly enjoyed reading this book and it is nothing more than what it claims to be: a personal account of one man who survives incredible and tragic events.
He offers a rich description of Cambodia, housed in an unique perspective. However, I never got bogged down in description that was too dense.
It is a profound, but accessible read. I picked it up primarily for greedy glimpses of Angkor. Though that's not quite what I got, I was more than satisfied with the journey on which Bizot took me.
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on August 20, 2009
Bizot's book describes his captivity in Cambodia during the latter months of 1971 and then moves to spring, 1975 when the Khmer Rouge capture Phnom Penh, forcing him to take refuge at the French Embassy with several thousand others (as depicted at the beginning of The Killing Fields). His writing is lucid, elegant and insightful, and his role during this event was crucial: he was one of the few foreigners who spoke Khmer fluently and the only one with any real experience with the Khmer Rouge. The book reads like a great adventure novel and Bizot's love for Cambodia and its people contrasts sharply with the brutality of the communists as they seize control of the nation. Bizot had a unique opportunity to engage them in intelligent debate and expose the contradictions and flawed thinking behind their quest for power.

Oddly enough, Bizot barely mentions the fact that he was forced to abandon his Khmer wife and daughter, who almost certainly died during the Pol Pot regime. In a book so full of pain and sorrow, this seems puzzling, although the author may have been reticent to touch this deepest of all agonies.

As a historical document, this book is a marvel of detail and considered analysis, totally eclipsing Schanberg's (The Death and Life of Dith Pran) crude description of the embassy drama and going far beyond Jon Swain's brief chapter in River of Time. Bizot owes his life to the Khmer Rouge Executioner Douch (See The Lost Executioner: A Story of the Khmer Rouge), who persuaded Pol Pot to release him over the bloodthirsty demands of Ta Mok. These three Khmer Rouge leaders went on to kill hundreds of thousands of Cambodians and at least 30 non-Asian foreigners, of whom Bizot was the only one to be released.

Easily the best work of non-fiction I have ever read.
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on February 8, 2015
The Gate is a marvelous non-fiction story that reads like a novel. It covers the pre-Pol Pot era, the beginning and eventual "liberation" of Cambodia, and its aftermath, from the perspective of a Frenchman immersed and wedded to the Cambodian culture. The book is all the more meanininful if you have been in Cambodia. It was translated from the French original by John Le Carré who met the author and protagonist, "Bizot," while in the country. Mr. Bizot was a Buddhist scholar and ethnologist captured and then released by the Khmer Rouge and became an intermediary for the French after Phnom Phen fell. Mr. Bizot's intellectual interests and curiousity about Cambodia and Cambodians, his biting criticism of the American military's naiveté, his ability to wrestle about the philosophy of freedom and choice, and the courage of his convictions come through in his narrative of the events that he witnessed and exprienced. These qualities allowed him to form intense relationships of mutual respect with the Khmer Rouge leaders who captured him and with whom he negotiated. His knowledge not only of Buddhism, of the Cambodian country folk, and of the endemic flora, create a context and understanding of Cambodia and its internecine war. It is a brilliant account!
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on June 28, 2003
The story of Bizot's internment in the camp, and his conversation's with Douch, are incredibly vivid and take one as far as it probably possible to go into the mind of a committed revolutionary, to try to understand how it's possible for a man who is by no means sadistic or insane to commit acts of torture and genocide.
The other reviews are right: this is not the book to read if one wants an overview of the Khmer Rouge years - other than a timeline and some assorted details, you don't get much - but it is valuable for shedding a great deal of light on the ideological foundations of the revolutionaries and the ensuing massacres. I'm not sure why some people seem to praise Le Carre's introduction independent of the book: unless he has some other motive, it seems strange that a man would have the intelligence to write a good introduction but lack the acuity to actually know what a good book is.
Le Carre mentions Bizot remoteness in real life, and this distancing really extended to the memoir as well - although the book is filled with a great deal of conviction and sadness, I always got the feeling that the author was holding his cards close to his chest. His then-wife keeps getting mentioned sporadically, but despite his repeated desire to see her again, we never get to know her or understand her importance to his life: the same for his daughter Helene. We find out more about random holdouts in the embassy than we do about them, which is strange for two people who are supposedly such a huge part of his life. You never really feel like the writer is telling you everything.
The second part of the book is still well-written, but something of a mess. Lacking the twin poles of the narrator and Douch, his captor in the camp, which anchor the first part of the memoir, the book starts getting spread too thin. Hundreds of characters seem to emerge and disappear - too many horrific events take place for any of them to have the necessary impact, which is of course part of the impossibility of doing justice to any mass tragedy.
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on May 13, 2003
I found this book a very interesting read, particulary Bizot's experiences with the sinister Duch. Also I found his writings about life in the French Embassy in Phnom Penh highly interesting. But to call this book brilliant is highly exaggerated in my view. I think Bizot's book lacks soul and therefore it never really touches you. The writer skips too many details in his story which I for one would have loved to read. To me he is more of a distanced observer than a writer. He only touches the very upper layer of events, whereas in his privileged situation, he could have been the ultimate (western) eye-witness of those days in april 1975. He failed in that, in my view. This rather cold and distanced book can in no way compare to brilliant Francois Ponchaud's "Year Zero".
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