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The Gate Paperback – January 6, 2004

3.6 out of 5 stars 39 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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 Thomson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

"It's better to have a sparsely populated Cambodia than a country full of incompetents!" The speaker of this chilling statement is Douch, the Khmer Rouge true believer who ran the camp that held French ethnologist Bizot for the closing months of 1971, several years before the Marxist revolutionaries unleashed massive bloodshed on the small Southeast Asian country. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge's chaotic occupation of Phnom Penh confined the small French community in the city to the premises of the French embassy, the portal of which supplies this volume with its title. Married to a Cambodian citizen, Bizot was an unusual Westerner there, in that once the terror started, he showed little inclination to flee the country. Bizot exploited his status as a rare Khmer-speaking Westerner not only to escape execution but also to extract a measure of autonomy for himself. He frequently showed remarkable defiance toward his heavily armed and ruthless captors. Bizot's account maintains a melancholy tone throughout. Despite his frequent heroic acts, Bizot emphasizes his own frailty and weakness-when he's not looking to set the record straight. He remains especially angry at Western leftists who insisted that the Vietnamese played little role in Cambodia despite ample evidence to the contrary. What's especially striking is the apparent contradiction between Bizot's sympathetic portrait of Douch and his description of the countless murders Douch committed in the name of the revolution. For many Americans, the senseless tragedy of Cambodia remains a mystery; this elegant volume helps outline the contours of that tragedy from a unique perspective. Maps. 40,000 first printing.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed. edition (January 6, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037572723X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375727238
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (39 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #483,962 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

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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.Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
"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.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
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.
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