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A Disappointing Read
on 11 February 2013
I first heard of The Gate by Francois Bizot in the summer of 2012 when I took a tour of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. As I travelled the area visiting the typical tourist sites, the book was highly recommended. I eventually go around to reading the book away from the hurly-burly excitement of the tour. So did the The Gate live up to its high recommendation as a must read?
The Gate is a memoir which tells the story of Bizot's experience of being held in captivity by a local Khmer Rouge leader, Douch and subsequently, after release from captivity, under siege in the French embassy. It is a harrowing story of hardship, cruelty, perseverance and good luck. It is a book of two halves Bizot's time in captivity under Douch and his time behind the gate giving refuge to those desperate to escape the turmoil of Cambodia.
In 1971 Bizot was working as a researcher into Buddhist practices associated with the state of being in a trance. He tells us that in 1971 he was kidnapped and detained by the Khmer Rouge. He begins his book from the point of a return trip to Cambodia in 1988 where he recalled his experience behind the gate of the French embassy.
Bizot outlines the geo-politics of the time. The Khmer Rouge joined forces with the North Vietnamese in support of the Peking based prince Sihanouk's appeal to fight against the dictatorship and traitor Lon Nol. Of course the USA opposed this communist revolution and added to the prolonged human suffering and destruction of Bizot's beloved Cambodia. Although there was n love lost between Bizot and the Khmer Rouge his disdain for the USA came across in the book. He felt that the Americans were uncouth in their methods, their conscience was misplaced and "They were total strangers in the area, driven by clichés about Asia worthy of the flimsiest tourist guides and they behaved accordingly."
One of the outstanding features of this otherwise very ordinary memoir is the relationship between Bizot and his captor, Douch. Bizot relationship with Douch and the way he conveys the relationship is intriguing. On one occasion Bizot broods over Douch's back ground and his own fate at the hands of his captors. About Douch, Bizot tells us that when Douch was arrested by Sihanouk's police they, "beat him about the head for engaging in communist activities." When Bizot turns his recollections upon himself he has to acknowledge that as a prisoner of Douch his fate lays in the hand a man for whom he shows some sympathy. During a conversation between Bizot and Douch about his belief and ideology we get a sense of a mutual understanding and despite their different circumstances a developing friendship. Bizot acknowledges that: "Just as he revealed such cruelty, I surprised myself by feeling affectionate towards him. ... I was looking not at a monster from the abyss but a human being, taken by nature and conditioned for killing."
In places, in short bursts, the descriptive writing comes alive but alas this is not sustained throughout the book. For example, "Now and again the lonely buzz of insect hidden in an enormous clump of pandanus produced a slow, deep sound that seemed to emerge from a reed pipe. Everywhere, the air was echoing with sounds, and the rhythmic flow that reached my consciousness was so scrambled that I could no longer distinguish individual notes ..."
Bizot's love for every minutia of Cambodia meant that he took time to tell us about some things that in the grand scheme of war was of little interest. A good example of this was where Bizot tells us about his favourite chicken, Paulette, in the camp where he was detained. It felt as if Bizot was padding out the book and passages like this were somewhat tedious to read.
The Gate was a big disappointing read. It quite simply did not engage me as I expected it would. I suppose that the main reason why it did not engage is because it is a personal story and yet I just could not hear a voice.