| Days in chains
The Gate By François Bizot, Harvill, £ 16.99
There is no river. Yet this book is also a journey into the heart of darkness. François Bizot is one of the foremost scholars of southeast Asian Buddhism in France. He is perhaps the only Westerner to have come out alive from imprisonment by the Khmer Rouge.
In 1971, Bizot as a young ethnologist studying aspects of Cambodian Buddhism was picked by the communist guerrillas of Khmer Rouge. Within Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge had already acquired the frightening notoriety for their ruthlessness. Cambodia was in political turmoil. In 1969, the king, Norodom Sihanouk had been removed in a coup d’ etat led by General Lon Nol. The Vietcong had invaded Cambodia and the Kampuchean Communist Party, the leaders of the Khmer movement, had begun forcing young peasants to enlist in the Revolutionary Army of Liberation. Enemies or suspected enemies were treated summarily by the Khmer Rouge. They were not shot but clubbed to death. The world would get to know the details after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge movement following the death of Pol Pot. But for Bizot, this was an immediate and lived experience.
This book is a recollection of Bizot’s days of imprisonment in a camp and of his subsequent freedom and exit from Cambodia.
Even though the book recollects events at a thirty year distance, it has an ineffable vividness. One reason for this is of course the unforgettable nature of what Bizot underwent. As he writes he is haunted by monsters that “stir in him, constantly inciting infernal memories”. His book has the authenticity of pain, an experience never easy to describe. Bizot experienced first hand what most ordinary humans cannot even imagine in their worst nightmares.
Despite this there are passages in this book of unsurpassed beauty. Bizot remembers changes in nature and the living creatures who perhaps relieved the horror of his imprisonment. At the heart of his narrative of his days in chains is his attempt to retain his dignity and his sanity. He maintained his innocence against the allegation that he was a CIA agent. All his statements were put under the revolutionary microscope to seek out non-existent counter-revolutionary innuendoes. Bizot earned for himself the right to clean himself in the adjoining river. While asserting his innocence, he also planned his escape. Here his sole asset were his pair of flipflops which he knew would be vital when he fled across the forest. There is also the story of a relationship with his interrogator, Douch, who tried to convince his superiors in the party that Bizot was innocent. It was Douch who secured Bizot’s freedom.
Back in Phnom Penh, Bizot was a witness to the Khmer Rouge’s entry into the city and of their fury against all things Western. Bizot became the unofficial intermediary between the French embassy and the Khmer Rouge and between the embassy and the hapless refugees who wanted to flee from sure death. There are chilling accounts of Bizot foraging for provisions in a ghostly city and of the long convoy that took Bizot and other foreigners into Thailand. Bizot came back to Cambodia after the death of Pol Pot and met his captor and his interrogator. These encounters stand out for their sheer humanity.
It is a privilege to read this book.