THE GATE

By Franc{cedil}ois Bizot

Translated from the French

By Euan Cameron

Knopf. 278 pp. $24

The Cambodia to which Franc{cedil}ois Bizot traveled in 1965 was, he recalls, "rich and beautiful, enameled with paddy fields, dotted with temples . . . a country of peace and simplicity. Reflections upon the nature of existence were common currency to all its inhabitants." Cambodia was, in a word, ethereal: "Festivities, divine service, ordinary rituals -- nothing was conceived without art, and poetry, and mystery; for always, the spirits of the dead breathed over the turning of the seasons."

Himself an ethnologist, Bizot had, like many others from France, "been drawn to the mysteries of the Far East, and fascinated by the gestures and secular rituals of a people that clung to its traditions." He settled in a village in the Angkor district and began to research Buddhist monuments and traditions.

When he left Cambodia several years later, everything had changed. Paradise had become a charnel house. Caught in the grip of the unlikely and short-lived alliance between North Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge, the country began a rapid descent into hell. Beginning in 1970 and escalating throughout the decade, the violence inflicted by the Khmer Rouge upon their own people was unspeakable. Bizot was left with "a bitterness that knows no limit," a "sense of hopelessness" that soaks almost every page of this powerful, disturbing book. Though its principal subject is Bizot's own experience, it serves in effect as a report to the world on a subject -- Cambodia's self-inflicted genocide of the 1970s -- that to date the world has rather effectively managed to ignore.

This is because the Khmer Rouge effectively closed Cambodia to the world from 1975 until its overthrow in 1979, because by the mid-1970s the West had tired of Southeast Asian conflicts and was preoccupied with licking its own, mostly self-inflicted wounds, and because leftist intellectuals in Europe and the United States persisted in broadcasting fantasies about virtuous Asian communists that bore no resemblance to the terrible reality of their activities. Reports trickled out from time to time suggesting that horrors were taking place, but not until the 1980s did the picture begin to come into focus; even now it is unlikely that many Westerners have much knowledge of or interest in this awful instance of human inhumanity.

Bizot was in Cambodia when the violence started but left long before the worst of it. He returned as soon as it was safe to do so, and in his closing pages gives a moving portrait of what he found there, but The Gate is best read as a prelude to, or first chapter in, the story that followed. Bizot was arrested by the Khmer Rouge in October 1971 under suspicion of being an undercover agent of the CIA, held in a primitive prison for three months -- during much of which he was certain that he would be executed at any moment -- then released as arbitrarily as he had been captured. He went to Phnom Penh, where, since he is fluent in Khmer, he became "the official interpreter at the [French] embassy and, eventually . . . the only person authorized to leave it." After several suspenseful weeks, he and about a thousand other foreign nationals escaped to Thailand in May 1972.

Thus the story divides into two sections: imprisonment and its aftermath. The first is by its very nature interesting, but in this instance it is all the more so because of the complex relationship between Bizot and his captor, Douch, a young man -- perhaps not yet 30 -- whose "authority was total; there were no limits to his power over the detainees" at the prison camp, almost all of whom were tortured to one degree or another and many of whom either died or were murdered. Bizot at once feared and trusted him: "This terrible man was not duplicitous; all he had were principles and convictions. And if that hypothesis was true, I had an ally." He was at once "brutal executioner" and "man of faith," whose "masters employed him as a cog in a vast timepiece beyond his comprehension."

Eventually, something approximating affection arose between the two men. Douch, "one of those pure, fervent idealists who yearned above all for truth," became convinced that Bizot was innocent of any complicity with the CIA and, as Bizot learned many years later, literally saved his life. Yet that knowledge came to Bizot almost hand-in-hand with the dreadful realization that his "onetime persecutor" was on trial in 2000 for "crimes against humanity" committed at a converted schoolhouse in Phnom Penh long after Bizot's departure from that city:

"I could not bring myself to identify the man I had known, who so loved justice, with the head of the torturers of this vile jail, the one responsible for so much infamy. What monstrous metamorphosis had he undergone? Plunged into the throes of fear, I felt a stench of swamp and animal's den turning my stomach, the smell of the beast who had haunted them here."

Like his Khmer Rouge colleagues, Douch revealed a dark side, "new and unexpected masks," that Bizot theretofore had neither recognized nor suspected. Warriors by tradition, they "cultivated a veritable paranoia" once they came under the influence of communism, a paranoia that made everyone an enemy and thus a candidate for torture and death. Almost overnight, they reduced Phnom Penh to desolation, the sight of which left Bizot sickened:

"I slipped silently into an immense theater of death. I thought that the apprehension of so much destruction would soon tip the fragile balance of my sanity. There was not a single child, not one living creature. This sudden suspension of life in the heart of what had been the great commercial center of the Mekong Delta -- this city famed for its many and varied activities, its colorful population, its cosmopolitan lifestyle -- struck me as both so incredible and so straightforward that I imagined myself in a dead world, deserted in the wake of some cataclysm, where I, without knowing it, was the only survivor."

Somehow he preserved his sanity, as well as a blunt courage that permitted him to act as go-between to the Khmer on behalf of the international community whose members had sought refuge on the grounds of the French embassy, the gate to which -- "the gate does not open onto the agonized cries of the tortured in Tuol Sleng prison but onto absurdity and despair" -- provides the inspiration for the book's title. Exhausted to the point of numbness, he nevertheless managed to cajole the Khmer into respecting the immunity of the embassy and providing organization and direction for the terrified, confused people sheltered there. Bizot is at once too matter-of-fact and too self-critical to portray himself in a flattering light, but it is obvious that what he did can fairly be called heroic.

He is a man of strong opinions who expresses them freely. He is scarcely the first to condemn what the United States did in Southeast Asia in those years, and he tempers his remarks with the observation that in Vietnam "the Communist revolution was a disruption of [the peasants'] age-old way of life." But he is withering all the same: "Rather, it was the Americans' uncouth methods, their crass ignorance of the milieu in which they had intervened, their clumsy demagogy, their misplaced clear conscience, and that easy, childlike sincerity that bordered on foolishness. They were total strangers in the area, driven by cliche{acute}s about Asia worthy of the flimsiest tourist guides, and they behaved accordingly." Bizot is no less withering on the "display by Parisian intellectuals of fraternizing with poor Khmer Rouge," which "struck me as ridiculous and misplaced." As he says:

"Their dangerous naivete, based upon some idealistic vision, in the face of events that were to mark the pages of history in red and black, made me shudder. It was all part of the heavy responsibility of the West, which had heaped its models and its ideas on a totally alien world, unable to anticipate, prevent, or recognize the perverse effects it was having. However much hatred or sympathy I may have felt for some of these dreamers -- guilty yet motivated as they were by a sincere sense of brotherhood -- today, now that the point of no return has been reached, and they are silent, I feel merely a bitter compassion, and an infinite sadness."