Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 03 Mar 2017

The Gate by Francois Bizot  & River of Time by Jon Swain

I spent a long weekend reading two very different books about the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot. It wasn’t what I had planned to do, and it will probably be a long time before I do such a thing again, because it is not an easy subject to read about.

In the late-60s and early-70s, Francois Bizot was an academic working for the Angkor Conservation Office, where he studied Buddhism and its changing custom and practice in the Cambodian countryside. His book, The Gate, was published to great acclaim in an English translation in 2003, with a foreword by John le Carré. It is about his capture by Khmer Rouge militia in 1971 and the subsequent role he played with those who had taken refuge in the French Embassy in Phnom Penh as the city finally fell to Pol Pot’s forces in April 1975. Due to his fluent Khmer he became the main translator and intermediary between those inside the Embassy and the Khmer Rouge insurgents crowded at its gates.

Bizot is the only Westerner known to have survived capture by the infamous Khmer Rouge commander Comrade Duch. At the time he was captured he of course had no idea who the enigmatic Duch was. It was only later that he discovered that this educated and in some ways deeply principled man – who was almost certainly responsible for his release – was also the monster of almost unfathomable cruelty in charge of the Tuol Sleng torture and extermination camp.

Bizot’s account is one of extreme reticence, discretion and self-effacement, shot through with moments of poetry and philosophical detachment. It is in some respects a very French book. It is heartbreaking, but by and large it is not – unlike River of Time, the other title discussed here – steeped in horror. Horror there is, but even here Bizot writes sparingly and with great sensitivity.

But this immense reticence and discretion is also a weakness of a sort and at times the book can seem somewhat oblique, obscure even. And while not qualified to judge, sometimes it doesn’t seem well-served by its translation.

It was for these reasons that on finishing it I went back again to another very different kind of Cambodia memoir, Jon Swain’s River of Time, originally published in 1997. Swain was a journalist working for the English-language desk of the French Press Agency in Vietnam as the war spilt over into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. His book is on a wider canvas and covers his time in Indo-China from 1970-75 and to some extent his later travels, including his kidnapping by Indonesian-backed militia in East Timor in 1999.

But it is the Cambodian experience that is relevant here because Swain knew Bizot and shared the dangers and hardship of the French Embassy with him as Phnom Penh fell. He writes at some length about Bizot and also recounts some of the same episodes – often, I must say, with greater clarity and more revealingly.

Some have criticised Swain’s book for its exoticism and romanticism. There is some justice in this. Certainly, at times it falls very much into the war-junky school of writing – adrenalin-fuelled, adventure-obsessed and as in thrall to Cambodia’s graceful and desirable women as it is the lush landscape and cultural richness of the country .

In Swain’s defence, however, he is aware of this. He even says at one point: “…we journalists were in the end just privileged passengers in transit through Cambodia’s landscape of hell. We were eyewitnesses to a great human tragedy none of us could comprehend. We had betrayed our Cambodian friends. We had been unable to save those who had saved us. We were protected simply because our skins were white. I felt ashamed.”

But this momentary self-awareness doesn’t prevent him leaving the woman he loves – who herself will be swept up in the fall of Saigon – to catch the very last commercial flight going back into Phnom Penh before the airport was closed.

Whether this is journalistic courage or yet another self-indulgent flight from conformity – which more than any other single thing seems most to terrify him – is unclear. But what is indisputable is that it enabled him to write probably one of the greatest and most historically significant eye-witness accounts of the fall of Phnom Penh ever produced.

River of Time isn’t necessarily a better book than Bizot’s but it is clearer and its impact is more immediate. It also serves as one of the most lucid introductions there is to Indo-China’s wars. The Gate on the other hand depends far more on the reader bringing some prior understanding to the book.

Two very different accounts, then, which read together complement each other brilliantly. But the sense of loss and the scale of suffering are almost overwhelming, even forty years after the events they describe.


Alun Severn

March 2017