Friends of mine visited Cambodia. They loved the country for its beauty, but they told me that it wasn’t an easy country for travelling as you’re not allowed to move as freely as you’d like because of the danger of the land-mines. A friend of mine is half-Cambodian. He was born in Europe, after the war, but spent a couple of months in Cambodia where he joined a bomb disposal unit. He came back changed and traumatized. He wouldn’t speak for months. Thirty years of war ravaged the country and left the deadly long-lasting legacy of millions of land-mines. Cambodia is among the ten countries with the most landmines. Currently there are still 8 – 10 million. Cambodia has one of the highest rates of disability. Since 1979 there are some 40 amputations per week. To clear Cambodia of its land mines could take up to 100 years.
The war as such isn’t easy to understand. First there were the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, later the Vietnamese invasion. Mostly these wars were genocides. Depending on which side was in power it would try to wipe out the other side using torture, rape, mutilation and shootings.
I usually don’t start a book review with so much back information but I felt it was needed in this case, although it’s still not nearly enough.
Kim Echlin’s novel The Disappeared begins right after the Khmer Rouge have fled the country. Anne Greves is in Phnom Pen looking for her lover Serey. She met him in Montreal ten years ago when she was only sixteen. Serey, a student and musician, fled Cambodia during the rise of the Khmer Rouge. He has no news of his family. The two young people begin a passionate love affair until Serey returns to Cambodia. Anne hopes he will keep in touch but he doesn’t. She waits and waits and the years go by. She has other lovers but she can’t forget Serey. Meanwhile she has learned the Khmer language and decides to travel to Cambodia and search for Serey in all the clubs of Phnom Pen.
When she finds him she discovers he too couldn’t forget her and they become lovers again until the day Serey disappears once more.
The Disappeared is a stunning novel. Beautiful and harrowing. Through the eyes of Anne we discover the beauty, tragedy, and horror of Cambodia. Thanks to her lover, and because she speaks the language, she is able to immerse herself fully. While the Pol Pot regime is over, Cambodia is still in a state of war, people are still hunted, tortured an executed.
The book is written like a lament. Often Anne addresses her lover.
I see your long silence as I see war, an urge to conquer. You used silence to guard your territory and told yourself you were protecting me. I was outside the wall, an intoxicating foreign land to occupy. I wondered what other secrets you guarded. Our disappeared were everywhere, irresistible, in waking, in sleeping, a reason for violence, a reason for forgiveness, destroying the peace we tried to possess, creeping between us as we dreamed, leaving us haunted by the knowledge that history is not redeemed by either peace or war but only fingered to shreds and left to our children. But I could not leave you, and I could not forget, and I did not know what to do, and always loved you beyond love.
Serey stands for millions of disappeared people. Most relatives never find out what happened to their loved ones, but Anne, fuelled by her passion and because she’s a foreigner who cannot fully comprehend the risk she’s taking, doesn’t let go until she’s found out what happened to the man she loves.
Many of the chapters are like short vignettes. Some contain not much more than lists of atrocities. War is awful but genocide is even much more horrible. To read about what is done to women and children, even babies, is hard to stomach.
Nonetheless it’s a beautiful, captivating book. Anne is passionate about her man and his country, discovering everything, breathlessly. This gives the reader the feel of being on a trip through a foreign country, led by a highly knowledgable guide. It is foreign but you feel like you’re quickly becoming a part of it.
The language is the language of a poet although Kim Echlin doesn’t write poetry. It’s lyrical and full of powerful images.
Kim Echlin managed something admirable. She captured the universality of grief, loss, and war, but at the same time she brought to life a country’s story that we’re either not familiar with or not interested in. In this, the novel is a call for compassion.
Why do some people live a comfortable life and others live one that is horror-filled? What part of ourselves do we shave off so we can keep on eating while others starve? If women, children, and old people were being murdered a hundred miles from here, would we not run to help? Why do we stop this decision of the heart when the distance is three thousand miles instead of a hundred?
The book explores the question of how much we can really understand of a foreign country. I liked that Anne never accepted to stay an outsider. She wanted to be part even if that meant that she put herself in danger.
The Disappeared isn’t easy to read but I loved this haunting book. It’s an amazing achievement, an intense, lucid, lyrical, and compassionate novel about a devastating conflict and a love that surpasses everything.
I’m going to end this post with one of my favorite scenes from the book. It takes place in Montreal. I think it shows what a wonderfully expressive writer Kim Echlin is and illustrates her style, how she renders dialogue.
We rode your bike to the great river. Stars and water and night. Down the riverbank, wrapped in darkness. You led me along a dock where boats were moored in narrow slips and we jumped onto the deck of a sloop called Rosalind. You took a small key from your jeans pocket and unlocked the cabin door. I followed you down the three steep steps into a tiny galley and you opened a cupboard door and took out a box of floating candles. You said, At home it is Sampeas Preah Khe, the night we pray to the moon. My grandmother always lit a hundred candles and sent them out on the black river.
To honor the river and the Buddha.
You handed me a book of matches and I lit them with you, one by one. We sent out the ninety-ninth and hundredth out together and wathched the trail of small flames drifting away. You said, My grandmother told me in the old days young people did this and prayed for love.
The Disappeared is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2015. The next book is the Vietnamese novel Novel Without a Name – Tiêu thuyêt vô dê by Huon Thu huong. Discussion starts on Friday 29 May, 2015. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2015, including the book blurbs can be found here.