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.
28 thoughts on “Kim Echlin: The Disappeared (2009) Literature and War Readalong March 2015”
Thanks for this outstanding commentary Caroline.
From time to time the recent history of Cambodia has interested me. Over the years I have read a few books and a lot of articles on the subject. Indeed the story is beyond tragic, it is horrifying beyond belief.
I really like the passage that you quoted at the end of your post. This is a book that I want to read.
It’s one of the best novels on war I’ve read. I’m not keen on books that use a lovey story as a vehicle to talk about war but in this case it was a brilliant idea.
I knew about the war and its aftermath but not everything. This shows you an amazing country and a horrific war.
I hope you’ll read it. I’d love to read what you think of it.
This sounds like an amazing book and one I will definitely be on the lookout for . A really fab review.
Thanks, Helen. I hope you’ll read it. It’s an amazing achievement.
Right, that’s going immediately on my wishlist – it sounds utterly beguiling (if a somewhat difficult topic).
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This was one of the most moving books I’ve read in a while, and I agree with everything you say in your review. I had to read up on Cambodia’s recent history to get the context, and at first, it bothered me a bit that I didn’t get the background information within the book. But after thinking about it for a while, I decided that that would not have fit into the narrative and would probably have taken something away from the story.
I’m really glad we’ve read this. It’s such a moving story. If I hadn’t known anything about the conflict I would have had to read up more. Nonetheless, I still have questions. I agree with what you say, if she’d included more it would have take away a lot from the immediacy of the narrative. I’ll read your review shortly.
I used to teach ES Asian refugees and heard many stories. Don’t think I could read this one.
It’s hard i places but so well done.
Beautiful review, Caroline. I just finished reading the book and can’t stop thinking about it. I have been reading for the whole day, ignoring all errands and work that I had and I didn’t want to put the book down before finishing it. It was beautiful, poignant, tragic and also a wonderful love story. Thanks for writing about the Cambodian war at the beginning of your post. It was very informative. I need to read more on it. It is sad what happened there. I can’t believe that there are so many landmines still. The book mentions Hun Sun and I was surprised to see his name in the newspaper a couple of days back – it looks like he is still the prime minister. I wonder how the situation in Cambodia is now. I hope it is not as bad as in the 1970s. I loved that last passage you have quoted from the book. It is one of my most favourite passages from the book – so beautiful.
Thanks for choosing this book for the readalong, Caroline. I have to let it sink in today. I hope to post my review tomorrow.
Thanks, Vishy. I’m so glad you liked it too. I thought it worked as a novel on war and an amazing love story. It might be one of my favourite love stories. It’s hard to write such an intensely emotional story without ever being melodramatic.
From what I know it’s much better there but they still struggle. My friend told me about all the mutilated people and the poverty. But many mention the beuaty of the country and the customs. I’d love to see those lights on the river.
It’s abook to re-read. It has so many wonderful passages altugh the end is so, so sad. I’m looking forward to reading your review.
It must take real skill to write about such a horrific period; the combination of lyrical prose and haunting nature of the subject matter does sound like a real achievement. I like how you’ve described it as a lament, a sort of elegy for loss and suffering…the quotes are very striking.
It really felt like a lament – or elegy. And it’s an achievemnt. I need to find out what other books she’s written. I’m not surprised it won prizes. It’s funny – it’s horrible but it still makes you want to visit Cambodia.
Sounds like an amazing and powerful read. Great review.
Thanks, Ali. It’s a pretty stunning book.
Really wonderful review, Caroline. I had no idea there were so many land mines in Cambodia. Not sure I could stomach this one, but I’m not ruling it out either.
Thanks, Carole. I think you would like it in spite of the horrible elements. I always wanted to visit Cambodia but it’s a scary place because of those landmines. But other countries have them too. There just was a flooding in Bosnia not too long ago and one of the problems was that fiels with landmines where flooded and the landmines then carried all over the country.
Great review Caroline. As beautiful as the language makes it, I don’t think I could read it.
I went to Cambodia a few years ago to see Angkor Wat. I’ve also been to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Seeing those pictures of the dead and the rooms they were tortured wasn’t as harrowing as seeing the skulls and the actual places the prisoners were kept. It was a very emotional day.
I know this is a book I couldn’t have read at certain other moments in my life but I was OK with it.
I’m not sure I would be able to visit a genocide museum. It must be very hard. Skulls play an important part in the novel.
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Since we still find bombs from WWI here in Europe, I’m not sure these land mines will be gone in 100 years.
What a nightmare it must be. Not only did they have to live through these atrocities but now they can’t really move on with all these deathly reminders spread they don’t know where.
I’m not sure I could stomach reading about it but I feel like a coward any time I avoid reading about such a book. How can I chicken out when I’m comfortably sitting and reading in a safe country?
It goes on the wish list.
I know that feeling. It’s one of the reasons why I keep on reading books like this. I’m sure you would “like” this book because it’s so wonderful. I’d be really interested to read your thoughts.
As far as I know there are many people, volunteers and others, trying to disarm all those bombs but they advance slowly.
With those landmines countries are defeated for many generations. It’s so gisgusting. Even when the war is long over.
This sounds like a haunting and beautifully written novel. The subject matter is made even more powerful from the contrast of the lyric prose. I’ve not read any novels set in Cambodia. They seem to be few and far between (in English translation anyway). I will keep my eye out for this one.
Very haunting, yes. The prose gave it additional poignancy. I think you will like the way she wrote this, but it has harrowing moments. There aren’t a lot of novels on Cambodia.
I actually enjoyed how you began the review with some background information as it allows people who have not yet read the book to have an idea as to whether or not they would like a book with such history or if they prefer pure fiction. Also, I like how further into the review you warned of some of the disturbing events that took place in the novel but added that it was still captivating and enjoyable. It is helpful to those who may be sensitive to such topics. Also, you did an excellent job describing the book and it was interesting how you inferred that Serey was meant to symbolize the deaths of Cambodian citizens as I never thought of that and I too thought that although it was foreign I felt as though I was drawn into and a part of the story. Lastly, I too enjoyed Kim Echlin’s writing style and found it very poetic. Overall, this review is very accurate and helpful to those who have not yet read the book and need to know whether they would enjoy a novel as such.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Shaelyn.
I’m glad to hear you liked her writing style as well.
I think it’s importnat to let people know when a book is hard to read. Sometimes, it’s just not the right moment to read something that is graphic.
I think choosing to tell the story as a love story between a Canadian woman and a Cambodian man worked particularly well. It helped us to relate. I don’t always like it when an author mixes love and war but it felt authentic here.
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