The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, have been covered before, particularly by the courageous Dith Pran, who died last year. I knew going in to The Disappeared (2009) that the book could not be as affecting as the journalistic accounts. Yet, there’s something haunting and reverent about the cover that compelled me and gave me hope. I hoped like mad that the book could be as haunting and, knowing the topic, especially as reverent. In the end, despite a few flaws, the book greatly exceeded my expectations.
Our narrator is Anne Greves, a Canadian who, in her youth (she was only sixteen), fell in undying love with the passionate musician Serey, a Cambodian exile to Montreal. With only minor clunkiness that we get over soon enough, we come to know that Anne is writing this book to Serey as an attempt to take account of their past:
Bones work their way to the surface. Thirty years have passed since that day in the market in Phnom Penh. I still hear your voice. I first met you [. . .]
We don’t know what happened in the market in Phnom Penh until well into the book. Instead, we go back to the late 1970s to witness the budding of Anne and Serey’s relationship. Serey’s father had sent him away from Cambodia, and while away, the Khmer Rouge came into power, shutting down all borders and all communication. Right before the borders closed, Serey received a last telegram: “APRIL 16TH, 1975, BORDERS MAY CLOSE. DO NOT COME BACK UNTIL I CALL. FATHER.” Since then, Serey has had no means of communicating with his family or with anyone in Cambodia. He only knows from accounts on the news or in books that what is happening at his home is worse than any nightmare.
We read Year Zero by a French priest called Ponchaud. He described people pushing hospital beds, women giving birth in ditches, a cripple with neither hands nor feet writhing along the ground like a severed worm to get out of Phnom Penh. You threw up in the toilet and then you opened the book at the beginning again and read all night, looking for clues about your family. In the morning you said, What if my family is dead? What if I can never go back?
Trying to understand the love that Anne and Serey have is a bit difficult and actually made the first part of the book more interesting to me. Its a tribute to Kim Echlin that the relationship felt real even though vague and immature. Perhaps it was the vagueness and immaturity that made it feel real. After all, here is a sixteen year old girl who as of yet has no idea about pain. Her mother is dead, but Anne doesn’t remember her. Her father is distant, and Anne seems to wish they did more together, but on the whole Anne’s biggest concern is that her father doesn’t take her to listen to music. She has to wait until some older friends are willing to take her, and it is then that she meets Serey. So is Anne attracted to Serey’s music, to his foreignness, to his pain, or is it more fundamental? We get a sense that it is at least a selfish sort of love when, after the Vietnamese invade Cambodia, the borders open up again and Sereys says he must got back to find his family. When he tells her this, Anne admits to her conflicting and selfish feelings:
I wanted the borders to close again, so I could have you back. I wanted you to die so I would not have to think of you without me. I wanted money. I wanted to be older. I wanted you to find your whole family alive so I could be with you. I wanted you to find your family dead so you would be mine.
We even remember how young she is when, at his exit, Serey says, “Little tiger, don’t be stubborn. Let’s not leave each other without a kiss.” She simply responds, “I am not the one leaving.”
Years later, Anne has heard nothing from Serey. Attempting to bring back at least his feel, she has rented out his old apartment — very different now after several other tenants have come and gone — and she paints the bedroom the color it was before. One day while watching a television program, she is certain she has spotted her lover. One of the flaws in the book is the inexplicable irrationality of Anne’s decision to go to Cambodia to search for Serey. Echlin relies on the irrationality of love to explain this, but I would have liked more analysis here. Up to this point I wasn’t convinced of their relationship and viewed their story more as Echlin’s way to take her readers from Canada to the Killing Fields. It felt a little contrived. Making things worse, Echlin has Anne and Serey reunited fairly quickly. However, the book had been going strong until that point, and the very strong last half makes up for the convenient devices here.
As I just mentioned, while reading the book I was worried that Echlin was using the narrative to report on Cambodia. I’m fine when authors have major, broad events in their books. If they’re capable of doing the reporting justice through nuance and imagery and analysis. I’m not a fan, however, when it looks like the author is trying to be a journalist without having journalistic standards. In other words, if a book looks like an author’s attempt to reduce to sentiment an immensely complex and important event in history, I want to look the other way. I don’t like self-serving and undisciplined pathos. Thankfully, Echlin appears to be aware of this and even introduces a complex counterstrain in her narrative when she writes,
I think of Tuol Sleng and I hear Bach’s passion and I hear the thumping rhythms of Todesfuge and the chanting of a horrified chorus in Antigone. I hear a voice cry out in anguish, If this is a man? Human cruelty turned into a note of music, the rhythm of a sentence. Men have invented a word for this. They call it sublime.
She recognizes the importance of art as well as its potential pitfalls and falsehoods. The sublime is enlightening. But attempts to reach the sublime can be exploitative and ham-fisted. Hopefully, then, this account, this artistic use of Cambodia, must be something more than mere hack reportage.
So I was intrigued but not convinced by the first quarter of the novel. And once Anne got to Cambodia I was worried that the story could become that hack job of reportage. But, taking me off-guard, the complexities and that haunting reverence I hoped would be there came forth. Yes, this is a story about Cambodia. Hopefully many will read this and remember what happened there. Hopefully others will read this and come to know for the first time what happened there. However, there is a more universal theme to the novel as it moves from the specifics of Anne and Serey and even Cambodia’s disappeared to humanity’s disappeared. We can feel it touch us personally, brining the specifics of Cambodia closer to us. Hopefully we feel a genuine connection and not just a connection by artifice.
Again, the Giller Prize shortlist includes an entry that, both in its structure and explicitly in its text, concerns compelling issues in aesthetic theory. But thankfully this one carried through with subtlety. What remains when we go?
I held the bone and felt its curves under my palms and I looked at the pocked surface. All the joys of life left no mark at all. What is the value of a single human life?