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?
During Pol Pot’s brutal regime in Cambodia (1975-1979) more than a million people were killed and buried in mass graves. Others died from disease and starvation. Others still, disappeared never to be seen again.
But how do you tell this truly disturbing story in fictionalised form without banging people over the head, aka A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali style?
Canadian Kim Echlin does it by framing it around a beautiful, all-consuming love story. In The Disappeared — Echlin’s third novel — she tells the tale of Anne Greves, who as a 16-year-old motherless teenager, falls in love with an older man, Serey, a musician turned math tutor in exile from his native Cambodia. Their relationship is frowned upon by Anne’s father, but there is little he can do to prevent the affair, which blossoms in the music clubs of downtown Montreal during the late 1970s.
When the Cambodian borders are re-opened, Serey returns home to look for his family. Anne never hears from him again. Eleven years later, she thinks she sees him on a TV broadcast at a political rally in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She packs her bag and flies to Cambodia to look for him.
It’s circa 1990. The Vietnamese forces that occupied Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge was removed from power have gone, only to be replaced by the UN and other Western aid agencies. The population still largely lives in fear — no one wants to talk about the country’s history of genocide, they merely want to get on with their lives.
Chan [Serey’s childhood neighbour] shook her head. All my children are gone. She looked across the broken road and said, Under Sihanouk, people used to greet each other, How many children have you? Under Lon Noi, people said, Are you well? Under the Khmer Rouge, How much food do you get in your cooperative? Now we say, How many of your family are still alive?
I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to reveal that Anne does find her lover — albeit by a stroke of fate that belies believability — but the course of their love doesn’t run smoothly: Serey disappears once again. It’s her second, more frantic search, that gives the latter half of this strangely hypnotic novel a rather thrilling edge. Not only does Anne put herself in ludicrously dangerous situations — her dogged determination to find Serey borders on stupidity and obsession — but there’s a very real fear that what she is looking for is not a person, but a body.
Spanning 30 years, it is written in the second person as Anne looks back on her life with Serey. It is rather hard-hitting in places, but it is also strangely moving. And despite Anne’s flaws, her inability to ask Serey questions about his lifestyle, her naive, Westernised view of the world, it’s hard not to admire her quest for the truth when everyone else wants to bury their head in the sand.
As well as being a terrifically fast-gripping story, The Disappeared is the type of novel that uses language carefully. Echlin’s prose style is poetic, but she describes things — events, people, places, conversations — in an elegant but plain style. And it never feels like she is cramming journalistic information into her fictionalised account — it feels authentic and seamless — which only makes it feel more real and “truthful”.
For another take on this novel, I would recommend you read KevinfromCanada’s review, which is where I first heard about this book, while The Mookse and the Gripes’ review only reinforced my desire to get my hands on a copy. I thank both of them for bringing this moving and memorable novel to my attention.