Review by Frank Moher
The first of the trials for genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia commenced on March 30th, fully 13 years after the establishment of the U.N.-assisted tribunal, and fully 30 years after the end of the four-year period during which an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died.
The tribunal has been wracked by procedural delays and charges of corruption. Most recently, its chief judge warned that money is running out and much of its staff may depart. The first of the defendants, Kaing Guek Eav, who ran a secret torture facility and has confessed to being responsible for 15,000 killings, has expressed remorse for his deeds. But with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vigorously resisting any widening of the trials, he is liable to be one of the few fish caught in justice’s trap.
The impossibility of closure after great crimes, no matter how many tribunals and truth and reconciliation commissions we may launch, is the subject of Toronto author Kim Echlin’s absorbing new novel, The Disappeared. Echlin, one of Canada’s finest prose stylists, approaches her subject with the delicacy and solemnity it deserves. In the end, though, it begs the question: is a beautiful work of art, which The Disappeared certainly is, the appropriate response to a holocaust?
Echlin’s narrator is Anne Greeves, a middle-aged Montreal language instructor remembering her still raw-in-the-mind love affair with a Khmer exile 30 years before. She recalls Serey in the enraptured manner of the 16-year old she was when she met him: besotted, helpless, aroused. The Disappeared takes its place with such other chronicles of female desire as Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept or Pauline Reage’s The Story of O, here yoked to a history that makes it both larger and more keen.
When Serey returns to Cambodia, after the Vietnamese invasion and the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, he disappears into a quagmire of political upheaval and continued killing, as the transitional government mimics democracy even while it suppresses dissent. Galvanized by what she is sure is a glimpse of her lover on TV, Anne forsakes “the liberties of the times, music and drugs and separatism,” and travels to Phnom Penh to find him. She does, but, like a ghost darting around corners, he is soon gone again, among the missing after a grenade attack at an opposition rally.
“You cannot disappear,” she laments, in the second-person voice that gives the novel the intimacy of whispered conversation. “Please do not disappear. No one can mend my sorrow. I love what I lost.”
Echlin successfully links the void in Anne’s heart with the void left in the lives of millions of mothers, widows, and children, as well as with the erasure of cultural memory that was not only the intent of the Khmer Rouge but wholly embraced by those who followed. “What purpose to revisit the past?” asks an official charged with resisting Anne’s effort at answers. Brian Fawcett covered similar territory 20 years ago in his odd duck of an essay/fiction collection, Cambodia: A Book For People Who Find Television Too Slow. “Most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge were killed merely because they could remember a different kind of world,” he wrote.
Anne remembers a world in which she had love. Because of the circumstances of her childhood, raised by a maid and a distant father after the death of her mother, she is particularly desperate to have it back; love is, for her, a long, cool drink of which she can’t have enough. And, unlike those around her on her journey of reclamation, she is not circumspect in the face of violence. Pure eros drives her, in a society that has largely lost its animating will.
The Disappeared is an expert novel, which manages to penetrate to the aching core of the Cambodian tragedy. Eventually, though, its solemnity comes to seem more tragic pose than due regard for the dead, especially when it tips over into tendentiousness: “Get past the golden rule. Make the enemy inhuman. Call the enemy dog, snake, kraut, gook, kike, cockroach, slut, all that ugly talk.” And there is something odd about a well-wrought treatment of chaos. Dark comedy or silence may be the only vehicles that can contain a genocide without reducing it.
Still, its heroine’s fell sexuality is a force for life not only in the extinguished world in which she finds herself but in the novel itself. The Disappeared presents desire as an antidote to despair. And we may need one, if those who committed the crimes that make memorials like this one necessary continue, all these years later, to elude karma.