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Posts Tagged ‘Novels on Cambodia’

I have wanted to participate properly in the Literature and War Readalong hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ for a while now and this year I thought I will do it. The first book which was part of the readalong was Kim Echlin’s ‘The Disappeared’.

The Disappeared By Kim Echlin

‘The Disappeared’ is set in two time periods. Three actually. The present time when the story is narrated, the late ‘70s, when many of the initial events in the story happen and the main characters meet first and then the early ‘90s, when one of characters goes on a quest. Anne is a high school student in Montreal. Her mother passed away when she was young. Her father raises her with the help of a nanny. He is a kind person but he doesn’t have time for her. Her nanny Berthe introduces her to music by smuggling her into bars as a child. Later when Anne has grown up to become a teenager and no longer has a nanny, her father hires one of his students to keep her company occasionally. This student Charlotte, whenever she goes out with friends, takes Anne also with her. Once when they are sitting in a bar listening to music, she meets a man Serey. He comes and sits with them. He shows special interest in Anne and soon they start spending a lot of time with each other. Serey is from Cambodia and he left his homeland before the borders closed because of the civil war. Now he is a student and a tutor at the university. Anne and Serey fall deeply in love and spend every free minute together. Serey tells her about Cambodia and introduces her to a lot of Khmer music. Anne’s father finds out about Serey and warns Anne that he would leave and go back to his home country. But Anne doesn’t believe him. Unfortunately, that day arrives soon. The Cambodian borders open and Serey goes back to his home country. He says he will write to her but Anne doesn’t receive any letter from him. When she writes to him she doesn’t receive any reply. The years pass. Anne is not able to forget Serey and she is still very much in love with him, but he seems to have disappeared from her life. Then one day, around ten years later, while watching television, Anne recognizes Serey among a crowd which is shown in the news. She decides to go to Cambodia in search of him. In the next part of the story, Anne reaches Cambodia, makes friends with locals, searches for Serey, and finally finds him. They get back together and Anne discovers why she has not heard from him in years. They resume from where they left off and live the happy life of lovers. Serey doesn’t tell her what work he does, but he leaves everyday in the morning and comes back in the afternoon. Then one day Serey goes to an election rally. There are explosions at the rally and Serey doesn’t come back. He is not among the dead and he is not among the survivors. He disappears for a second time from Anne’s life. And Anne begins her quest again.

Is Anne able to find Serey? Is he dead or alive? Does the story have a happy ending? You have to read it to find out.

‘The Disappeared’ is a historical novel, a war novel, a love story, a story of a quest, all rolled into one. I learnt a lot about Cambodian history through the book. It made me want to read more, though with all the violence, I don’t know whether I have the stomach for it. Kim Echlin’s research and attention to detail shows through in every page. The love story of Anne and Serey is beautiful, tender and poignant. It made my heart ache. The everyday scenes of Cambodia are nicely depicted – the roads, the markets, the shops, the noodle carts, the tuk tuks, the dance class, the palace, the floating houses, the food – it took me into the heart of this beautiful country. I liked most of the characters in the book, the good ones atleast. My favourite was a minor character called Sopheap – she owns a noodle cart and serves noodles to people at breakfast and though she comes only in a few scenes, she is kind and affectionate and friendly and generous and she is nice to our heroine Anne.

There was also something in the book which made me feel nostalgic. It was the story of a woman who has lost her child. She goes and sees the Buddha and asks him to bring her child back to life. And Buddha asks her a question and gives her an assignment and when the woman tries to find the answer to that, she learns some profound truths. I remember my friend’s father telling us this story when I was in school, to introduce us to the difficult and philosophical parts of life and when I read this story in Echlin’s book, it took me back to the old times when a few of us young boys were hanging out with a wise elder and this wise elder shared his life wisdom with us.

A word on Echlin’s prose. Echlin doesn’t use any punctuation marks in the story, except for the comma and the fullstop. The punctuation is pretty spare and makes one think of the similar styles of James Joyce, Nicole Brossard, Alexis Smith and Cormac McCarthy. The book is filled with beautiful sentences and passages throughout. Reviewers have described Echlin’s prose in different ways – some have called it ‘as lyrical as it is honest’, while others have called it ‘taut and plain prose’ and ‘beautifully spare narrative’. My own favourite was ‘prose that is both tender and charged’. I think that describes it perfectly.

‘The Disappeared’ is a beautiful book. Though it is about violence and war and genocide and some of the descriptions of that in the book are hard to read, it is also a beautiful, poignant love story. Echlin’s prose is beautiful and I will definitely be reading my favourite passages from the book again. If you like reading about Cambodian / East Asian history, I would highly recommend this book.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

This was new, a man wrapping his feelings for me in a song.

A girl wears her lover’s clothes because she likes his smell and she wears his clothes because she is trying to understand why she feels both freed and broken. Why does she feel whole when she has given away her body, her mind and her heart? Why is she not tempted to escape? She wants to smell her lover on her skin, and she cannot understand this feeling that imprisons, frees her. She does not guess that she will remember wearing her lover’s clothes when she is old. She tells herself that what she feels is forever. But she has already observed in the world that it is not.

I went to the university and I studied languages. I was seduced by the shapes of words in my mouth and when I wrote them on the page they were raw and muscled and shining like a man who performs on stage. I needed memory and hope and since I could find them nowhere else, I looked for them in the declensions of verbs. Words swallowed me like a deep river. I dreamed false etymologies. I dreamed I discovered the beginning of the world in the sound of the adjective vraiment : vrai for truth and ment–ir for lie.

It takes centuries to shape the discipline of freedom and it takes forever to guard it.

Her eyes held my grief, and her body gathered in my pain and knit it into herself as if she were an old marsh creature weaving baskets from rushes.

I was no longer wedded to life. Neither was I yet married to death. I was memory and hope calculated to their smallest ratio.

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