The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
Black Cat, New York, 2009
Borrowed from my library. Short-listed for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Anne Greves is sixteen year old when she meets Serey, a Cambodian student and musician, in a jazz club. He had been forced to leave his home and family during the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime. Going against her father’s wishes, Anne follows her instincts and falls in love with Serey. When the borders to Cambodia reopen he returns to search for his family. Anne is left alone. She continues with her life, all the time dreaming of her lover. She secretly studies Khmer, the language of Cambodia.
But in the secret hour of each day I studied Khmer. The language of love. A curling script with soundless buried r’s, beautifully balanced between consonants and vowels with two sounds each. I wrapped my tongue around the language of your childhood, embraced you with each new word. My teacher had a wooden leg. His name was Vithu and I paid him with my flower money. He had managed to escape across the border early in the war but not before he’d stepped on a landmine. He had been precocious, a farmer’s son who learned to read and write at the monastery. He taught me words and he taught me how to speak. He tried to teach me modesty. He said, If someone says, You cook well or you speak well, you must say, No I don’t, and lower your eyes. In Cambodia a virtuous woman moves without making a sound on the floor. from page 48.
A decade later, after writing Serey letters and getting no response, after trying to live with her loss, Anne sees something on television that changes her life. She quits her job, buys a ticket to Phnom Penh and goes in search of Serey. Engulfed in the reality of Cambodia, she begins to learn to see.
Imagine a street; imagine waking up one morning and teenaged voices outside shouting, Comrades, it is Year Zero.
Country kids who cannot drive lurch down the street in tanks and trucks. They have been hiding out in the jungle. They screech brakes, pop clutches. they scream through megaphones. They fire guns and kill anyone who talks back or asks questions or, god forbid, refuses to move. They do not have good judgement. But they can choose anyone to die. Most neither read nor write. Imagine going out into the street and watching a man ask why he must leave his home and a teenager lifting his gun and shooting him. from page 69.
Echlin writes with an intensity that fills her characters with strength and brings the places that they hold in the world into sharp focus. The Disappeared is a love story, one that expands out from two lovers to engulf an entire culture. There is beauty and grace in this novel, the belief that the way to get through the darkness of genocide is to never forget, and the knowledge that love is an antidote for despair. I’ve been reading a lot of books about war lately. I think this one is my favorite. I highly recommend it.
Have your read it?