” The strangeness of my love for you is that it has made me dead in life and you alive in death. I am afraid you will disappear and no one will remember your life. ” (Ch.63, p.194)
Cambodia has long been a country roiled in warfare. Wallowed in such miasma the Cambodian people become refugees in their own land. The Disappeared is set during the Cambodian genocide (1975-79) in which two million people died, and through the Vietnamese occupation. The story begins in Montreal when 16-year-old Anne Graves, rebelling against her father’s wishes, embraced a relationship with Serey after a chance encounter at a jazz club. That meeting seals her fate. Serey was on exile to escape the genocide.
All through Pol Pot time people could not speak freely. Neighbor against neighbor. Children trained to report on their families. People tried to hide inside the same skin. People pretended not to be city people, pretended not to understand foreign languages, tried to disguise as soft hands, tried to pass as farmers, taxi drivers, and vendors. (Ch.22, p.78)
When the borders of Cambodia are reopened after the Khmer Rouge, Serey feels he must risk his life and returns to search for his family. About a decade later, baring her soul to the memory of her lover, she embarks on a journey to find Serey in Phnom Penh. Despite the downfall of Khmer, the government takes on a policy of adamant denial: it does not admit that any wrongdoing happened, although horrifying evidence of massive burial sites suggests otherwise.
You were the one I fell in love with and you were someone who lost everyone in this place where ghosts haunt the grieving and the corrupt and I felt something catch in you, a sob or a startle, and light drenched the dark room. (Ch.20, p.72)
Echlin’s poetic language not only elevates Anne and Serey’s relationship to an almost mythic level, it also stresses the importance of words that intertwine throughout the text. During Anne’s childhood bedtime stories, her father’s voice would peter off to an absence while gazed at a photo of her mother. When Serey returned to Cambodia, he was appalled at how “the Khmer Rouge used words to kill people” and to “cleanse the enemy”, enemy being those who express the slightest disagreement.
No one can help me. Despair is an unwitnessed life. The ones who murdered you came and went, going about their business. And my trust in the world was destroyed. (Ch.71, p.218)
The terrible actions that unfold, as inspired by mind-controlling propaganda—“To keep you is no benefit, to lose you is no loss” and “Better to kill the innocent than to overlook the enemies” target the like of Serey, who works in clandestine opposition effort. Echlin’s subtle language and sensuous style bring to life the chaos, poverty, and corruption of a country that has suffered decades of war but chooses to deny justice to its victims. The ways in which the absence of words is used as a weapon under Pol Pot until eventually those who have disappeared (and perished) are not spoken about are far more evil than the physical atrocities. Love and death pulsate through the pages, interlaced. The Disappeared is a memorial, a liturgy, to the nameless missing. It begins with Anne’s addressing to Serey, but the “you” slips into the generic to direct readers to the horrors of Cambodia.
235 pp. Black Cat NY. Paper. [Read/
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