Have the atrocities of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and the Killing Fields become so far removed from our experience that we need a novel to remind us that they occurred?
When I first read Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, I would certainly have said “no”. Now that I have had a few days to think about it, I am not so sure. Given my age, this atrocity was a contemporary experience — young men of my generation in the United States were being sent to Viet Nam (and Cambodia as well), so I knew the story. Many who chose to leave their country settled in mine. For me, Pol Pot was part of growing up.
But with all that has happened since, I suspect there is now a generation that doesn’t know that story. While I don’t think The Disappeared is a great novel, it might be a good place to start in learning about it.
Echlin frames her story as a love story. Anne Greves is a liberal Montrealer who hooks up with Serey, a Cambodian exile waiting to return home. (There is an interesting subplot here that Echlin does not explore — the diaspora of French-speaking colonials from places such as Indo-China and Haiti to Montreal as opposed to New York or Toronto). When the borders of Cambodia re-open, Serey is quick to return, in search of both his family and his future. Anne hears nothing — eventually she decides to head to Cambodia in search of her lover.
She finds him in a coincidence that stretches credibility, but we do have to give the author some licence. They co-habit — while it is obvious to the reader that Serey is active in the resistance movement, Anne manages to overlook it.
With that, Echlin has established the platform for her deeper story, the repression and hopelessness of Cambodian society of the time. And the denial of the history that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge created. That history produces a present and Serey becomes part of it — Anne can do nothing but follow the trail of his experience.
A great book? No. A readable book? Definitely yes. And perhaps it might open your eyes to some things you don’t know.