Cambodia for beginners
The country in a nutshell
The Disappeared: A cross-cultural love story in Cambodia
There are quite a few excellent books and memoirs about Cambodia, but love stories set against the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge era are few and far between. The Disappeared by Kim Echlin manages, against all odds, to capture the beauty of Cambodia and the terror of the Cambodian genocide.
Anne Greves is sixteen when she first meets Serey in a nightclub in Montreal. Serey is the long-haired lead singer of a band, tormented by the fact that he cannot return to his native Cambodia because the Khmer Rouge have closed the borders while his family remains trapped within. Their romance is all-consuming and Anne is reckless and besotted in the way of sixteen-year-old girls with older, troubled boyfriends. After the Vietnamese invasion the Cambodian border opens again, Serey leaves to find his family and Anne finds a Khmer tutor in Montreal to bring her closer to her lost love. Her longing and disappointment when her letters go unanswered is palpable.
Eleven years later, while the Vietnamese are withdrawing from Cambodia, Anne thinks she sees Serey on television and immediately leaves for Phnom Penh. They eventually reunite and Anne sees a shattered city through the eyes of one of the few foreigners in town. “…I was an old woman who remembers the night I found you in the beer and cigarette smell of Phnom Penh,” Anne addresses Serey, “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…”
Although they are now reunited, Anne has to wrestle with the ghosts of the past and political turmoil for Serey’s attention. What has happened to Cambodia is still as raw as an open wound and nothing, not even their love, can overcome it. Anne tells her story as a testament to Serey whom she worries will disappear into the darkness of the unremembered.
The mix of first and second person narrative is grating at times, but Anne’s endless laments to Serey serve well to underscore her obsession. Echlin’s use of language is beautifully evocative, as if a Sin Sisamouth score were playing in the background while it was being written. She captures particularly well the exhilarating and overwhelming experience of foreigners in Phnom Penh when the country first re-opened. “‘How long have you been here?’ Anne asks Will, a hard-drinking archaeologist whose job it is to open the mass graves. ‘Long enough to fall in love with it,’” he replies.
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