Author Madeleine Thien Writes of How the Khmer Rouge Nightmare Keeps Inflicting Pain

The name of the main character in Madeleine Thien’s book “Dogs at the Perimeter” is Janie.

But this is just the name she took after escaping Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge at the age of 11, and seeking refuge in Canada.

Before that, the name she was given by a Khmer Rouge guard was Mei. “If you want to be strong,” he had told her, “you have to become someone else. You have to take a new name.”

“This was a country,” the narrator explains, “in which no one responded to their names. Names were empty syllables, signifying nothing, lost as easily as a suit of clothes, a brother or a sister, an entire world.”

In these few words, Ms. Thien summarizes one of the most insidious and lasting wounds the Khmer Rouge inflicted on their people: That in order to survive, so many were forced to obliterate who they were as they watched the world they had known being shattered.

Written with great poetry in an intimate voice, this book is a work of fiction. But the deep trauma afflicting the characters in the story is nothing but real.

Among the millions of Cambodians profoundly scarred by the Pol Pot regime, there are doubtless thousands of people who, like these characters, give the appearance of functioning normally in life but are prone to come apart at times.

In the story, Janie and Hiroji, a Canadian of Japanese roots, are friends and colleagues—two scientists working at Montreal’s Brain Research Centre in Canada.

As the book starts in late 2005, Janie explains how Hiroji had just walked out of the center with neither briefcase nor coat, in spite of the freezing weather, and disappeared. The police cannot find a trace of him.

A few months after Hiroji’s disappearance, waves of memories from the Khmer Rouge era start engulfing Janie. One night, she breaks down into tears and starts hitting blindly. When she has recovered, she realizes that she has hit her young son.

Appalled, she decides—her husband Navin agreeing and supportive—to move into Hiroji’s empty apartment until she can come to terms with her pain.

By the end of the book, she has resigned herself to her condition. “Terrible dreams came, but I tried to let them run through me and reach the ground,” she says. “I saw that they would always return, this was the shape of my life…Yet I wanted, finally, to be the one to describe it. To decide on the dreams that took root in me.”

Hiroji’s story, meanwhile, unfolds as that of a man obsessed with finding his brother James, a Red Cross medical doctor who had disappeared in Phnom Penh in 1975. Hiroji toured refugee camps along the Thai border as early as 1976 and went to Phnom Penh in 1979 after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, hoping to retrace James’ steps.

As it turned out, James had been taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge. After four years of living in constant fear of being killed, James emerged emotionally destroyed. When the two brothers meet in Laos in 2006, it is far from the poignant scene Hiroji had dreamed of.

Presented along with bits of information on research into imagination and memory at the brain center, the portrayal of these three characters is based on the author’s interviews with Cambodians over the course of five years.

“In my 20s, I was traveling a lot throughout Southeast Asia,” Ms. Thien wrote in an e-mail interview from Berlin. “In 2007, I started spending more time in Cambodia. Each year I would go for two or three months, then six months, then another few months, and so on, over five years.

“Cambodia is an intense place, it gets under your skin, the history and the present make you ask questions. There are no simple answers; people’s lives are extraordinarily complex, and so many things are invisible. I was interested in the ways people remember, the ways in which they cease to remember, and the construction of new lives because what was taken away by the Khmer Rouge was so profound—family, religion, identity, self.”

The 39-year-old author, whose roots are Chinese and Malaysian, was born in Vancouver and now lives in Montreal. Her first novel “Certainty” earned her three awards in 2006 and has been translated into 18 languages.

This second novel was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in Canada. Published by McClelland and Stewart in Toronto and Granta Books in London, it has so far been released in eight languages.

“The novel has never really been just a novel for me,” Ms. Thien wrote. “It was a way to think about the present moment, to pay attention to events that happened in my generation, events which are inseparable from wars fought, and decisions taken, by Western countries.”

Her next novel will feature musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s. “I’m following a line backwards, tracing the ideas that shaped the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian Communism, to Mao’s China,” she said.

Ms. Thien teaches in the Fine Arts program at City University of Hong Kong. She will be a writer in residence at the University of Guelph in Canada and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore during the 2014-2015 academic year.

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