Almost a decade ago, Canadian novelist Kim Echlin was sitting at a bench in Phnom Penh’s Russian Market, resting between bouts of haggling, when an elderly Cambodian woman approached her and said, “My whole family was killed by the Khmer Rouge.”
Echlin remembers being so startled that she could only stammer out a response: “What can I do to help?”
“Nothing,” the woman said. “I just wanted you to know.”
This was the “Woman in the Market” to whom “The Disappeared,” Echlin’s latest book, is dedicated; the woman whose quiet yet insistent honesty inspired Echlin to create the character of Anne Greves, a rebellious Quebecois so infatuated with her blues-playing Cambodian lover Serey that a decade after he leaves her and Montreal to search for his family in newly-liberated Phnom Penh, she follows the man she calls “oan samlanh, my dearest darling.”
Anne finds Serey, who has been radicalized by the death of his parents, and trouble of the political stripe. In the course of the novel, Anne wraps herself in Antigone’s impotent rage and by the end of the book, the prose is as broken as the characters–sentences shamble along, driven by the energy of grief but given no particular direction.
“The Disappeared,” which was released in the US last month, has been met with critical praise. The New York Times’ review was more beatification than peer critique: Iranian novelist Dalia Sofer, the reviewer, mentioned prose style and the novel’s strange use of second-person perspective only in passing before plunging into a series of lavish tributes to Echlin’s fortitude as a writer-her brave decision to lead readers so close to the snapping jaws of monstrous truth.
Still, writing about others’ suffering, especially extreme and recent pain, is necessarily a morally fraught endeavor. There is a fine line between documenting and romanticizing; between memorializing and profiteering.
“Balancing history and fiction can be a near impossible task,” admits Echlin, who is aware enough that her decision to build a romance novel on the foundation of a genocide could be perceived as cynical and she quickly dismisses the idea that writing “The Disappeared” was somehow heroic. She says putting pen to paper was less about courage than compulsion.
“‘The Disappeared’ was written over seven years,” says Echlin “I lost everyone over this novel. I lost all of the major publishers in Canada and then my agent. I finally thought maybe I wasn’t capable of telling the story, but then, a few days later, I found myself back at my desk. I had to get it out. I knew from the moment I met the woman in the market that I had to write this book.”
It is curious that the woman in the market inspired a novel about a Canadian, but perhaps stranger still is the fact that the woman’s disclosure, however heart-wrenching, provided an impetus that the sickening death toll could not.
Echlin, after all, had done her research before coming to Cambodia. She knew the numbers. Three years, more than one million dead. Thousands tortured and executed. Wasn’t there enough horror in those facts to inspire fiction?
“When I was in Cambodia, the official policy was to ‘burn the old grass to let the new grass grow,’ but we were still quietly approached,” she says. “That insistence on remembering and sharing inspired me to use literature as a tool of memory.”
Echlin is not alone in relying on a small personal moment to confirm the broader horror of history: Every day tourists stream into Tuol Sleng and the Killing Fields at Choeung Ek only to find exactly what they expect: bones and stories of cruelty and suffering. It is hard to imagine that Echlin’s readers outside of Cambodia–where Echlin’s encounter in the market seems less banal–aren’t also looking to somehow tie themselves to the harsh history that resides here. If they didn’t crave that connection, surely they could find another romance less consumed with death.
“It might be counterintuitive, but the dark side of humanity is more often than not the subject of enduringly popular entertainment,” says Professor John Lennon, a British sociology researcher whose 2000 book “Dark Tourism: The Attraction of Death and Disaster” spawned a new field devoted to studying mankind’s consumption of tragedy. “People will pay to experience tragedy on the page for the same reason they visit Auschwitz and stand around wondering whether or not to smile. Bearing witness to genocide and death in person or through the media is something we do. At this point, it has become a box we check off.”
“Bearing witness,” a phrase that inevitably finds its way into Ms Echlin’s descriptions of her own work, is central to “The Disappeared.” “In Tuol Sleng a person is asked to stare. A person is asked to imagine clubbing someone to death,” says Anne Greves before describing an image of a murdered girl and demanding that the reader “See the child.”
“Writers need to be able to write about things they haven’t experienced,” Echlin says. “In the years after WWII, the German philosopher Theodore Adorno said ‘There can be no poetry after Auschwitz,’ but he took back that statement seven years later and said that suffering deserves a voice of its own,” she adds.
“Cambodia is the perfect setting to explore the issue of how literature can help people remember,” Echlin says.
Echlin is quick to deny repackaging ready-made tragedy or that reality might have contaminated her creativity: “I’m not a political writer,” she says, “and I write fiction.” But it is impossible not to draw parallels between the fictional grenade attack that breaks up a demonstration at the book’s climax and the actual 1997 grenade attack on a protest rally in Phnom Penh.
In order to get Anne Greve’s traumatized voice right, Echlin read through hours and hours of witness testimony given to truth and reconciliation commissions around the world. From these testimonies, she took the book’s style and much of the book’s story, which encompasses the pain of a miscarriage and the trauma of Serey’s murder.
A week ago, Echlin received an email from a Cambodian refugee living in the US who thanked her for writing “The Disappeared” and saying the book touched her “on a personal level that no other book has”–a testimony to the power of art to preserve history and a mighty nice compliment for a writer.