In May I’m going to be visiting Cambodia for the first time, to see my daughter Katie, who is doing good work there.
I’m doing all of the usual preparation things (or, more correctly, I’m saying, “Sounds good” when Jane suggests two nights at this hotel, then three nights at that one). But past experience shows that a layer of familiarity with a place is much better acquired from a good novel than from a tourist guidebook. (London I’m sure, is different if you have never read Dickens.)
So I have been very pleased to read Kim Echlin’s 2009 novel The Disappeared. It’s set originally in Montreal, where a private school girl (from Miss Edgar and Miss Cramp’s School) named Ann Greves meets a young Cambodian musician/student named Serey. Over the objections of her father, they get together and live on the Bleury Street fringes of the music world.
Serey was able to get out of Cambodia before the killing times. But when, after four Khmer Rouge terrible years, the Vietnamese army moves in and opens the border again, Serey moves back home, alone, in search of his family.
Anne hears nothing from him, year after year. Then she sets off in search of her lover. Miraculously, she finds him. But she also finds Cambodia, a country suffering post-traumatic stress. And the reader — and tourist-in-preparation – learns about the horrors of the Killing Times. “Year Zero” was the slogan shouted by 14-year-olds with guns as they forced the entire population of Phnom Penh to leave their homes and start walking to the country: anyone who asked, “Why?” was shot down. And so it went, year after year.
I’ve seen the Killing Fields, but The Disappeared brings the history of the Pol Pot times alive. Whether it also catches the sense of life in Cambodia’s streets today, is a question I won’t be able to answer until I return.