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January 10, 2010

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Loving and losing in the killing fields

KIM Echlin's novel "The Disappeared" contains many elements that might doom a lesser book: the deaths of multiple characters (among them the narrator's baby); an unabashedly effusive love story; a mix of first-and-second-person narration; and, as a setting, the bones and ashes of the Cambodian genocide, which claimed approximately 1.7 million lives between 1975 and 1979. Yet the book manages to be spellbinding.

When the narrator, Anne Greves, first meets Serey, the Cambodian man who will remain the object of her desire and unflinching love for decades to come, she is a 16-year-old high school student in Montreal who frequents smoky blues clubs in the company of older girls.

Serey, a math student five years her senior and the long-haired, exotic lead singer of a band called No Exit, catches her attention. The two talk, then kiss, and the rest, as they say, is history - though in this case it is truly history: a love story spanning decades and geographies, involving some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.

Absence is an initial magnet between the two. For Serey, who is in exile in Canada because the borders of Cambodia have closed, the absence is that of his family, from whom he has had no word for four years.

For Anne, the absence is that of her mother, who was crushed by a truck on an icy road when Anne was two, and also the emotional absence of her kind but inattentive father, an engineer and maker of medical prosthetics, with a penchant for calm and order. "He believed that if he worked hard enough I could be shaped like a mechanical limb," Anne says.

But this turbulent teenager is anything but mechanical, and the sexual desire and eventual love she feels for Serey is raw and unfettered. "I never felt any forbiddenness of race or language or law," she says. "Everything was animal sensation and music."

The Cambodian border eventually opens and Serey leaves Montreal - and Anne - to find his family. Eleven years later, believing she has spotted him on television at a political rally, Anne buys a ticket to Phnom Penh and finds him.

There is something of Marguerite Duras in these pages, something of the lust between the young Western girl and the Asian man that drove novels like "The Lover" and "The North China Lover." But while Duras focuses mostly on desire, Echlin focuses on absolute love - physical desire coupled with the need to know everything about the beloved.

For Anne, knowing Serey means trying to understand Cambodia, with all its dire secrets. As Serey says to Anne's father during a brief, uncongenial meeting, "My country is my skin."

Echlin captures the beauty and horror of Cambodia in equal measure. "The smell of the River Bassac," Anne says, describing her first day in Phnom Penh, "meltswaters from distant mountains tangled into humid air and garlic and night jasmine and cooking oil and male sweat and female wetness. Corruption loves the darkness."

Of the killing fields, she writes: "Depressions in the earth overgrown with grass. Stupas of skulls and bones. The sky." And later: "We watched two small boys catching frogs in the gullies of the fields, running past paddy and sugar palm and cloth and bone. The grass had done its work." Most memorable is the lingering stench of death: "People startle at cigarette smoke and rotting garbage and gasoline," Echlin writes, "surrogate odors of torture and dead bodies and bombs. A bad smell makes them jump." Despite their love, these two are still foreign to each other. Borders persist. Boundaries can be stretched only so far. Anne, not of Cambodia, does not carry its smell. She is both savior and outsider, at once revered and reproached. The same can be said of the foreign aid workers, who speak of democracy but are impotent to change anything. "Foreigners come and bark but everything just keeps going the same way," Serey says.

But if Echlin makes note of the indifferent, her novel is anything but. Love and death pulsate through its pages, interlaced.

It is amid the decay that Anne and Serey conceive their baby girl, who arrives into the world stillborn (this information is revealed early on) - another addition to the list of the disappeared: mothers, fathers, former leaders, all vanish into the "line between life and death."


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