Tuesday, January 26, 2010

#5: The Disappeared

Read it and weep. Literally. The Disappeared is a quick, meaningful punch to the gut. In 228 short pages, author Kim Echlin wastes not a word or phrase in this despairing depiction of love and loss in war-torn Cambodia. Spanning decades and continents, from the dingy blues clubs of Montreal to the killing fields outside Phnom Penh, Anne Greves weaves a mournful path of despondency and courage as she follows her lover into the darkest recesses of human depravity.

Almost immediately upon opening this book, I knew I was going to enjoy it. Of course, "enjoy" is perhaps an inappropriate term given the subject. But a book's value is not measured in tidy narratives so much as in an ability to immerse its readers wholly into the world of its characters' lives. This holds true even when dialogue between characters is written intentionally dreamily, as if the protagonist's memory has decayed and dissolved over time, leaving only mystical moments where reality once breathed.

Strangely, I couldn't escape a familiar feeling for the first several chapters: the author's literary style reminded me of something else I'd read previously. Then it suddenly occurred to me: The English Patient. "The light in Mau's eyes was a pinprick through black paper," Echlin writes of Anne's first meeting with a new friend. "...I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back...The light of his eyes twisted into mine." One entire chapter reads: "I can still see a particle of dust hanging in a sunbeam near your cheek as you slept." In very short order, it becomes all too clear that The Disappeared resembles Michael Ondaatje's masterpiece in little other than descriptive syntax, however. This is not dream-sequence-turned-real; it's a living nightmare, stretched and tortured into over thirty years of searching and loving and waiting and finding and searching all over again.

It is impossible not to empathize with Anne. Her naivete, her persistent belief in a justice, or karma, that will transform wrong into right, is as admirable as it is devastating. When she asks of her captor, "How can people move on without knowing what happens to their families? How can they move on without truth?" we want to laugh at her simplicity even as we cry for her faith in humanity. It is her ever-burning fire that ignites this story and affords us all the unique opportunity, if only for a moment, of believing again with her.

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