Kin Echlin’s third novel is an inaugural title in Penguin Canada’s new literary imprint, Hamish Hamilton, and has been sold in 17 countries.
It tells the story of a love affair between a young girl in Montreal and a Cambodian student. They meet in a Montreal jazz club during Pol Pot’s time of terror, before the lover, Serey, must return home to find out what happened to his family.
“Despair is an unwitnessed life,” writes Anne as she searches for the truth, about her lover, and about herself. “If we live long enough, we have to tell, or turn to stone inside.”
The following is an excerpt from The Disappeared:
Mau was a small man with a scar across his left cheek. I chose him at the Russian market from a crowd of drivers with soliciting eyes. They drove bicycles and tuk tuks, rickshaws and motos. A few had cars. They pushed in against me, trying to gain my eye, to separate me from the crowd.
The light in Mau’s eyes was a pinprick through black paper. He assessed and calculated. I chose him because when he stepped forward, the others fell back. I told him it might take many nights. I told him I needed to go to all the nightclubs of Phnom Penh. The light of his eyes twisted into mine. When I told him what I was doing, the pinprick opened and closed over a fleeting compassion. Then he named his price, which was high, and said, I can help you, borng srei.
Bones work their way to the surface. Thirty years have passed since that day in the market in Phnom Penh. I still hear your voice. I first met you in old Montreal at L’air du temps, where I went to hear Buddy Guy sing “I Can’t Quit the Blues.” I was sixteen, and it was Halloween night. Charlotte and her friends did not wear costumes, but I used the occasion to disguise my age by putting on a shiny red eye mask decorated at the temples with yellow and purple feathers. My long kinked hair was loose and I wore a ribbed black sweater, my widest jeans, leather boots. As soon as we were past the doorman, I pulled off my mask and I saw you looking at me. We took a round table close to the stage in the smoke-filled room. All through the first set I rolled cigarettes and passed them to the girls at my table and listened to Buddy Guy pleading the blues, eyebrows way up, eyes wide open, singing “Stone Crazy” and “No Lie,” then squeezing his eyes shut he sang about homely-girl-love and begging-for-it-love, and I kept glancing over to see if you were looking at me.
I did not avoid your mud dark eyes. Between sets you stood, lifted your chair above your head and walked through the crowd toward me. You were slim and wiry and you wore a white T-shirt and faded jeans and your black hair was tied back at the nape of your neck. Your leather jacket was scuffed and your runners worn. You shifted sideways to let a tray go by and you said to the girls at my table, Can I join you? I brought my own seat.
The girls looked at each other and someone said yes and you put your chair in beside me, its back against the table. Charlotte said, You play in No Exit, I’ve seen you at the pub. What’s your name?
They poured you a beer from the pitcher and you talked in your soft voice to all of us. Asked, What are you studying? When you turned to me I had to say, I’m still in high school.
Charlotte said, I’m her Latin tutor.
Her name is Anne Greves. You asked, Is Latin difficult? A girl across the table liked you and she said, I study Latin. You said you tutored math at the university. Said you’d seen them around, but not me
Charlotte said, Her father teaches there and she doesn’t want to be seen.
You smiled again and your front tooth had a half-moon chip and you said, Cool, in a strange accent of Quebec and English and something else I could not place.
The house lights went down. You leaned close and whispered, I want to touch your hair.
You spoke with the mix of interest and inattention I was familiar with in men. Your excited eyes flickered to the stage, to the table you came from, to me. You wanted to know who was watching you. You wanted to see Buddy Guy and the horns and guitars up front. You wanted to watch me.
Years later you said, Do you remember in those days, the shock of an Asian guy with a white girl, or a black with white, or a French with English, all of us pretending nothing was forbidden? I never had the courage to ask a white girl until you, that night at L’air du temps.
Buddy Guy walked out for the last set in a green jacket that he took off while he played, hammering and pulling and bending strings with his left hand as he shook the right arm free, his right-hand fingers plucking and picking so he could shake off the left sleeve. His jacket fell to the floor and he grinned out at us when we clapped at his clowning. His mother had died that year and he said he was going to get a polka dot guitar in her honor but he did not have it yet. He played sounds he had heard other places and other times, horns and fiddles, concocting a New Orleans gumbo, a little of this, a little of that, paying homage to Muddy and B.B. and Junior. And then he got down to his own work. He sang about Lordhave-mercy-blues in “One Room Country Shack” and impatient love in “Just Playing My Axe,” and with that great big charming smile he sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and about asking for a nickel from an angel and about strange feelings and broken hearts and, with a shake of his head, about women he could not please but we all knew he could please anyone, and I wished the lights would never come up. You put your muscled arm around my shoulder and pulled me close and you asked in a soft, soft voice, Can I take you home? A few people were dancing on the sides and you took my hand and pulled me up to dance too and you could sway at the hips but you had this way of moving your hands that was not rock and roll and not the blues but a small graceful bend backward in your wrist at the end of a beat. Charlotte and the girls at my table were putting on their coats, pulling bags over their shoulders, flipping their long hair from inside warm collars like shirts flapping on a clothesline, and I said to them, See you
We walked north on cobbled streets through the chill autumn air. You said, Would you like to come and see my band?
Maybe, I said. Where do you come from?
Halloween revelers passed us, laughing and calling to each other in joual, hurrying through the darkness wrapped in black capes and devil masks and angel wings. Cambodia? I pulled my eye mask down.
You touched the feathers and said, Anne Greves, I like it here. Things are unimaginably free here.
I knew from that first walk home.
Outside my father’s apartment on l’avenue du Parc I turned to face you and drew you under the iron staircase. You put your lips on my lips and I remember your eyes through the holes in my mask and the touch of your hand against my skull. You pulled me to you and I felt the first touch your fingers on my skin. Through the gratings on the stairs I sensed the movement of a neighbor boy with his Halloween basket, staring at us from the shadows, chewing on a candy-kiss. I caught his eye and said, Jean Michel, pourquoi tu n’es pas au lit? Then I looked at you and said, O malheureux mortels! O terre déplorable! You laughed and released me, said, I want the whole world to see, and reached your hand up as if you were going to steal the boy’s candy. Then we joined the child on the steps and you took a piece of string from your pocket and showed him a trick. There we were, an exile, a small boy and a girl-almostwoman, together in the darkness. I still hear your voice singing Buddy Guy’s “I Found a True Love,” and I remember how we sat that night and watched the clouds roll in across the moon. AM
After completing a doctoral thesis on Ojibway story-telling, Kim Echlin travelled in search of stories through the Marshall Islands, China, France, and Zimbabwe. On her return to Canada she became an arts documentary producer with CBC’s The Journal, and a writer for various publications. Her first novel, Elephant Winter, won the TORGI Talking Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the 1997 Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Her previous novel was Dagmar’s Daughter. The Disappearedwas published by Penguin Canada in March, 2009. Copyright Kim Echlin 2009. Printed with permission Penguin Group (Canada).