Survivor stories

Anjan Sundaram

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From “First They Killed My Father”. Photo: Netflix

Dogs at the Perimeter
Madeleine Thien
W.W. Norton: 2017

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In the midst of suffering, the mind can have an intimation that the suffering is all the result of a dream. It can feel like a revelation — but all too often this connection to what feels like a truth is suddenly lost. The suffering returns, and the moment of insight is elusive: only a receding memory of the possibility of liberation.

The appeal of many religions lies in their promise of a path out of suffering felt by the self, or the ego. They offer a vision that material life — with its ideas, beliefs, dreams and ambitions — can be transcended, and the mind can be freed of its constructed identities to reach a selfless state characterised by humility. In Buddhism, this knowledge itself offers a key to the mind’s liberation. Buddhists call such liberation the attainment of nirvana.

Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979, tried to dismantle all sense of self for millions of Cambodians and recast the nation as one of peasant farmers. A communist movement, it tried to return the country to an ancient identity built around the powerful Angkor kingdom. The regime also promised a kind of liberation — from the material desire that it felt was rooted in capitalism. It forced Cambodians out of cities, stripped them of their possessions, separated families and sent them to work in rural cooperatives. Intellectuals were killed. Some 2 million Cambodians died from overwork, starvation and execution, before the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by a group of defectors supported by the Vietnamese army, some of whom still rule the country.

Cambodians today have an awkward and amnesiac relationship with this past. Many parents do not pass stories of the Khmer Rouge to their children, who often learn about the tragedy as adults. This has led to a politically charged Cambodian youth, seemingly free of this past trauma: the youth dare to challenge the government in demonstrations unmoved by official warnings of a return to past violence. Some of the Cambodian diaspora who grew up in the West have also returned and speak of their desire to move the country’s image past its Khmer Rouge history. The economy is growing rapidly, fuelled by Western and Chinese investment. The skyline of Phnom Penh changes each year. And it can seem that outsiders see Cambodians through the lens of the Khmer Rouge more than Cambodians see themselves in that way.

Janie, the narrator of Madeleine Thien’s novel Dogs at the Perimeter, cannot forget the violence she experienced under the Khmer Rouge. She is now a brain scientist in Canada. The novel — published for the first time in the US last year after its initial publication in 2012 — begins with Janie telling us that her colleague and mentor Hiroji disappeared three months before. She no longer lives with her husband and son. Janie’s central trauma is the loss of her family during Khmer Rouge rule. We learn that Hiroji also pined for a brother he lost during that period: James was a Red Cross doctor who disappeared in Cambodia.

Janie’s world, and the novel, from the beginning appear constructed to explore ideas rather than people. This intellectual pursuit — which appears to be Thien’s more than Janie’s — is embodied in characters who choose to describe their realities in mystical terms.

Janie at once knows and does not know. She constantly cites Buddhist texts as she struggles with her memories of the past, of losing her family and identity. The memories haunt Janie in dream-like scenes thirty years after she escaped the Khmer Rouge, and they manifest in Janie’s life in Canada in events that she says she feels as dreams, indicating sometimes that she knows of their transience. She says, “Everything, the good and the selfish, the loved and the feared, had taken refuge inside me.”

Janie tells us she wants to transcend not only her suffering but her entire consciousness. As she narrates a childhood experience hiding from the Khmer Rouge, afraid that they might see her pain at the death of a friend, Janie asks, “Was this the emptiness at the centre of creation, the nothingness to which I aspired? Was this the highest truth of all?” And later, after she has followed Hiroji to Laos, where Hiroji finds his brother has made himself a new life, Janie tells us that she tries to let her “terrible dreams” pass through her and “reach the ground”. She wants, at last, to be able to “decide on the dreams that took root” in her.

The Buddhist texts that Janie cites, and some incidents she narrates in the novel, are profound expressions of this possibility. If Janie were to realise their truth, she would become aware that her tormenting memories are illusory, ultimately meaningless against the great “nothingness”. Janie recalls a lecture that Hiroji gave two years before about human consciousness, suggesting that watching the mind is like watching a hand cutting open another hand in an attempt to understand itself. This resembles a Zen koan — a statement or riddle that Buddhists meditate upon to see through reality and reach insight. The image of the hands reveals that consciousness cannot understand itself in terms other than what it knows: consciousness is limited. We can only know reality in the forms of the dreams that consciousness conjures.

Janie never escapes such dreams. She told Hiroji that she believed “some ghosts could never be put to rest”. And as she cites these deeper truths, she rarely knows them directly. It may be that Janie is limited by the force of her trauma, and this feeling of being imprisoned is what Thien was moved to portray in this novel. But there is also another possibility: that Thien hoped Janie might transcend her past and find lasting peace. And that Janie was unable to, in part, because she had Thien as her creator and Thien did not know — directly — Janie’s experience of the Khmer Rouge.

In writing the story of another person or community, a writer can feel empathy for them and imagine their lives. This is possible, to a degree, from the outside. But to transcend Janie’s memory of the Khmer Rouge, Thien would have to walk beside Janie through that experience, through the frightening abyss. This requires a real authority with that experience: the authority of having lived it. Anything less than that is only imagination. It is to imagine that one’s dreams are imaginary.

Writing about others also presents political challenges, in part because the literary world — the global marketplace of stories — is skewed. The literary and commercial value of a story is still mostly judged by a relatively small, mostly Western, community of publishers, critics and prize juries. They naturally place greater value on stories with Western connections, about subjects that resonate in the West, and that are told in forms familiar to Western audiences. Stories by outsiders, such as Cambodians, are less likely to be published, find an audience and earn commercial or critical success.

Book publishing contracts also generally allot all money and credit from a story to the author, the storyteller. By these legal contracts, a book’s proceeds — monetary, social and literary — become the property of its author, and it is up to the author to share any of these benefits with other contributors. This is perhaps particularly relevant with regard to novels, where it seems taken for granted more often than not that the story is the author’s invention.

Against this, Dogs at the Perimeter raises uncomfortable questions about Thien’s relationship with Cambodian survivors of the Khmer Rouge. In its rendering of Janie’s childhood experience of the Khmer Rouge, the origin of much of Janie’s trauma, Thien’s novel seems to appropriate survivors’ stories.

Janie’s tale shares much with a memoir written by a Khmer Rouge survivor, Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father, made into a movie of the same name by Angelina Jolie. Both stories are about girls who journey from Phnom Penh to rural Khmer Rouge cooperatives. Both girls lose their family members and eventually join Khmer Rouge children’s brigades.

Thien closely tracks historical accounts of the Khmer Rouge. Janie describes scenes in isolated rural cooperatives where Khmer Rouge cadres wantonly killed Cambodians, who were then said to have “disappeared”. Women had to cut their hair. Families had to give up their possessions and build their homes by hand. They had to dye their clothes using dark berries to eliminate any colours. There is a scene in the novel, as in Jolie’s film, of children blown up as they try to cross a minefield.

In hewing so closely to history, Thien’s novel draws the reader to wonder about the Cambodians who lived these events. One of her more marginal characters works at the Documentation Center of Cambodia — “DC-Cam” as it is known in Phnom Penh — an organisation that collects testimonies of life under the Khmer Rouge. But which testimonies did Thien read? Who are the people who lived the events that inspired her narrative? The novel nowhere in its text mentions these Cambodians. There is no acknowledgments page where Thien recognises them. Dogs at the Perimeter makes the author the face of those survivors’ stories and turns her into something of a figure of authority regarding their history. The reader is distanced from the survivors, and does not know that there may be a Lor Chunty in Phnom Penh or Sith Sarath in Kratie who has lived the story they are reading. To know more about these survivors, the reader is forced to turn instead to Thien. In this way, Dogs at the Perimeter reinforces literary, social and economic inequalities.

The novel — and perhaps Thien — may not be aware that it is doing any of this, for such appropriation has long been an accepted way of working. Academics have noted how anthropologists conduct studies in distant countries and bring raw data back, often to Western universities, where the data is refined and exported to the world as valuable “theory”. Some documentary film-makers use the term “extractive film-making”, referring to the archetypal colonial and neocolonial practice by which companies sell products globally — whether textiles, cars or jewellery — without adequately compensating, monetarily or otherwise, the farmers and miners who sourced the raw material.

Dogs at the Perimeter ends with James and Hiroji meeting in Laos, Janie still the novel’s narrator. James’ history is a novella within this novel, its tale almost self-sufficient. Taken prisoner by the Khmer Rouge, James struggles to let go of his attachment to his wife, who married him not long before. The Khmer Rouge inform him that she has been killed. Thirty years later, Hiroji seeks out his brother to find him in Laos in a changed state, the brotherly relationship seemingly lost, and Hiroji lets go. The novel’s final sections contain poignant moments that bring us closer to the brothers.

These short-lived emotional transformations nonetheless feel shallow against the Khmer Rouge’s devastation. With most of the novel proceeding intellectually, in static scenes, these brief transformations are left to do too much work, and they overreach in their emotional implications. James’ forgetting his wife apparently leads him to forget himself almost entirely and become a new person: a mute smuggler, with an identity a Khmer Rouge leader gave him called “Kwan”.

The Khmer Rouge seem here used for effect, much like World War II is sometimes used as a canvas against which all loves and sorrows are more intense. A mother doesn’t just lose her child, she loses the child to the Nazis. A lover is not merely killed, but killed brutally by the Khmer Rouge. The character James leans on the Khmer Rouge rather than illuminating the regime through his experience. James’ loss, terrible as it is, seems unfit for the implications the novel seeks for it. We are then told — again, not shown — that James had a son who survived the Khmer Rouge, and that he stayed in Cambodia in pursuit of this child.

There must exist a freedom from even memories of the overwhelming violence inflicted by the Khmer Rouge. Buddhism says this is true of the mind’s greatest worry just as it is true of a small concern that flits away. It tells us that the mind, to directly know this truth, must embark on a journey of self-awareness. Janie, struggling with her trauma from the Khmer Rouge, appears condemned in these pages to her psychological trap. On the novel’s last page, she speaks to Hiroji in Laos about a time when “everything is finished here”. Perhaps she refers to Hiroji’s lengthy hunt for James. Or perhaps she alludes to her own decades-long pursuit of peace, for her personal escape, which she will probably have to reach somewhere outside this novel’s pages.

Janie may, one day, meet a writer who not only knows the ideas about personal liberation but is also intimate with her experience of the Khmer Rouge. That writer must be willing to offer this knowledge to Janie, as her own experience to transcend. Such a writer then walks beside Janie, the two of them moving seemingly together, though each one becomes aware that they will find release only in isolation.         

Anjan Sundaram is the author of Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo and Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship.

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