Dogs at the Perimeter

Broken memories, broken souls, and a broken country (Montreal 2005; flashbacks to the Cambodian genocide 1975-1979): Madeleine Thien is a literary star in Canada. She ought to be one in America too.

If only Dogs at the Perimeter was dystopian fiction. Yet historically, Thien’s searing novel really did happen. Which makes her sensitive approach to telling horrific history more laudable.

Thien focuses on the psychic trauma to survivors of unimaginable horrors when “nothing seemed real.” What happens to their brains, to the area that regulates memories? What’s lost? What’s left?

Canadian-born Thien creatively sets the contemporary portion of her historical novel at a brain research center in Montreal to drive home the memory theme. (She lives in Montreal, where there’s a leading neurology center.) There, two characters propel the telling: Janie, a researcher in a lab that studies brain activity, and her senior neuroscientist boss and friend, Dr. Hiroji Matsui.

Thien has us thinking about memory in terms of fragments, opening with a mini-Epilogue (and later other mini-introductions) she calls “Fragments.” Fragmentation of memories, minds, souls, and an entire society is the devastation she examines. Fragmented also in the sense that the author tells us precisely what she wants us to know and leaves much out. I probably spent as much time googling as reading this 253-page paperback release. (The novel was originally published in 2012.) That it so provoked is a testament to its eye-opening engagement.

In a lengthy, fascinating interview, Thien says Cambodia’s genocide was essentially “invisible”:

“It’s one of those genocides that seems to be known at the basic level – when you say “Khmer Rouge” people know – but after that, there’s not a lot of knowledge.”

Astonishing, for these killing fields took place well-within recent memories of the Holocaust, also under the guise of making life better for the masses. History repeating itself, grimly. Where were the lessons learned?

Thien’s haunting account uses what may well be a conservative figure – two million (out of a population of 7 million at the time) – to cite the number of Cambodians tortured, murdered and perished due to starvation and other bodily breakdowns at the brutal hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, after a five-year civil war and before another. (The UN finally brokered a peace accord to end an “infinite war” in 1989.)

No one knows for sure how many Cambodians were wiped out. Chillingly echoing Nazi fanaticism of keeping track of their crimes against humanity, Pol Pot’s holocaust also kept meticulous records, so perhaps a more accurate accounting will come to light when an extraordinary museum is erected in the capital city, Phnom Penh. Cambodia’s ground zero for it was from here that all the “city people” were forced to evacuate into the jungles, rice fields, and schools-turned-prisons, tearing apart families, leaving behind and losing everything, including identities and names.

A $40 million Sleuk Rith Institute dedicated to memory, justice, and healing was the architectural vision of Zaha Hadid, whose sudden death appears to have delayed the ambitious project. Thien’s memory theme eerily resounds within the envisioned Museum of Memory. Until then, the Documentation Center of Cambodia, referred to in the novel, is piecing these fragments together, supported by Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program. Thien’s determined novel aims to do the same for us.

The novel is all the more important right now as America is going through a dark period in our history, when we’re seriously worried about the fragility of our democracy and on high-alert to the threats of totalitarian governments. An interesting convergence of pertinent events is happening, or just ended. One is Angelina Jolie’s film First They Killed My Father, now streaming on Netflix, inspired by two Cambodian survivors: a friendship and the memoir by Haing S. Ngor. An exhibit recently closed at the U. S. Holocaust Museum, and there’s been a surge in dystopian fiction titles like 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and It Can’t Happen Here back onto bestseller lists. All trying to make sense of the senseless, carrying warnings about freedom, morality, vigilance.

Note: Ngor’s heartsickening words preface the novel: “Tell the gods what is happening to me.” Which Dogs at the Perimeter does in Thien’s unique way. Ngor won an Academy Award for his supporting role in the 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Troubling that it seems we need to be hit over the head again filmically to jog our memories, or etch a memory, about the worst that can happen to vulnerable and complacent people under evil despots.

The artful author has created an artistic website for the novel that includes delicate, entangled, lace-like drawings related to the brain, a depiction labeled “minimalist,” alluding to and quite descriptive of Thien’s writing style.

Her first introductory fragment informs us that Janie has not heard from Hiroji in three months, having disappeared without a trace. Others are drawn from Hiroji’s files Janie finds in his apartment where she’s holed up in. Immediately, the reader is seized with curiosity as to why she’s taken up such a bare, sorrowful existence, apparently separated from her husband, Navin, and their 7-year-old son, Kiri, whom she adores.

Other fragments send messages about the brain from Hiroji’s notes on neurological cases of patients losing their memories and minds. Then, Janie stumbles on his personal letters, which arouse fragments of memories when she was a girl in Cambodia terrorized under the Khmer Rouge. Some memories are tenderly evoked, like the sound of her father’s voice echoing like “rainfall.” As these fragments accumulate and sharpen, we painfully sense and feel Janie’s deep-seated, emotional turmoil and the Cambodian thread connecting her to Hiroji, which might explain his vanishing. The details we’re given are still relatively scanty, allowing the author to deftly prepare us for what’s to come.

Chapters alternate between Janie and Hiroji’s names, sharing fragments of past histories. As Thien’s minimalist style reveals more, their chapter names are altered, jarring us, reflecting their former lives and selves (and those of significant others). Even Cambodian children took up arms and spied on millions the Communists deemed enemies and useless. An entire citizenry trusted no one if they had any chance of staying alive. Radicalism that sought to erase every element of a progressive society, destroy a beautiful country, and rock Buddhist beliefs.

The author threads her chapters finely, laying bare fragments of the atrocities. More than enough to rip our hearts, disturb existentially.

People went to “great lengths in the hope that they never will be found.” Dogs at the Perimeter takes an unusual approach to explain why.

Lorraine

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