dogs at the perimeter-madeleine thien

i met madeleine last year at the runnymede library. she mentioned something about staying in touch and possibly asking around about my malaysian family, but like all other potential leads, nothing materialized. there’s something kind of haunting yet comforting about her jacket photo, and it would seem that we’re both a little preoccupied with ghosts.

“I remember the stories my mother used to tell me, stories that had been handed down by her own grandmother’s grandmother, who had married a merchant and travelled from the villages outside of Battambang. My mother once told me that when a child is born, threads are tied around the infant’s wrists to bind her soul to her body. The soul is a slippery thing. A door slammed too loudly can send it running. A beautiful, shining object can catch its attention and lure it away. But in darkness, unpursued, the soul, the pralung, can climb back in through an open window, it can be returned to you. We did not come in solitude, my mother told me. Inside us, from the beginning, we were entrusted with many lives. From the first morning to the last, we try to carry them until the end.” (253)

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3 thoughts on “dogs at the perimeter-madeleine thien

  1. the book is always better:

    “I was twelve when I arrived in Vancouver, when Lena became my foster mother. We’d sit and watch TV together, /The Nature of Things/, game shows, movies of the week, anything that might improve my English. But television, with its dizzying pictures and chaotic chatter, with its sudden images of love and violence, disturbed me. I turned instead to the shelves and shelves of books. Even though my reading was slow, painstaking, I worked my way through her collection. She was devoted to biographies-she admired mathematicians Kurt Godel and Emma Noether and neuroscientists Santiago Ramon y Cajal and Alexander Luria.
    To the surprise of my new mother, I stole these books as frequently as I stole canned food from the cupboards, and I hoarded all the words for myself. In my mind, it was as if these people walked through Lena’s rooms, as if they were family and they were still alive.” (21-2)

    “Television, she told him, on one of those awkward walks home, can be a gifted teacher. And books. She married James, maybe, for his books. Something to distract her while she waited for her brother to come back, but it’s been two years and it’s obvious by now that people don’t come back.” (180)

  2. found in translation:

    “A wet humidity enveloped us. I could not understand the language. Some Lao words drew images in my thoughts but most were puzzles to me.” (167)

    “Sorya tries to make the bed with him still in it. This, he knows, is her quiet way of telling him that it’s past noon and a man should not be so slovenly. He doesn’t like speaking Khmer in the morning, before breakfast, so he addresses her in English. Let me sleep a little longer. She brings him a cup of coffee and he feels like a wet-nosed boy home sick from school. Her fingertips smell of anise. He drinks, burns his tongue, and then he pulls her back into bed with her, strips her, fucks her, tells her to forget everything but him. He says this in English and she answers in Khmer. In the end they speak the same loop-holed language that says only a little and lets the big things slide through.” (179)

  3. collateral damage:

    “Angkar had been obsessed with recording biographies. Every person, no matter their status with the Khmer Rouge, had to dictate their life story or write it down. We had to sign our names to these biographies, and we did this over and over, naming family and friends, illuminating the past. My little brother and I were only eight and ten years old but, even then, we understood that the story of one’s own life could not be trusted, that it could destroy you and all the people you loved.” (25)

    “The Khmer Rouge had taught us how to survive, walking alone, carrying nothing in our hands. Belongings were slid away, then family and loved ones, and then finally our loyalties and ourselves. Worthless or precious, indifferent or loved, all of our treasures had been treated the same.” (39)

    “He stared at it for a long time, and then he flung it back. He could not read, I realized. The child doctors of the Khmer Rouge could not even read. He told me to leave immediately, that she was no longer my responsibility. I knelt on the ground, weeping, trying to wipe the dirt from the scrap of paper.” (120)

    “Somewhere, now, a surgeon could burn a lesion into the boy’s brain. It’s possible to lessen Nuong’s suffering if the boy accepts some degree of loss. They can turn down the volume on all of his emotions, pinch the air out of his sadness, turn him dull and pure as snow. Hiroji has professors who say there is no suffering, there is only chemistry. Suffering is a description but chemistry is the structure. In any case, a pill can dampen some receptors, dim the lights a little. Surgery can make him care a little less. Pain and suffering are not, in the end, the same thing, one can be cleaved from the other like a diamond split along its planes, so that you can feel pain but you are no longer bothered by it. He has seen a patient, huddling in a corner, at the mercy of a condition so devastating that even a slight breeze from the window would cause him unbearable suffering. After surgery, he told his doctors that the pain was exactly as it was, but he did not feel it as greatly. “It’s as if,” he had said, a cool blandness in his eyes, “the pain is not being done /to me/.” One day, maybe in ten years, or fifty years, a surgeon will be able to do this with disturbing precision, destroy a whirlpool of memory, an entire system of feelings, but in the meantime it’s like taking a hatchet to a spider’s web.” (231-2)

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