Running on the Knife’s Edge

A novel explores the fractured psyche of a Cambodian survivor

In her novel Dogs at the Perimeter, Madeleine Thien’s project is a bold and difficult one. It is the project of our age, one that resists narrative, one that overwhelms narrative; one that is ultimately impossible to narrate fully, namely to traverse that place that human beings traverse at the soul’s murkiest. It is well that Thien’s novel begins at the fictional Brain Research Centre in a not so fictional Montreal. In such a place at least we can claim knowledge of, and experiment with, theories of the brain/mind’s reaction to the brutalities of living. Here we can probe how the brain observes, constructs and compartmentalizes violence and violent acts. This is the material that Dogs at the Perimeter is deeply engaged with—how to save anything other than brutality and terror from our encounters with brutality and terror.

The novel’s narrator, Janie, spent her childhood in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But first we meet her working at the Brain Research Centre in 2005, pondering the disappearance of her mentor and friend Dr. Hiroji Matsui. His disappearance iterates to disturbing effects the many disappearances in Janie’s life. It summons the memories of her childhood when she and her family along with many other families are herded out of the city of Phnom Penh in a harrowing forced march to the countryside. It is the beginning of the rule of terror of the Khmer Rouge, their apocalyptic visions of a society without identity or familial bonds, predicated on relentless self-denunciation, torture and mass murder. Janie loses her family one by one. First her father is taken away and, then, her mother is sacrificed to hunger, her brother to indoctrination into the ways of torture and murder. The narrator herself is led away to a camp to work in the fields. All of them bear witness to degradation but also to what can be held on to, what can remain of human fealty.

In this first-person narration of the random and ordinary horror of war, the ugliness, the lucklessness of it, the narrator, Janie, resists, as her father once resisted, the difficulties of living with a graceful language “as if beautiful lines would save him.” When she describes her brother’s learning to torture it is with this language that she does it: “My brother became familiar with the workings of the human body, with the tissue and the blood and the organs and the delicate, fragile forces that held a body together. Cut this knot here, and the hand or the leg or the heart becomes useless. It was both mysterious and simple. Everyday my brother fought to banish all the unnecessary raging inside himself.” This language of course cannot save us, and Thien the novelist knows that, but what she also seems to tell us is that to describe human despair in despairing language or documentary language or journalistic language has already numbed us and so these details need another means of transport so that we may not look away. The genocide of the Khmer Rouge has become iconic, evacuated of the real, and Thien’s narrative strives to shift our gaze back to the real.

Disappearances and changed appearances, corporeality and ghostliness inhabit this novel.

The only kindnesses, the only gifts people make to one another, are instructions on how to change identities: a Khmer boy, Prasith, shows Janie’s brother, Sopham, how to transform himself into someone else to survive. That someone else is himself a torturer with a new name, Rithy. Rithy takes from a woman, about to perish in a cell, a small paper map to the border with Thailand. He will find his way to his sister and they will escape, but he will not survive, although Janie will. Janie, who is not Janie yet, will arrive in Canada as a foster child and will ask her foster mother for a new name—Janie. Those who get new names get new lives. One is deformed and re-formed in this novel through acts of memory.

We know little of the years in between, only that Janie has a child, Kiri, and a husband, Navin, and that she has suffered a breakdown. She fears the secret workings, the ad hoc inheritances of cruelty in herself and moves away from her family, from her son, before she damages them irrevocably. A tenuous thread holds her to her son, the thread of the future. Along that thread runs love but also the same terror that inhabits her to the point of her own violence toward him. The violence frightens her and leads her to abandon him if not emotionally then physically. She leaves, pursues her mentor, Hiroji, as he makes his way to Cambodia in search of his older brother, Junichiro, a Red Cross doctor who disappeared in that country many years ago.

Why Thien gives us this second story, or why she gives Janie this second story, as a point of entry into her own past, is an enigma. Does Janie follow Hiroji to tell him something about her own brain? So many people have disappeared from her life, but at least she can go and find Hiroji. The Khmer Rouge have long been gone, if not all brought to account. And Janie certainly cannot find her mother or her brother or her father, who are all dead. I think we do lose her in this second overlapping story of the disappearance of Hiroji’s brother. Perhaps Thien is saying we are all looking for someone to fix the brain, to fix the heart. And the domestic cluster of Janie’s husband and son are not sufficient; she must find someone with a similar experience of loss. We are left with the accumulation of stories of brokenness, of silences in the face of damage.

“Every day we woke on a knife edge and ran along it,” the narrator says. Not many of us in North America know this knife’s edge, although some certainly have known and do. Many of us have not experienced the utter failure of a state, the arbitrary cruelties and the clinical bloodiness that follow. Oceans away, we inhabit a discourse of innocence even when we are deeply implicated.

This book has a melancholy course; its tone is melancholic; its exits, up in the air. One cannot call for resolutions here, as traditional readings of novels might. We are in inconclusive times. The world is open ended, the moral questions almost irrelevant to the questions of modern war. Thien points us to the imagination as salve. Yet the imagination can also produce the catastrophic. This dilemma is finally what Thien’s novel troubles. She writes: “The number of possible brain states exceed the number of elementary particles in the universe. Maybe what exists beneath (tissue and bone and cells) and what exists above (ourselves, memory, love) can be reconciled and understood as one thing, maybe it is all the same, the mind is the brain, the mind is the soul, the soul is the brain.” We are not sure of what must or can be achieved but to go on.