When I started reading The quietest school in the world by Fa Poonvoralak the other week, I felt the same thrill as I experienced fifteen years ago when I discovered Saneh Sangsuk’s The White Shadow: here was something different; here was something probably important; and about time too! And yet no two books could be more antinomic, one grounded on juicy autobiographical excess, the other pegged onto philosophy and fancy lines.
This novel is a literary UFO.
Think Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; think Sophie’s World; think The Bone People – that calibre of UFO. It’s got a bit of each, with helpings of Le Petit Prince, the Tao Te Ching and all that flimflam as well, and yet is very much its own universe, a new approach to fiction, a new formula in novel writing one could say – nurtured no doubt on the fiftyish author’s lifelong cultivation of cantos (thaicanto.com).
Initially there are eight characters, pupils all in the quietest school on Earth: Sky (27), Thunder (19), Water (18), Earth (15) and Mountain (13) are male; Wind (20), Fire (18) and Swamp (10) are female. A bit surprising in English, a lot confusing in French, Spanish or Italian…
Soon these eight will multiply, to a total of sixty-four, as they meet their counterparts on the moon, on the rings, in a black hole, in the Oort cloud, in the centre of the world, on a comet and finally in the Sun. All in the course of five years.
Nothing much happens: they come to school or they don’t; they chat or keep quiet, love each other sometimes or pretend to or not to; shut their eyes often; sometimes ponder – ponder all kinds of topics, from food to idleness and democracy, from sleep or bachelorhood to cosmic matters –; sometimes abscond into private caves or live other people’s lives in the future; but usually find themselves mute or prolix in that famously silent school that keeps growing as chunks of the universe come visiting. Most chapters are three slim pages long, none over five.
Perhaps because I didn’t have the luxury of entire days to spend reading (as had been the case with Saneh Sangsuk’s masterpiece, which took me six exultant full days to go through) I found it hard to crawl through the first volume and keep track of the constant comings and goings and changes of characters, scenes and themes, with their mildly didactic approach: punchy formulas (one-liners such as ‘My mind is a time vehicle’) sit uncomfortably alongside flights of fancy verging on nonsense. Some of the crypto-philosophical vocabulary seems to be beyond the range of my dictionaries, and I sort of smelled on a few occasions expressions that seemed to come straight from the English, but what do I know?
But then perseverance paid off and I find myself increasingly drawn into this quaint world of dreams and ideas – a bit like when you are initially put off by the contrived style of a James or a Proust and by and by fall for the charm of their unique word music, except that the style here is anything but contrived (even if quite a few formulations are puzzling) and the music of words ‘a chirping of tailorbirds’. There are another three hundred plus pages to go, but there is no doubt in my mind that this is an outstanding novel, an all-too-rare reading experience in this blessed land. Whether the SEA Write people will agree or prefer more middle-brow fare is up to them (and I am not forgetting that I still have one more preselected novel to find and read), but as far as I am concerned, this is the real McCoy.