marcel barang

The novel that doesn’t exist

In English on 07/08/2009 at 10:09 pm


Is on my desk.

What a strange day! It started with General Banchorn Chawansin waking me up. That’s what generals the world over do; it’s in their jeans genes. Gen. Banchorn, now retired, played an important role in military intelligence in helping solve the communist insurgency in the South in the 1980s and, more specifically, in befriending an important local comrade and having him surrender. He told all this in a book they co-signed. As a journalist, I interviewed them both, and later helped translate part of the book into English, or was it all of it? I can’t remember. Today Khun Banchorn was calling to ask if I had kept that translation, as he wished for his daughter to translate his works and my labour of yore would be of help. I told him I thought I no longer had those pages but would look again.

Then I called that friend who is chasing for me Talei Namnom. It turns out that he contacted the author, who lives in the Northeast, and the author, who had only a few copies printed on demand, most of which went to the SEA Write jury, is most willing to mail him one for me, which I’ll probably get early next week, saaaaatu.

Then I went to the website side of the office, delayed Nai Ben’s lunch to explain what I wanted, and it looks like we might be going places after all: later in the day I could see the homepage shaping up by the hour.

I was hardly back home after communal lunch at my alleged terrorist boss’s place (in his absence) when I received a peremptory mail from Chart Korbjitti: please translate for me this text for a catalogue and website. A true abomination: the genesis of Mad Dogs & Co – not the novel, oh no: a line of handmade garments! Chart is Chart and on that chart among others I chart my course. So I sweated for nearly five hours over a text that spoke of garment dyeing and prima fibre and sewing cotton. A literary translator can do anything, right? Since one of the mad dogs involved is the gifted artist who designed free of charge the new TMC logo for me at Chart’s prompting, it would have been bad form for me to charge them anything, though I do plot to get myself at one point a certified dyed-in-the-wool Mad Dogs & Co one-hundred-percent cotton phakhama, which I’ll then display on a wall.

Then I was free to search through those piles of dead leaves, up there on the mezzanine floor, to humour Khun Banchorn. I regret to say, sir – as I just told your wife over the phone – that I didn’t find any trace of those old pages.

What I found instead is a novel I’ve been told umpteen times didn’t exist except in my imagination!

The story is this.

Way back in 1993, as I submitted myself to a punishing reading diet of Thai novels to come up with a list of ‘the twenty best novels of Thailand’ for my would-be Thai Modern Classics series, I went through about two hundred of them as suggested by various experts and my own curiosity and sense of duty. My then assistant, Khun Phongdeit, would occasionally photocopy those old novels that could only be found in public libraries, usually Thammasat’s. Among these, there was one I particularly liked until I found that right in the middle of it one chapter was missing. The story took place during World War II in the Thai boondocks and had to do with resistance to the Japanese invading force. Our hero had just planted an explosive charge under a bridge where a Japanese column was due to rumble past and he was watching in a recess to make sure they were all blown to pieces – and then nothing; this much I would remember ever after.

That novel was Morrasum (Monsoon) by Manat Jan-yong, a hellishly gifted in his cups author of primarily short stories.

Time passed.manat

About two years ago, I thought I’d have another look at Morrasum. Somehow, I couldn’t find it among the hundreds of Thai novels on my shelves, nor was it at my office, so I went to look for it at the Thammasat library.

I was told no such title existed, neither there nor at the National Library, whose website the obliging Thammasat librarian consulted, and Manat Jan-yong’s only works were short stories. Had I dreamt it all?

I then took my case to some learned literary friends; they obligingly launched a search through Thai literary forums on the net that brought nothing but shrugs and snickers.

And lo and behold, here it is, 975 (tiny) pages long! A photocopy, of course. I’ll read it presently. Thank you, Khun Banchorn, you’ve made my day.


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