marcel barang

Solemn reads

In English on 08/01/2010 at 9:55 pm

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I have given up on the novel that doesn’t exist, Monsoon by Manat Jan-yong. I gave up after reading more than three hundred mini-pages, and flipping through the rest: it isn’t the story I remembered. The one I remember was set during World War II and the Japanese occupation of Thailand (ironically, this is what I am dealing with these days with Book Four and last of Four Reigns).

This one takes place much later, presumably in the fifties, by the seaside, among competing seafaring and boxing clans, some good, some crooked, and goes on and on with much action, little style, less meaning but for the usual fare: love, lust, greed, honour; fists, flasks, flunkies, floosies and cuss words. Some Thai will read it with pleasure and it should be reprinted for that market, but I won’t cry if the novel that doesn’t exist still won’t. Manat’s talent, quite obviously, was in his shorter stories, some of which are of anthology calibre.

Talking about anthologies, I am currently reading of nights a collection of fifty Filipino short stories (The Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century, An Anthology of Fiction in English, Tanahan Books, Manila, 2000, 732 pages, P795) kindly offered me last October by Prof Boonrak Bunyaketmala. Arjarn Boonrak is trying to convince me that Filipino short stories aren’t as bad as I said his previous offering of some of them was. I’m almost halfway through the tome and about to be convinced: a few (seven out of twenty-five) hoist themselves above the mechanical or hackneyed, which isn’t a bad score, considering. But I’ll write at greater length about this when I have read the whole book.

And then there is this more recent gift, Anusorn Tipayanon’s short story ‘Morranasakkhee’ (Death’s Witness or Witnesses of death), which puzzles me. This is the first time in this Buddhist country that I read a story with a brash Catholic canvas. Or maybe it’s a Buddhist theme in disguise.

This is how it starts:

After my mother’s death, I went back to the hospital once again. I chose the same hospital as my mother, the same room as my mother, the same bed as my mother. I wasn’t ill, I had no harmful disease. I didn’t even have scratches or scars on my body. I merely wanted to go through my mother’s death again.

Well, it’s a false start. The narrator won’t stay long in hospital but will go on a multipronged journey through northern Thailand and Laos, first to contact a fellow amateur of local lore (the real-life writer Chachawan Khoatsongkhrarm) who is plying the Mekong river on a boat and will warmly give him the cold shoulder, whereupon said narrator, telling us in detail of how seven Catholic sisters were executed by Thai soldiers during the second scrape with the French over Indochina dust, except that one escapes to tell the tale to Pope John Paul II, finds his way to the scene of that inspired slaughter, a rudimentary church where a French priest named (don’t laugh) Anatole France lives and officiates alone but for an old servant who, once a year, resurrects her dead infant son and in the process shortens her life and eventually loses it, whereupon our narrator goes back home.

I was back home a week later. It was a very long journey in a life but the strange thing was that when I removed all my stuff there wasn’t any souvenir left. There was only that bottle of water. I don’t want to exaggerate, but when I poured the water into my mother’s flowerpot, the roses in it burst into bloom for four months before wilting on the anniversary day of my mother’s death.

All of this holds on thirty slim pages, all well written, all screwy. An afterword tells us the author wrote the tale one month after his mother’s death as a kind of exorcism and reflexion on death. So be it.

Anusorn Tipayanon has translated Rabindranath Tagore and Chogyam Trungpa into Thai. He has written two novels with intriguing titles, something like London and the secret in the kiss and Eight and a half Richter in search of the missing heart. I wouldn’t mind reading those: this is an unusual mind, running on antibiotics when we met.

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