The other day, Vasana Chinvarakorn of the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post sent me a superb gift: a nicely produced photocopy of Rueang San An Pen Thee Rak, a collection of ‘ten favourite stories of five SEA Write winners’ published by Matichon Publishing in 1995.
One more book to help me select some of the best Thai short stories for translation and publication in the Post every first Monday of the month.
The five authors are Atsiri Thammachoat/Ussiri Dhammachoti (SEA Write winner in 1981), Wanich Jarungidanan (1984), Paitoon Thanya (1987), Anchan (1990) and Sila Komchai (1993).
Anchan’s two stories I didn’t bother to read: her concept of a short story is anything beyond ten thousand words, two and a half times what the Post can accommodate. When I have time, of course I shall tackle her yarns, as the journalistic yardstick of brevity is neither here nor there to determine what is best in literature. (Yes, yes, I know, Wanich my friend, her Thai has got its warts.)
Sila Komchai’s two favourites are ‘A drop of blood’, which I translated ages ago for the long regretted magazine Caravan, and ‘The soundless song’, which is the kind of well-meaning agrarian short story that bores the pants off me.
Atsiri’s favourites are ‘On the water at dusk’ (Bon Ton Narm Muea Yarm Kham), the well-known story of a poor watermelon seller who, on his way back home, robs a floating baby girl’s corpse of a ring that will allow him to buy a doll or two for his daughter (already translated into English thirty years ago by Chamnongsri (Lamsam) Rutnin in Kuntong, you will return at dawn, under the title ‘Nightfall on the waterway’) and ‘Heaving seas, grieving winds’ (Talei Ram Lom Soak), which is a reprisal of the author’s favourite themes of loss and dispossession, transience and memory. Short, well-built and very sad, in the poetic prose of the man who gave us Of time and tide (available at thaifiction.com).
Wanich’s stories are both good. ‘The song of the leaves’ (Phleing Bai Mai) has the cultural density that is one dimension of his masterpiece novel Cobra (available at thaifiction.com). Its popularity rests on its twist ending. More weighty, and much more modern, is his ‘Bear’s house’ (Barn Mee) on the role of television in moulding children’s brains (and ours).
As for Paitoon Thanya, ‘The Decline’ (Khwarm Tok Tam), set in the Muslim village world of the South and denouncing the bankruptcy of the restrictive if humane values of traditional Islam, seems to me to be a bit lacking in nuance. Published in 1987, however, it predates by more than a decade the shenanigans that will be heaped at the feet of Thaksin Shinawatra, isn’t that amazing?
On the other hand, his ‘Death in October’ (Khwarmthai Nai Duean Tularkhom, 1994) is, to my money, by far the best piece of the whole collection – a political piece that must be read (and reread) at various levels, even if parts of it make for harrowing reading: through the protest suicide of a young man and the reactions it entails, this is a condensate of the Thai polity and public at large as it has been since, let’s say, the early 1970s, although the times they are a-changin’. It brings to mind the best of Kanokphong Songsomphan’s short stories. I will definitely translate it, but whether it can be carried by the Bangkok Post remains to be seen: for one thing, it seems dangerously close to their 4000 words upper limit; for another, the timorous monks and nuns there often cringe at potentially disturbing content.
In any case, thank you, Khun Vasana, even though last night, so engrossed in reading was I, I almost forgot to sleep.