marcel barang

An interview

In English on 14/02/2010 at 9:52 pm


So I finally met him.

It was on Thursday night, on the wrong side of the river. We had agreed to meet at Hemlock on Phra Arthit Road at 9pm. Young people ate al fresco; butterflies of the night hardly out of their chrysalis assessed the passing custom with bored eyes. I never rated a glance. As usual, modestly moneyed office Rambos were treating their sweethearts to pre-Valentine macaronis or French freid veal cutlets or barbecued pork kidney, the ne plus ultra of transplanted yokels being partial to foreign junk food with fancy, warty names. Yet there were brand-new cars reflecting the lights along the footpaths as they took their tolls in hefty monthly instalments. The Ko-kheng cart across the road was still dishing out Ajinomoto-spiked noodles as it had when I worked the night shift for Thai Day years ago. I had forgotten about that, and felt like a ghost revisiting his human past. But, for the record, even now I’m supposed to work there in the daytime, when the street is sun-drenched or rain-swept and I eat kao lao or khao man kai as right-thinking foreigners are wont to do and get my share of smiles and bows, being the odd farang fixture there.

I arrived early, I almost always do. Inside the brightly lit eatery, most tables were taken. A juicy farang woman, in her late forties I guess, with brown lipstick and dark blue kohl and a cavernous cleavage having dinner at the table right against the front window got amused seeing me sitting down for a moment on one of the two plastic chairs outside, going away (to say hello to the river and its pugnacious tugs and glamorous cruise boats), coming back a while later, smoking a cigarette standing up and pacing, looking every other minute at my watch and when my handsome male contact came (five minutes early) and we shook hands and, having found he hadn’t had dinner yet, decided to enter the place there and then, as I walked past her she rewarded me with a wink and a smile, or was that a smirk. She probably misread the whole tryst.

Anyway, here was Ezra Erker in the flesh – a tall, dark-haired, rather unassuming man in his mid-thirties and tan clothes who was here to confess me for a piece he’d write about yours truly due to be published in the Bangkok Post on Monday 22 February. He was recovering from a scary Lasik operation (‘burning sizzling flesh and smoke, you know’) and his eyes were still a bit bloodshot but apparently could see me well.

I’ve been in contact with Ezra essentially through emails for more than a year: he subs the translations of short stories I publish in the Post every first Monday of the month, and does a superb job of it. Besides, he’s a short story writer and novelist who will one day be there among the best of them, when some literary agent or publisher gets wise: he writes beautiful English, and he writes a lot. He also pens book reviews and the odd literary feature for the daily.

That night, I learned from him that he happens to be German, having been born in Germany of Dutch parents through no fault of his, has spent seven years in Japan (fluent in Japanese, he can even type it!) and quite a few more in the States (yet he hardly has a Yankee accent, though he says people tell him he sounds Irish when he’s three sheets to the wind) and disarmingly says he isn’t into learning Thai: ‘The hard disk is full.’ Employment at the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post keeps him on a 9-to-4 schedule, ideal to leave him time to write his own stuff or paint the town red pink (it’s Chinese New Year on a bland year this year, may we not live in interesting times!).

If I go on at length about him, besides my natural interest and curiosity it’s because I’ve noticed through the spying slots in this blog that in the course of months quite a few people have googled his name and ended up reading the thorny praise I’ve been embarrassing him with in this blog.

Ezra ordered one dish, and later a small beer when we had gone through two bottles of water – I had had dinner earlier and as the place didn’t stock pastis, only Australian wines in sleeping bottles I leaned against, I stuck to water, and chewed gum.

He had jotted a set of questions, then improvised some more, mainly about the practice and tricks of translation (which he has indulged in as well) and my (and every other foreigner’s) perennial trouble over visa renewal,  and on my personal life, down to my daily routine and (lack of) leisure, but the conversation which lasted more than two hours ranged far beyond, to our literary tastes, story plots, regional literatures, and what have you. I suggested a few books he should read and a non-stop music radio ( he should listen to. As I had brought my data stick and he his laptop, he rummaged through my collection of pictures (mostly of authors and book covers) and made copies of some of my handsome features to perhaps go with the piece he’ll write.

Our chat was recorded on his sleek portable phone, one of those contraptions I fear out of a couple of nasty encounters at interview time. I was dreadfully amused to see that he fiddled with it repeatedly and seemed to have less confidence in it even than I.

When we left, long the last customers and the place was closing, he told me he’d catch a bus back home and I felt glad that, since I had been the one offering him to drink beer, I had taken care of the bill. I once was an impecunious journo myself.

In the taxi back, skirting Khao San Road and the midnight hour, predatory taxis were thick on the ground, mudguarding their ways into double files to wait and convey the scruffy to heaven knows what late-night hells. From a distance, Sanam Luang looked as perky as ever, and I wondered what the doomed pigeons felt like that were being fed in cages scheduled to trap them and away. I asked the driver. He wouldn’t say. I reflected I shouldn’t have told Ezra I only loved as stylists DeLillo, Updike, McEwen, Amis the Son and Atwood the Shrew, but also Mailer and Philip Roth and Saramago and so many others further afield – Ecco, Marquez, Brink, Coetzee, White… – who weren’t just stylists but also could handle a plot with a rigorous fist. Esprit de l’escalier in a taxi: that wouldn’t do. So I paid him and, before I called it a night, treated myself to two long-delayed glasses of pastis to forget I once had a life and prepare myself to read all about it in the ‘World’s Window to Thailand’ two weeks hence.


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