marcel barang

A dud and the real thing

In English, Reading matters on 21/06/2010 at 2:58 pm

The previous posting amply shows that time hangs heavy on my hands these days, as heavy as when women, having delivered twins, feel light in the gut and the head, I guess. After weeks of nursing half a million words while Bangkok bled and burnt, I’m left with nothing to do but bide my time for permission to publish and what have you, go through a pile of long neglected literary magazines and other reading material, and try to figure out what to do next beyond the odd short story translation and a bit of dusting to lose weight.

Yes, I know, I did treat myself on my birthday to last night in twisted river and The Museum of Innocence, but not without guilt: somehow, Roberto Bolaño’s 898-page-long 2666 is still waiting for me to read the last one hundred pages, three months after I started reading.

Instead, I chose to spend most of my birthday anniversary on a Thai novel. A couple of weeks earlier, through a third person, the author of Dao Din (Star on Earth) contacted me to ask if I’d be willing to translate it into English. Since it was a novelised biography of legendary movie star Mitr Chaibancha, whom everybody knows died at 36 by falling from a helicopter while filming in Pattaya, I said I’d read it to assess whether it was worth translating. SOP.
The author, Inkhasak, sent me the book with a written note in Thai to the effect that he had spent twenty years gathering information to write that book, which came out last year.
The novel opens on a whole range of Mitr’s relatives learning of his death as they attend a joyous ceremony at the local wat.
It didn’t take me long (well, too long, actually) to figure out that this was literary and biographical trash: a string of clichés and repetitions, weather reports, gooey fine sentiments all over the page, snatches of leaden or implausible dialogue, corny premonitions, unhappy phrasings (‘one of the raspier sounds ever seen’ or some such) and, though I can’t swear to it as I never finished the book, a few liberties taken with Mitr Chaibancha’s biography as can be read on Wikipedia.
Much of this assessment I emailed the author, providing examples, summarising it with ‘I don’t think this work deserves to be translated at all; what it deserves is proper editing in Thai to begin with,’ and actually reining in my anger, knowing all too well that such a book is beyond ‘proper editing’ anyway, the author’s dedication is his saving grace, and it isn’t quite his fault anyway but more that of his culture.
I have no idea whether that novel has sold well, although I suspect it has, would it only be because the author deems it worthy of an international readership, but I know that the market is flooded with such sloppy works that thrive on and perpetuate mediocrity. If anything, such a book should be used in writing classes as practical evidence on how not to write a novel, or a biography for that matter.

Luckily for me, I spent the next day and then the next in literary bliss, going through Ezra Erker’s month-old offering, a ‘double album’ [?] of short stories or should I say vignettes entitled Blue Notes which he makes the beginner’s mistake of formatting throughout, with a green picture of an aquarium as a bonus (Rule number one in publishing: present your submissions unformatted).
Distributed over six headings, seventy-two small pieces (from a few hundred to at most two thousand five hundred words each and usually less than a thousand) that run from fable to parable, from profound musings to childish pranks, variously anchored in the past, present or future or all three at once, with historical, political, scientific or science fictional backgrounds in a great variety of countries, manage to create, through their multifaceted style, unusual angles and very variety a world of their own, distinctly Erkerian – the true mark of a writer, whether published and famous or ignored or, as is yet Ezra Erker’s case, still to be discovered.
Among the shortest pieces, especially in the first sections, quite a few left me puzzled or indifferent, and I’d be tempted to tell the author to ‘reconsider’ their presence there, but I know how headstrong he can be. Ditto for ‘Visitors’ in the last section. One I would definitely tell him to discard: ‘Requiem’, with or without apologies to Emily Dickinson – it’s the only piece I just couldn’t read through: sounds too much like a bock-a-da-bock player practising his scales on the church organ. And there is much of the ‘practising scales’ aspect in this collection that must have been penned over years and occasionally makes you think of kindred writers with household names.
The two sections titled ‘Improvisations on love’ and ‘Meditations on mortality’ seem to me the most coherent, fluid and spellbinding. Within the latter, ‘In memory of Laurie’ and ‘The return’ really moved me. Earlier, I also liked the lovely ‘Melampus’ tale (‘Farmers know that geese don’t take to shrimp…’), and ‘The yellow monster’, 555 words long, is close to perfection: not one word de trop; strong theme; implacable treatment, cledge and all. (Yes, I too had to look the word up.)
Some pieces end dramatically, others with a whimper, but Erker definitely knows how to hook you from line one. At random: ‘Since the bite, it courses through my veins.’ – ‘He woke to find himself sprouting.’ – ‘This guy walks into a bar.’ – ‘She needed to get rid of things, so she started with her clothes.’ And so on.

To add to my bliss, my lawyer daughter celebrated my birthday with me with a home-delivered ham-and-mushroom pizza, her treat. That we did so one day late was poetic justice: all these years, her own birthday would fall without fail in the middle of her end-of-term exams and we’d celebrate it one or two days later or on the following weekend. She’s free of exams now but on my birthday those every-other-day evening courses, you see…

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