Even the title is clunky: Loak Pralart Nai Prawatsart Khwamsao literally means ‘A strange world in the history of sadness’ but ‘The history of sadness of a strange world’ is perhaps a better, if still unappealing, rendering. Siriworn Kaewkan always comes up with band-aid titles.
Anyway and alas, those 60 000 words have taken care of much of a rainy weekend. Actually, they’ve been in my computer since the end of last year, in the form of a Word file Siriworn sent me which I forgot about entirely until, searching among hoarded short stories in Thai last Friday, there it was, oh shucks. Since then, Siriworn himself has published his work as a beautifully laid-out 400-plus-page book of thrilling white pages and white spaces.
One can see this is an attempt at a new approach to novel writing, with some fifty alternate slim chapters of ‘personal notes’ and ‘swarms of tropical flies’, mixing reportage and imaginative writing, all concerned with happenings in Burma.
The personal notes are those of a thirty-year-old features writer roaming the Thai-Burmese border. The tropical flies fester in the depths of Burma, the tales of her mythological past, the poignant woes of her people today.
The conceit is promising; the execution, disappointing.
The narrator is heart-broken: his girlfriend has just run away with his best friend while he roamed the Thai-Cambodian border for another feature story. This will prove to be a red herring, though, and a source of hackneyed reflections on the mal de vivre of the well-heeled. In the course of his peregrinations, the narrator will meet many characters whose life stories and ancestries belong to the other side of the book, but much of what is taken down gets boring after a while, even though what is reported is undoubtedly true and generally appalling (I happen to know a few of the characters drawn here when I too roamed the border a generation or so earlier). In these pages, Siriworn is neither a good novelist nor a good journalist.
The swarms-of-flies chapters give the author scope for his usual brilliance with tales of yore and current happenings tinged with magical realism, but then they turn repetitive and get maimed in the tug-of-war between fact and fancy – leading to the inescapable truth that, as Gide, and Mitterrand after him, used to say, ‘you don’t make literature with good sentiments’.