Labour Day this year fell on a Sunday, so this Monday is a day off in a country well-known for its months of Sundays.
I was looking forward to a long weekend of blessed silence at home, once the Stradi virus Stradivarius that sets the neighbourhood’s teeth on edge day and night had BMWed away on Friday afternoon, along with the Benz-driving surgeon whose squeaky-shoed toddler is paraded every day after nap up and down my lane by any of its three North-eastern female minders.
Instead, I had to spend the whole of Saturday in splendorous air-conditioned despair, all windows and doors closed against a constant toom-toom boom-boom toom-toom from the moment I woke to past ten at night, no matter how loud I blasted FIP or SomaFM on my laptop or this or that inane movie on the telly: some collective merrymaking in the vicinity, complete with the caterwauling that passes here for true Thai popular music – imagine twelve hours of Sinatra or Dalida on a background of pavement breakers and bagpipes. There was even at one point a marching band of cymballed and drummed school kids doing the rounds of the block.
But then Sunday and Monday have been mercifully quiet – give or take the usual dozen ซาเล้ง (saleng – itinerant tricycles buying junk), ice-cream or broom peddlers and food-selling braying vans without which there’s no vintage Bangkok silence.
Anyway, I’ve spent most of those days going through the latest issue of Ra Hoo Om Jan (Rahu swallowing the moon, i.e. lunar eclipse), the ‘periodic’ collection of short stories put out by the Songsomphan family.
This issue is less disappointing than the previous ones I’ve read, perhaps because it has benefitted from the demise of Chor Karrakeit: it boasts the sure-fire signatures of Win Lyovarin (in his usual didactic mood, this time about Mongolia and DNA) and Rewat Panpipat, whose ‘Khao Khee Ma Hai Pai Nai Phayap Daet’ (He rode his horse into a mirage) gives the measure and limits of the best stories here. The editors echo his piece by entitling the volume เมืองพยับแดด (Mirage country), and indeed several of the thirteen Thai stories are concerned with the mirages of the times in this land.
Rewat’s story deals in his usual poetic vocabulary with the murderous atmosphere in the Deep South, as seen by a young goat shepherd, a washerwoman, a street cleaner and a disabled man. These are variations on a common theme that go on for too long to really sustain interest, and once I had skimmed through them I was left with the question: what does such pretty writing hope to achieve?
The same deleterious atmosphere is more powerfully invoked by Prarthana Ratana in ‘Chai Phoo Sonthana Phasa Nok’ (The man who speaks the bird language) where actually the bird is doing most of the talking: its denunciation of the anti-terrorist law is hard-hitting, at once droll and disquieting. This is the story I find myself most likely to translate.
‘Duang Jampa Lae Phaya Nark’ (Duang Jampa and the Naga King) by Praka-sit Khonwai has an altogether different concern: the mirage of faith; and another background: the Thai-Lao border. It does manage some surprises in its leisurely meandering but they lead to an all-too-predictable ending.
I didn’t read Kanokphong’s long and unfinished entry (yet wondered about this upsetting habit of the Songsomphan clan of airing the back-of-drawer scraps of a writer who was highly conscious of the demands of his trade) and skipped also Kanthorn Aksornam’s ‘Phalee’ as she had favoured me with an early peek at this monkey-business story.
Of all the stories here, the one that disappointed me most was Sa-korn Phoonsuk’s ‘Laeo Phopkan Mai Nai Prathet Thai’ (Let’s meet again in Thailand) whose first of five parts plunges us powerfully into the tormented Bangkok of April-May 2010 only to wax eloquent on a cinema buff’s masturbation masterpiece recording the sound of … silence. Well, well.