marcel barang

Alan’s teak box

In English, Reading matters on 04/06/2011 at 8:16 pm

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At the end of April I lost another battle to my friend Alan.
I’d promised to treat him to some feast or fast anywhere but in my dust trap where he has come to babble pleasurably for years, but one thing and another here he was again on an afternoon visit! Yorm pae na weui (I give up, damn it!).
In the course of our usual long chatter, he referred to a teak box and how he had extracted ten thousand words out of it. He felt these should be translated into Thai and published in both languages simultaneously. So I suggested potential translators and publishers here, wondering all along what this was all about.
Was Alan Haig-Brown, a world-class globetrotting marine reporter-photographer who these days spends his life mostly between his native Canada and Asia and Thailand in particular where he has grown new ties, trying his hand belatedly at fiction writing? Could I see that teak box? Of course he’d send it.
An entire month passed.
And then four days ago, here comes The Teak Wood Box – a revised version now running to fifteen thousand words.

To hell with HTML and the washing: I started reading right away, keyboard in hand so to speak, and, despite fairly heavy sub-editing, couldn’t stop until the end hours later.
What a delightful tale!

It begins flatly enough: ‘The wood from which this simple box is made is known as mai sak in Thai, teak in English and Tectona grandis in Latin. It grew in Thailand. The story of the box starts about 220 years ago.’
Follows a sweeping history in fourteen chapters about the birth and growth of a teak tree eons ago in some remote Thai jungle, its eventual felling, how the wood is turned into floorboards for a Thai house and, before that house becomes obsolete and its floorboards are turned into teak wood boxes, Alan’s imagination has taken flight: we are introduced to generations of a Thai family, we’ll travel to Europe, the US and Canada, there to meet First Nations people and being introduced to the basic values of ‘holistic forestry’, and we’ll close the book with the exalting feeling that something can and must be done to ‘green’ the planet and with a remarkably down-to-earth aperçu of Thai society at grassroots level. Quite a lot to ponder for what is essentially a very good story for young readers and young Thai readers in particular!

I no longer wonder why Alan thinks it should be published with English and Thai on facing pages.
As I mailed him right away: ‘You have a winner in hand, Alan … This small box develops into a widely encompassing saga with all the politically correct references to greenness, love of nature and native lore. That I don’t quite share your “return to the native” approach is beside the point: you are the shaman.’
Sure, even after my corrections and suggestions have been factored in, the text will still need some work (Alan writes limpid but overly grammatically correct prose – of the ‘the house of which they were fond and to which they would return…’ variety – and his dialogues need to be spoken rather than written).
But if I were a Thai publisher I’d mail <alan @ haig-brown.com> right away.

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