marcel barang

The Greatest Magic and other flops

In English, Reading matters on 18/07/2011 at 9:16 pm


Once more on Siriworn Kaewkan’s latest collection of short stories, self-published and self-titled in English The Greatest Magic and Other Stories.
It’s an eclectic collection, with some of his best writings and some of his dullest. This means Siriworn will comfort his record as all-round loser in the SEA Write Award competition for the sixth or seventh year in a row.

Some of his best: the first four stories. The lead story, ‘Sheik Lombok’, was awarded a literary prize in 2008. It is indeed a powerful, very clever tale spanning centuries, starting with a trader from Terengganu who runs afoul of a local potentate, which puts into perspective the current turmoil in southern Thailand, but its reading is made boring by almost every sentence starting with ตอนนั้น (then, at that time, in those days): a lighter hand in seasoning would have better suited the palate of this literary gourmet.
Next, ‘Ariya’s first voyage’, that wonderful dream sequence that makes death beautiful, is recycled here, followed by another version of the same event (the 2004 tsunami in southern Thailand) given a thoroughly different treatment. ‘Lanta, Carrie May and me’ (Phom Lanta Lae Kharree Mei) matches the cataclysmic event that killed hundreds with a personal debacle with, come to think of it, universal implications. I dread to think that this story might be autobiographical; if so, the magic realism ending is, beyond its metaphysical vibes, angelically bitchy.
A notch below, ‘Is there anything happening in this world’ (beginning with: ‘Sometimes I wonder if there’s anything happening in this world that Auntie Thua doesn’t know.’) is a delightful romp around the region, the world even, and the main events of our times, which has both the levity of a comical character (that know-it-all talkative auntie) and the gravity of the topics covered to make the mixture enjoyable.
Then comes some of his dullest: pretty much the rest of the book.
Ostensibly, the whole collection is placed by the author within a ‘regional’ context, from Terengganu to southern China by way of Laos (a flute-yielding samurai) and Burma (cows runs): Siriworn is wont to travel around the region to acquire experience and tune up his lyre. It works fairly well with his poetry. But two noxious influences are at work here.
On the one hand, the stories he culls out of his diary lack momentum – as did his 2010 novel, A weird world in the history of sadness, he is now busy rewriting.
On the other hand, to compensate for this, he trawls the internet to spice his tales with knowledge on more or less outlandish subjects he expounds on to sometimes ludicrous extent, such as over the thirty-eight pages of ‘Lecture of the owner of an antique shop’ I gave up reading as quickly as I did the lead story whose ‘magic’ underwhelmed me – but then, mea culpa, Buddhism isn’t my cup of hemlock.

Now, why did I write ‘hemlock’?
I swear that on Friday I’ll get rid of that cast.
Fancy being reminded every step I take that I have a body. But that’s another story.
Except that to type this on a jour sans le Tour the lame leg is straight on a chair to prevent swelling and the opposite buttock mashed on another, threatening back strain, and dinner is eleven miles away.


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