He arrived at the Nagasaki Art Museum by chance, turned left into Nichihamanomachi Road, turned right into Hamanomachi Road and arrived at the Nagasaki Art Museum by chance. Actually, he intended to go there but meant to get there in the afternoon. So when he arrived there in the morning, he went to the Nagasaki Art Museum by chance.
This, the first paragraph of the first story in Nimit Wikarn (Night vision) by Anusorn Tipayanon, is enough to want to close the book.
Which would be a mistake: the rest of the story and the seven other stories in this badly designed, cheap-looking, unwieldy volume are much better than that paragraph or the anything-goes cover would induce you to believe.
It takes dedication and good eyesight to persevere, though: for reading comfort, Thai characters need 16 points, not 14 or 12 – unless there’s enough space between lines to let the text breathe without taxing the eye. And when you go for the trade format, the least you can do is make sure the binding allows you to open the book flat, which is just not possible here. It’s a simple matter of proper stitching and applying quality glue.
What is tolerable in a cheap paperback won’t do for a trade book. Editor Kittiphon Sarakkhanon and Kheihawatthu Publishing please note: if Laifaet Publishing can price a beautifully produced (if anaemic in content) 310-page trade book at 220 baht, then 165 baht for 128 pages is a very bad deal all round.
The stories here have the same pattern: they start on a minor event in daily life, like the above, then invariably veer sharply towards mythology or the surreal under the guise of travelling by either ‘I’, ‘he’ or ‘she’, and end on either an ambiguous note or an implicit message about the importance – the supremacy? – of the soul over matter and reason, and the importance of memory, both individual and collective. Sometimes this works, sometimes this fails, depending on how much you enjoy flights of fancy.
The scope of travel is regional, from Nagasaki to Batavia, from Penang to Hue; whether the starting point is the present or the past, the people met along the way are yellow, brown, black, white; of either sex; of many trades or none; of all creeds or none; in the flesh or in the mind; there is a universality at work here. More often than not there are references to past wars of extermination, those bad things man does to man, tsk!, and the loss this amounts to for all of us.
I read all the stories with sustained interest and was particularly taken by the last, long one, ‘Ruea Rak Thee Jom Long Nai Thuay Kafae’ (The love boat that sank in a cup of coffee): a Thai executive goes to Vietnam to find out why a female singer under contract keeps postponing the recording of the last piece of her third album, but this is merely one stratum of a beautifully layered literary millefeuille about reality, mystery, memory, sacrifice, loss, glamour and illusion – oh, and Chinese chess too.
On the other hand, I’m sorry to say, because the author was obviously moved to write it under personal circumstances (his mother’s death and that of a beloved friend), I found ‘Morrana Sakkhee’ (Death witness), which begins: ‘After my mother’s death I returned to the hospital once again. I chose the same hospital as my mother’s, the same room as my mother’s, the same bed as my mother’s. I wasn’t ill…’, as badly structured and implausible as I had the first time around in a different format, a well-produced (ha!) booklet issued under that title in December 2009 by the same publishing house: how this stay in hospital leads to a search for that extra lucid if lackadaisical friend up some river only to bypass him and find oneself in some godforsaken Catholic outpost in company of Father Anatole France (no, really!) and a dead bad boy periodically brought back to life by his mother’s love breath is more tosh than I can take whether maudlin or sober.
For all that, given what I’ve read so far, this book has its chances for the SEA Write consecration.