Two years ago, Fa Poonvoralak failed to get the SEA Write Award for his two-volume novel The quietest school in the world, even though it was by far the most creative, if disconcerting, yarn among the baker’s half-dozen in contention. Since then, he has had the work published in a rather skimpy English version – augmented with the ‘glowing review’ I had written here of the Thai version (see ‘A literary UFO’, 29/07/2009) – which failed to captivate the Man Asian Literary Prize jury last year.
Now we have his 24 short stories by Fa as a top contender for the SEA Write again.
And again this is by far the most unusual of the collections in competition – unusual in style (plain), in brow (high) and in breadth (narrow to all-encompassing): short short stories all, with mostly simple intrigues, little local colour and few characters, all in the service of concepts at once peculiar and universal.
With the exception of ‘Sat Yai’ (Big animals) which hammers away blithely at the hypocrisy of wealthy do-gooders to flaunt one’s own idiosyncrasy, all the stories show little concern for society at large and social problems of the day. Instead, they centre on an individual’s mental makeup and philosophical and metaphysical pursuits down to mind-blowing trivialities. Almost all have a narrator, mostly male, around whom the story gravitates. This narrator, whatever his age, is upper middle class, moneyed, cultured and leisurely – a writer when a profession has to be mentioned, with a predilection for chess, horse race betting and trips abroad. His mental processes and preoccupations, which are given pride of place, often translate into principles or rules of conduct used to justify a behaviour which may verge on alienation, anomy or impotence: in stories like ‘Phat Kap Kan’ (Phat and Kan) and ‘Wang Yen Jue’ (a Chinese woman’s name), the narrator waxes eloquent on his relished incapacity to enter into a loving relationship with the women he is attracted to. What does this say about his sexuality or lack thereof beside the intellectual braggadocio? In the almost only story with explicit lovemaking, ‘Barn Khong Duangkhae’ (Duangkhae’s house), the act comes at once unexpected and short-lived: a teenager’s dream.
Besides the fact that Fa’s narrators-protagonists are difficult for the reader to identify with, the limpidity of the prose and the recondite way of thinking it spools are very often at odds in those stories.
Some are too heavy in brain matter, in particular the two revolving around chess, ‘Ning’ and ‘Huajai Khang Khwa’ (The heart on the right side): the reasoning is intellectually enjoyable, but to a limited number of readers.
On the other hand, the most successful stories here, it seems to me, are the lightest in cogitation and densest in animation.
Not necessarily the first one – ‘Song Hao Dong’ (Two cobras), which retells Phanom Thian’s very first, cops-and-robbers tale of 1947, ‘Hao Dong’, made into a movie of the same title in 1958 – but, say, ‘Barn See Lueang’ (The yellow house), a spooky story, or ‘Eight years’ (a dialogue à la ‘The snows of Kilimanjaro’ without the snows flawed by the need to rationalise it) or even the last one in this opus, ‘Phoo Thort Rahat’ (The cryptographer), which is a straight romantic story whose ending reshuffles the deal. One may admire the neat trick and yet feel the story was written to make an intellectual point about … the power of the intellect.
So there’s good and bad in Fa’s fabrications, and it’ll be interesting to see whether the SEA Write judges hoist them above the rest of a promising lot.