marcel barang

From Korn to Boonchit

In English, Reading matters on 14/09/2011 at 9:30 pm

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In the past week or so I’ve managed to get through a couple of recently published collections of short stories in Thai.

One is โต๊ะปัญหา (Toh Panha – Problems on the table) by Korn Siriwatthano, a teacher in Surat Thani who’ll be 55 next month and who has published more than sixty short stories and three novels over the past quarter century.
Out of the ten stories here, เท่าไหร่ (Thaorai – ‘How much?’), about the craze for amulets and political opportunism, is perhaps the one to be remembered despite its predictable ending.
Korn addresses social, domestic or ethical problems (farmers’ fateful ignorance about health issues; a quarrel over doormats; ingratitude to elders; eulogy of the nasty dead; etc.) with rather dull earnestness unleavened by sparkle of pen or plot. The title story, for instance, is a rambling conversation at the local coffee shop about a couple of news items (a farang’s suicide, the single mother starlet who refuses a DNA test to confirm the paternity of her child) that doesn’t quite cohere. He also makes surprisingly careless mistakes, as in ‘Phoo Kepkiao Phonphalit’ (‘The fruit pickers’), about four famished little thieves: ‘as skinny one as the others’ (p67) but one of them ‘fat with a sallow complexion’ (p68); ‘I don’t know their names or whose children they are’ (p67) but ‘I know very well that the four of them are the progeny of Auntie Choi’ (p74).

The other collection I’ve read is ข้อความต่างด้าว (Khorkhwam Tang Dao – Alien matters) by that law student in France who sticks to Boonchit Fakme as his pen name and keeps explaining that it’s legit Thai, meaning something like ‘Winning charisma with squash’ – ‘Victor Mérite A des Courges’, ben voyons – ça vaut mieux que ce qu’on entend en anglais.
It’s a slim pocketbook (about 120 pages of text) of writing exercises over brief segments of daily urban life that seldom reach the span or balance of full-fledged stories. Among these the title story (same Thai words, but ‘A foreign matter’ would be a more apposite translation) is the most accomplished, as a scathing exposé of alienation and incipient racism among neighbours with just the right twist at the end. Most of the other pieces are too intellectualistic, navel-gazing or arty for me, and I must confess that a story like ‘First shares’ starting with ‘Verdict 13/2056 of the Constitutional Court on 6 November 2056’, thus combining legalese and sci-fi, scared me off, as did ‘Street Fighter II’, about arcane computer games.

On the other hand, the piece of experimental writing opening the book impressed me: ‘Jitra doesn’t go to market’ – a combination of fragments of a shopping list, a woman (Jitra)’s inner thoughts, her son (called Tank)’s whims, a monk’s advice and her husband’s requests – is well worth translating.
In a totally different register, it’s as accomplished as his ‘When I received the Nobel Prize for Literature’ which I translated some time ago and which he has kindly authorised me to ‘display’ worldwide except in that den of yellow iniquity he comes out of but avoids naming in the ‘About the author’ that ends this volume.

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