marcel barang

From West to East: Saneh Sangsuk’s path

In English, Reading matters on 09/04/2012 at 12:01 am


At last!
The author of The white shadow, Venom and Jao Karrakeit (Une histoire vieille comme la pluie), the novel and tales that established Saneh Sangsuk as a first-class writer, at least in European eyes, has finally come up – after a clumsy copycat tale on love probing (The third eye) and a clunky story of ghosts of all rags (Ma-ta-nusathi) – with another work of fiction that rings a universal bell and thus deserves to be translated.
And that work is Diaodai Tai Fa Khlang, Lonely under a demented sky.
So convinced am I, despite some reservations, that it does, that I’ve already written a synopsis of the book and sent it to Le Seuil, his French publisher. Whether or not I’m commissioned to translate this novella into French, if I can spare the time I’ll translate it into English and publish it as an e-book available on and

Lonely under a demented sky is the first-person story of an Indian nun in Sakyamuni’s land and time, twenty-five centuries ago, culled from actual Buddhist lore – the story of her former life as slave-wife of an idle nabob who, luckily for her, gives him a son, Velu. The tot is hardly a few years old when he’s bitten by a cobra, whereupon his mother launches into a mad search for an antidote that will confront her to sundry dangers – leopard, elephants, wild dogs, bandits, etc. – and turn her into a wild beast to protect her cub.

Ring a bell? Yes, it’s Venom revisited, only in darker terms, and lacking its masterful astonishing finale: she’ll eventually cremate her son and become a nun, a ‘daughter of the Buddha, born of his chest’ who, ‘at most seven nights from now’, ‘all desires extinguished’, will no longer be seen and never be reborn. Amen. This sums up my reservations: an arcane setting and an import that may disturb or titillate some Buddhist readers but leaves miscreants like me cold.

Nonetheless, the magic of Saneh Sangsuk’s vibrant verb works in most pages of this paean to maternal love as expressed delightfully while the infant is alive and savagely when he’s dying and dead yet still alive in his mother’s mind.

This tale is a new milestone in the writing and in the mind of its author, who has consistently drifted away from his first moorings in the West to espouse Eastern causes: the thirty-year-old man who furiously scribbled the iconoclastic autobiographical tomes of The white shadow (there were three originally, but, for sentimental reasons, he has kept the third under wraps for over two decades, even though it’s the necessary complement to the novel as we know it) was basically powered by his previous compulsive reading of Western literature, which may explain why that novel found its audience first in farang lands and, by violating the Thai social code, had him ostracised in his own country.
Since then, Khun Saneh, without losing any of his harshness and sharpness of mind, and further honing his pen, has veered to more homeward grounds and to that other part of his mammoth readings: Eastern roots, Buddhist lore and other Thai cultural mores. Venom and its cobra still appealed to the West and were a roaring success there; Jao Karrakeit and its man-tiger (suea saming) brought him home to the land of creeds and ghosts and colourful monks, to the delight of the West still. Since then, with the exception of that louche Third eye, he has plunged head over heels into the abyss of Buddhist bliss, with a distinct tendency to proselytising, as repentant sinners are wont to do.
The miracle of his latest offering is that, against its grain, it still has universal appeal.

The man hasn’t changed his impecunious way of life, struggling along in the (low-cost) boondocks for the sake of fondling his literary muse, but his public image has changed: a growing number of discerning Thai readers have caught on to his stylish rage and outrage to the point of … spinning imitators and, since his Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres dubbing by the French Ministry of Culture in 2008, he has become credible in the eyes of Thai officialdom to the point of … being given a grant to be able to write that very same Demented sky by the Thai Ministry of Culture. And Venom is, as we speak, being shot as a local movie.
Methinks Daen-aran Saengthong (Saneh the Writer’s Thai pen name) is headed for National Artist status and pension. How ironical!

  1. “Venom” is my favourite work by a Thai writer!

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