If it’s a pleasant enough read altogether, the first three dozen pages of Saiphin’s Scar are hard to cope with: we are introduced first to a tree with a Southern Thai name, lamphaeng (ต้นลำแพง), unknown to most Thais: on the Net, a few think it’s a lamphaen (ต้นลำแพน) or perhaps a kamphaeng (ต้นกำแพง) – and I’ve yet to find a picture of that tree that matches its description in the book as, basically, a tall tree whose branches suggest human hangings but which, curiously, is in these pages grown in pots. Lamphaeng is also the name of the older of two sisters, the other one being Saiphin, who may be the author of the book we are reading, whose title she took from a shadow-play tale performed by her absentee father. Help yourselves, dear readers, to a smorgasbord of symbols and shadows within shadows.
But to put things in order: the plot centres on three generations of women on an island (Koh Yo) at the mouth of the Songkhla Lake in southern Thailand. To simplify, there is Khun Nai (Madame) Thongtuk and her female servant Thongkhiao. Matron Thongtuk lives off the local Chinese tile factory inherited from her dead Hokkien husband, and rules the life of everyone around – a recurrent theme of the novel: others make us what we are. The khun nai first beds her servant then pushes her to sleep with a guest, a tough skipper who will die protecting the mansion from armed bandits. Of their brief acquaintance Lamphaeng is born. Two years later, at the matron’s instigation still, Thongkhiao has a one-night stand with a master shadow player and ends up pregnant with Saiphin. She will also be made beneficiary of the tile factory (which will progressively be run to the ground) and weaned away from her slavish subservience to her mistress, but at the cost of a bare life of muted madness. She teaches her daughters to speak with a crime novel entitled Thongsun kills her child…
Daring Lamphaeng and bookish Saiphin grow up happy but fatherless. A great event in their lives will be the advent of menses. Soon it’s time to leave the island for school on the ‘continent’ – the ‘outside world’ ten miles away, I guess. Lamphaeng the rebel will leave school to explore her dead father’s risky background and will become a dancer, while Saiphin eventually will find her shadow puppet father and embark on her novel. Both girls have passing infatuations or affairs with an assortment of often bizarre males, from the one using coffins as boats and raising cobras and mongooses to the grotty boy whose sweat stinks so enticingly. When they happen to find suitable partners, those partners drown, are killed or disappear: another constant theme of the novel (the power of fate on individuals) along with the dismal sexual life of most characters, all the more striking as, when the author decides to turn erotic, his treatment is at once enticing, ironic and tender.
As constant flashbacks have told us about local seafaring banditry and seaport life, other developments will have for background the terrible political events of the 1970s – first in a subdued manner and then, to excess: the sixteen-page-long rambling of a ‘seer’ named Plort Theiwada (Pure angel? Free from angels?), addressing it isn’t even clear whom, about the (de)merits of democracy is totally over the top and mars an otherwise intricately and subtly built tale that hovers between adventure story, folklore documentary and psychological drama of varying depth.
But what about Saiphin’s scar of which so much is made here? First, there is the very real physical scar, when Lamphaeng, scared by an intruder real or imagined, ‘by accident in the dark’ knifes her sister deep in the shoulder. Then there is the mental scar, with its metaphysical dimension of course, the one every one of us suffers ‘by accidents in the dark’ during life’s wanderings (‘Life is going out and about never to return’ is one of the leitmotivs here). That, and the insistence that everything leads to nothingness, to void, a corny enough notion if it means decay and death, are what pass for the moral of this entertaining but far from uplifting tale.