marcel barang

Second best

In English, Reading matters on 13/08/2012 at 11:17 pm

The nature of regret by Uthis Haemamool is an engrossing novel about a funeral. In fact, it purports to be a funeral book – and is, in more ways than the one statement on its last page. Funeral books are put together by the wealthier Thai families to sing the praises of the deceased, of his or her life and work, for distribution to those attending the cremation as mementos instead of the usual thingies. A collection of testimonials by nature, they can be forgivable packs of pious lies or they can be great compendiums of rare knowledge and thus are often sought after and collected. I own a few.

This novel works on the same principle: each of its twenty chapters (the twenty-first and last is a coda ‘one hundred days later’) is divided into two parts, with titles often at loggerheads … and as far-fetched or at least puzzling as they come (Chapter 1: ‘Making love with death | The future of the past’). The first part deals with the main plot; the second part tackles a variety of topics bearing on the plot to subvert it or give it more resonance: scenes of the past of various characters and their current social conditions; cameos of bit parts for local colour; lucubrations on the (mainstream) Thai romance novel; and lengthy historical developments dating back to the origins of the current Chakri (read ja.kree) dynasty.

The main plot covers the seven days of the funeral and cremation of the father of the main protagonist, Uthis [Uthit in the proper, Royal Academy sanctioned transliteration]. Uthis the protagonist is 27 (Uthis the author is 37). A former art student, he lives in Bangkok as an independent editor. As the novel begins, he’s in bed in a short-time motel with a found-again former girlfriend who’s now the wife of a much older, Army bigwig (‘Making love with death’ applies to her, I guess, poor girl). He has just accepted urgent work on two typescripts – a trendy South-Korean-style romance in the underworld and a chronicle on the short Thon Buri interlude between the fall of Ayudhya and the birth of Rattanakosin (i.e. Bangkok, the current Rama dynasty) – when a call from his younger brother upcountry informs him that their father has been run over by a ten-wheeler of the local cement factory he worked for all his life. As the elder son, Uthis goes back to Kaeng Khoi, the northeastern village he deserted five years earlier because he could no longer stand his father’s bullying, to preside over the funeral and, besides finding out exactly what happened to his father, deal with the factory owner, who is bound to offer token financial compensation to the family for the loss. Uthis’s connections with a friend in the popular press and more effectively through his one-time girlfriend with her Army bigwig husband will come in handy in this context.

The return of the black sheep to the family pen is thus the pretext for a thorough, contrasted and often gratifyingly mystifying investigation of conflicting relations between fathers and sons and between siblings – present (Uthis’s family), past (the brotherly rulers of Thon Buri) and … fictional (the pseudo brother and sister lovers of the Korean-flavoured novel under editing). But it is also much more than that: a deft psychological portrait of Uthis, whose past misdeeds, perennial delusions and current motivations are scathingly exposed, not least by himself; a questioning of the reliability of personal memories; a contrasted, and in many ways accurate, depiction of the alienation between country and city folks; an impressionistic denunciation of the ravages of mindless capitalism in the country; and an expose on how this country ticks – not to mention a prediction, to be read between the lines, of what the present state of affairs at the top portends for the future of this country: current political happenings are all the more powerfully evoked as they raise distant echoes here.

Three years ago, Uthis Haemamool won the SEA Write Award for his novel Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi, in which the masterstroke was the two main characters turning out to be one and the same. Kaeng Khoi is again where the action is, but the schizophrenia has shifted to the structure, as we’ve seen. Since then, Uthis’s prose has become smoother, the dialogue throughout The nature of regret is superb, and I’ve derived more pleasure reading this novel than I did from the previous one.

Nonetheless, I have a couple of reservations about the whole enterprise. First, the imbrication of the various parts is sometimes forced: in Chapter 7, the cow expert’s question-and-answer interview rings false: who is interviewing him? And in Chapter 13, who is Uthit addressing with his repeated ‘You understand, don’t you?’ when he’s apparently talking to himself? Second, no doubt because I’m a slow reader in Thai and even more so in its high-falutin high language, I found the intricacies of the conflicting relations between the rulers of the Ayudhya/Thon Buri/Rattanakosin period that go on throughout pretty much the second half of the book far too long, even for the essential points they mean to score in the overall scheme of things: an over-squeezed lemon.

At this point, I still have to tackle the real ‘black sheep’ novel – Vipaj Srithong’s Dwarf, I’ll come back to it in due time if I manage to get through its Lilliputian printed squiggles – but I’ll venture that Uthis Haemamool’s novel will again earn the man the distinction, what with its postmodernist sophistication and appeal to Thai intellectuals, except that I believe the more lasting literary values are to be found in the linear if sulphurous, one-of-a-kind tale of Saneh Sangsuk’s Under a demented sky.

  1. Uthis’ “The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi” has just been translated into English and published by Nai-in. What do you think of the translation?

  2. I’ll let you know once I’ve bought the book. Thanks for the information.

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