It’s always thrilling to discover a new literary talent – even though a stroll through the net afterwards taught me that the man has been writing for the past twenty-five years. But this collection of short stories his publisher sent me a copy of last month is only his second. His first, published in 2002, bore the simple title Uthokaphai, ‘inundation’, the posh version of narm thuam, ‘flooding’ or ‘flood’. This one goes by a lengthy bilingual title: Chai Phoo Ang Tua Eng Pen Seng Tha Narm (The man who claimed he was Seng Tha Narm) is, for some reason, translated by the publisher, Pajonphai Publishing, on the cover as Someone from Pattani Darussalam. The tongue-in-cheek approach to book wrapping?
In case you wonder, darussalam is Malay for ‘abode of peace’, from the Arabic daar as salaam (cf. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania). However, the author in a footnote refers instead to Darul Islam (Malay for ‘house of Islam’), ‘a Muslim territory in the Philippines and Thailand in the past’. Whatever: we are dealing here with the Muslim world – the Muslim world of Thailand’s festering southernmost provinces.
Maybe that ‘someone from Pattani Darussalam’ is none other than the author, Rattanachai Manabutra (pronounced ma.na.but with ‘u’ as a short ‘oo’ sound), whom the book says works as a technical officer in an excise office in Pattani Province.
What makes this book outstanding for me is that out of its thirteen short stories I find no fewer than three worthy of translation – I usually consider myself lucky if in any volume one or two catch my fancy.
In fact, I’ve already translated two of these, the shorter one, ‘Kilometre Marker 47’, scheduled for my bilingual blog sometime early next year, and the other, ‘The house by the bypass road: the blind hen’s last light’, will end my end-of-year anthology which, this year, numbers thirteen good to very good short stories somewhat longer than those that come out in the blog. About that collection, more later.
All thirteen stories in Rattanachai’s collection focus on daily life in the Muslim South. It could be said that the author has been influenced by Manat Jan-yong for the intensity, precision and liveliness of his prose and recalls the Siriworn Kaewkan of A scattered world in his poetic flights of fancy, but Rattanachai’s voice is strikingly his own, with a measure of irony and sense of the absurd, human empathy and the courage to call a spade a spud or a spoof, with reference to actual events, when he’s not indulging in magical realism tricks that tend to beggar belief – for example in the title story, where a sometime-kitten sometime-giant Superman popping out of nowhere in a goofy mêlée at night over control of a district office claims to be Seng Tha Narm (literally, ‘Mr Bored Boat-landing’ or ‘Mr Blasé Dock’), a notorious local racketeer murdered some thirty years earlier. The tale, peppered with bullets and ‘sailboat nails’ (those bent nails insurgents in the South sow on roads to provoke punctures), may have been crowned by PEN Thailand in 2005, but it is virtually untranslatable (by me anyway) due to heavy and playful use of the Southern dialect – the very reason why I also dismissed another two or three otherwise well-penned stories.