marcel barang

SEA Write: fifteen hopefuls, one shoo-in

In English, Reading matters on 20/07/2014 at 6:22 pm

The ‘long list’ of contenders for the SEA Write Award, which this year focuses on the short story, was announced two weeks ago. Fifteen titles have been retained from seventy-seven entrants. I found I already had five of those books and was able to buy right away another nine; I’ll be hunting for the remaining one, กล้องเก่า (Klong Kao, The old box or perhaps The old drum The old camera) by Than Yutthachaibodin. To me, always on the lookout for good prose to translate, this is a pile of gold – or silver or small coins. My thanks to the pre-selection committee for sifting through three years’ worth of Thai short stories for me.

That’s upwards of a hundred and sixty stories left to assess in turn.

Including one, one short line long, entitled ‘One day’:

One day that pair of shoes grew roots into the ground.

It’s in Rueang Thammada Ruam Samai (Contemporary ordinary stories) by Jakrapan Kangwan. (No, no, the others are not as bad as this!)

Among the fifteen titles, the cutest is definitely ออกไปข้างใน (Ork Pai Khang Nai) by Nok Paksanawin: Going out inside. Rewat Panpipat’s นัยในนัยน์ (Nai Nai Nai), meaning ‘The meaning in the eye’, is typical of a poet’s love for alliteration, shared by Uthit Haemamool with Sa-marn Sa-man, Ordinary evil.

Some of the usual suspects rounded up this year are former laureates Jadet Kamjorndet, Uthit Haemamool and Rewat Panpipat, as well as also-rans such as Chamlong Fangchonlachit, Sakhon Phoonsuk or Chakrit Phocharueang. They might find themselves short-listed again along with Kla Samudavanija or Notthi Sasiwimon, the latter the only female writer in the list, but this year is one of those years when one book tops all others with la force de l’évidence, as the French say: because it’s bloody obvious.

In 1996, there was Phaendin UEn (Another land) by Kanokphong Songsomphan; in 1999, there was Sing Mi Chiwit Thi Riak Wa Khon (A living thing called man) by Win Lyovarin; in 2011, there was Jadet Kamjorndet’s Daet Chao Ron Keun Kwa Ja Nang Jip Kafae (It’s too hot this morning to sit sipping coffee in the sun); this year, there is Asorraphit Lae Rueang UEn (Venom and other stories) by Daen-aran Saengthong, bkaa (better known abroad as) Saneh Sangsuk.

asorraphit etcBefore I, as his perennial translator, am accused of bias, let me say that: 1) as a rule, I don’t approve of old wine in new bottles: most of these stories were published before, one as far back as over three decades ago; 2) but then, with the exception of the first two stories (one I translated and one I rejected: more on this later), those stories are new to me, which puts paid to the idea (which I shared) that the author would send Barang his work as a matter of course; 3) the flip side of the back cover does me an injustice, not just by misspelling Thai Modern Classics but by stating: ‘Lately, his [Daen-aran’s] novella Diaodai Tai Fa Khlang was published in French [Seule sous un ciel dément – Le Seuil] in early April 2014 and it is hoped the English version will follow soon.’

For the record, Mr Editor Viang: the English version, Under a demented sky, has been on sale as an e-book at thaifiction.com and immateriel.fr since October 2012. I translated that wonderful novella into English first, as a way to convince Le Seuil to commission the French translation. It took the time it took.

Forget these gripes: the total sum of these twelve stories, with or without reservations, gives a distinct impression of massive literary genius, as so many displays of tightrope writing by a master of language. A bonus is that each story is followed by a ‘post word’ addressed to a mysterious lady friend known only as ‘พ.’ about the conditions or mood or intent in which the piece was written. These short postscripts amount to a reflection on his life and his art. Over the span of a human generation, his writing universe has stretched from the last buffalo to the latest portable phone, from a Greek myth to hordes of Thai-tooled ghosts, often with ramblings through jungles of vines or concrete by monks, mad mothers or misfits, and always with the moon above head, wild animals ready to pounce, and words that sing.

  1. Small point: กล้องเก่า would be the “The old camera”, most likely (though in theory it could mean a number of lensed things–or even less likely a smoking pipe). “Box” would be กล่อง and “drum” would be กลอง.

  2. Point taken, you’re absolutely right, my mistake. Thanks.

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