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Reading notes 4/4

In English, Reading matters on 05/10/2018 at 4:58 pm

people talesPeople in tales

[Khon Nai Nithan – Korn Siriwattano]

[คนในนิทาน โดย กร ศิริวัฒโณ]

 

The “erotic” label works wonders. A year and a half after its publication, this “erotic novel harking back to the agricultural society” is in its third edition. The jacket has mercifully dropped the initial Thaiglish subtitle of “People in story”.

This is a set of tales behind tales, using those of the Ramayana to back up and sort of justify the contemporary one: if the gods can do it to the titillation of the plebs, why can’t mere mortals without feeling shame and earning opprobrium and ostracism from the same hoi polloi? The “it” in question is making love to animals, which the ageing head of the family indulges in, twice, with his fat female dog (and a sorry mess he makes of it each time). This puts him at the mercy of his first son-in-law, who demands and gets house and land and who will by and by also bed his mother-in-law (when his own wife is heavy with child) and, through a Trump-like liquid trick, his sister-in-law, otherwise married to a decent fisherman. The whole tale ends badly with cutlasses at work.

Even though there is no indication of which century all of these shenanigans take place, there are plenty of details on rural life in the South around the Songkhla Lake, with minimum usage of Southern Thai dialect. The author – a retired teacher and an excellent short-story writer – is careful not to be smutty, to the extent of calling the lingam chai yai (big man), jao tua yai (the big one) or even jom thep (supreme god) and the yoni nuan nong (little creamy). He also has the irritating habit of second-rate Thai writing to keep repeating qualifications, for instance, every time the unfortunate fisherman opens his mouth it is siang lek laem (with a high-pitched voice) or X phu sami (husband X), Y phu khuei (son-in-law Y) and so on.

By the way, there is no attempt to explain why the farmer has to avail himself of a dog rather than of his bossy wife, apart from pleading passing moments of aberration and the dark side in each of us.

Eroticism-wise, it would be tempting to say dismissively that this is fine for the prudish Thai market, but then only notches below the stylistic graces of ’Rong Wongsawan or the dense meanderings of The Story of Jan Darra.

Jomthian – 30.09.18

 

buddhist eraThe setting Buddhist era and the recollection of the recollections of the cat Black Rose (or something to that effect)

[Phutthasakkarat Atsadong Kap Songjam Khong Songjam Khong Maew Kulap Dam – Veeraporn Nitiprapha]

[พุทธศักราชอัสดงกับทรงจําของทรงจําของแมวกุหลาบดํา โดย วีรพร นิติประภา]

Congratulations, Ms Veeraphorn, you’ve come up with the longest, most idiotic title for a Thai novel, beating Arunwadi Arunmart’s 1997 Kan Lom Salai Khong Sathaban Khropkrua Thee Khwamrak Mai Art Yiaoya, which by the way made more sense than yours – and which you can find in French as La Voix du sang (2010).

I don’t know if I’m going to read and review this 420-page book chock-full of dictionary words, but I feel I must translate the author’s foreword, it’s so original and fanciful.

“Sure you did. You must have known a moment like that, when you wake up in the middle of the night after a storm. Everything is calm, still and quiet. You feel relaxed without knowing why as you take a deep breath, but before you can doze off again, lightning strikes deafeningly and then the rain pounds.

You must have gone through such a moment… Why wouldn’t you? Dancing frantically to excess until the song ends, and right then the light turns so bright it brings tears to your eyes… When the bar is closed, waiting for someone to phone… clenching the phone against your heart all evening to find that when it rings at midnight it’s some drunk who dialled a wrong number… Reading a novel until it comes to what you think is the best part and then turning the page only to find it was the last page.

Sure you did. You must have pestered no end your mother to have her buy you a cake only to find that the flavour you liked was sold out, and furthermore your mother bought the flavour you disliked most because that was all that was left, and after a long war lasting all morning you sat down there in the weak light of a candle above the dinner table, tolerating that confounded cake one mouthful at a time.

And then your life… you have never understood why you hate waking up in the dark, why you don’t dance, turn off the television early in the evening, have given up on cakes… don’t like novels and sometimes… once in a long while recollecting moments as tiny as particles of dust springing back and you can’t help laughing at yourself for having hoped… so very much, but many times you have already forgotten.

This is a novel written about the second between the third and fourth waves of the tsunami.

A second so fragile in between hopes.

Veeraporn Nitiprapha – October 2016”

Jomthian – 01-10-18

PS 05.10.18, 5 pm: Predictably enough, this novel has just received the 2018 SEA Write Award.

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Reading notes 3/4

In English, Reading matters on 04/10/2018 at 5:15 pm

urudaA drop of nectar in the tears

[Yot Namwan Nai Yat Namta – Uruda Covin]

[หยดน้ำหวานในหยาดน้ำตา โดย อุรุดา โควินท์]

 

Her ten years of life with short-story writer extraordinaire Kanokphong Songsomphan, who in 2006 died at 40 of flu and lung infection, are Uruda Covin’s stock in trade, so I figure that going through the first paragraph of each chapter should be enough to scan through this 400-page latest novel of hers.

The paragraphs are usually short, and “you” here (“Phi” or big brother in the text) is Kanokphong, of course.

1 – I ask myself, where should I begin? And then I find it was too long before we met, it was very long before we loved each other.

2 – I didn’t answer the question, but turned my gaze towards those stars which sparkled more than on any other day [sic]. Khuang Khanun [a district of Pattalung Province]. You were born here. You grew up here. You were a thin but strong boy playing with your elder brother.

3 – Going back to your question, which I should indeed answer – was I fleeing from something or not?

4 – Your embrace made me feel unhappy, irritated with myself. I was thinking too much of you already, so what was the big deal with a meaningless embrace?

5 – The neighbour’s garden was a real garden, unlike your jungle version of one. You kept walking ahead amid the branches. My heart beat like a victory drum. A moment ago I still felt bad about Bang Sot, but that had run its course in your watery eyes. I took some big steps, it seems I walked faster once I was used to the shoes.

6 – I didn’t think I’d make you go back to writing. I’m neither a witch nor a fairy, not even an impressive human being, and you know best – writing doesn’t come up miraculously, even though we’d like to believe so, too much. It’d be lovely and easy if short stories sprouted out of relationships like trees.

7 – You invited me to come, it was you who spoke, but it’s almost as if you’ve forgotten, you act as if you didn’t speak. Is this what’s called being together?

8 – The period of the world football championship was my reward. A full month during which you didn’t scowl, you weren’t tense, you still made coffee and walked upstairs every morning, but you know what? Just your smile, and that day was another day.

9 – Because you were good at climbing trees, I told friends, I told everyone who asked about us, as if making a proclamation to the world.

10 – You looked relieved when I was about to leave. I took a deep breath, held back my tears until they ran deep into my lungs, my liver, my stomach, my blood, every part they would not come out of. You wouldn’t hear any request, complaint or haggling, or even any question.

11 – I think often about that night, how you touched me, how I responded. I remember the deep hurt I felt and then I remember – what released me from the will to possess you.

17 – I’m right here. Where is not as important as the view. I look back inside our house…

18 – “What if I ask to stay over for a few nights?” the young girl asked. “I came on the bus by myself.”

19 – “Literature makes us understand man and life better,” you told me. “Not everything. Not clearly, but at least better than if there was no literature.”

20 – Except writing, apart from that, you never make plans. Whatever you want to do you do. When you think of something, you do it at once and you make it look as if you had fun.

30 – You’re waiting for the English version of Phaendin Uen* to come out, aren’t you? I know you’re waiting. You’ve been focused on it since we began to be familiar with Peter. I use the word “familiar” because when he first came to see us to ask for permission to translate Phaendin Uen, you weren’t sure he could do it. After he stayed with us for a week, went up the mountain with us and went to Phatthalung with us, you had confidence in him.

[* Phaendin Uen (Another Land) is the collection of short stories that earned Kanokphong Songsomphan the SEA Write Award in 1996. The book has not been translated into any language.]

36 – The good news from Phraew Publishing has reached the village. My short story “Siadai Mue” (A waste of talent) has received the Nai-In Award. I’ve received an invitation card to attend the prize-giving ceremony.

38 – I don’t like to cut the stems of flowers. The flowers I keep I stick into vases or some container, just stick them in, without making plans, without imagination. I pile them up on the table, take a glass, put all the flowers into it. If it still looks too loose I pluck off leaves and stick some more in.

39 – “Were you happy when you were with Kanokphong?” Wat Rawi asks. He arrived yesterday. Where and how he slept I don’t know. He’s hungry. I invite him to go and look for something to eat around the lake. I’m not hungry but I’ve been attending the funeral for fifteen days, I’d like to see a vast expanse of water, I’d like to breathe in the great outdoors.

Jomthian 04.10.18

Reading notes 2/4

In English, Reading matters on 04/10/2018 at 5:10 pm

mudThe house in the mud

[Ban Nai Klon – Kittisak Kachen]

[บ้านในโคลน โดย กิติศักดิ์ คเชนทร์]

 

Fancy that: the editor’s foreword tells us that he had the author, whom he calls dek num (28 years old when they first met in 2012), rewrite the book three times before he felt it worth publishing in 2016.

And indeed the book reads like one of that hoary editor’s short stories, times 50 (the number of chapters): nicely written with uncomplicated words or turns of phrase, one joy of yore at a time, hence easy to read and easy to forget.

The pretext here is the family house caught in a killer mudslide in 1988, when the author was four and lived with his paternal grandparents. But the mudslide only happens in the last third of the book, the first two being your average rosy family cum childhood tale, which tries to do for the South what Kampoon Boontawee did for Isan forty years ago with A Child of the Northeast.

Last year, this autobiographical novel only managed an “honourable mention” from some Office of Basic Education. Yet not a word since then on the net. Why exhume it now? Just for the thirtieth anniversary of the mudslide?

Jomthian – 20.09.18

 

trappedTrapped and surrounded

[Nai Kapdak Laeh Klang Wong Lom – Prachakom Lunachai]

[ในกับดักและกลางวงล้อม โดย ประชาคม ลุนาชัย]

 

This realistic novel with an uninspired title is vantage Prachakom – past his prime. For the fourth time, this savvy author has drawn on his hard-earned experience in his younger days as a seaman on board infamous Thai trawlers. I read his previous novels and liked one so much – Khon Kham Fan (2000) – I started translating it into French and wrote its synopsis, but it has found no publisher. (More recently, I also edited the English translation of Fang Saeng Jan (The Moonlit Shore, 2011.)

This one, however, has disappointed me. The plot is at fault. It deals with two dozen young drifters, mostly North-easterners, being inveigled, never mind the odd missing eye, leg or fingers, into manning a cast-net trawler. The time is thirty years ago, way before the cell phone plague.

The first three outings, over ten days or so, bring no catch. When the on-board radar at last signals a huge school of fish, a shark tears up the net and almost all of the catch vanishes. This does not really make for an exciting first hundred pages.

The fate of the trawler will change for the better when it gets permission to enter Malaysian waters and the Java Sea. All along another two hundred pages there is plenty of strife among crew members but handling so many characters turns into a burden of sorts for both author and reader, while much of the book feels like a didactic exposé of all the tricks and hardships of life at sea, up to the last dozens of pages when, after fourteen months, the trawler is belatedly grounded and the crew wonders and worries whether they are going to get paid at all – that they are, eventually, comes as an anti-climax.

All of this lacks the pizazz of previous novels which focused on a single character or on just a few dealing with more life-and-death situations.

As it is, however, the writing is fluent, there is plenty of human warmth, and it remains a good read for those who, unlike me, aren’t acquainted with the previous novels.

Jomthian – 26.09.18

Reading notes 1/4

In English, Reading matters on 04/10/2018 at 5:03 pm

It’s the silly season again: the SEA Write Award short list is out, this year for novels. Eight of them.

I’ll read and review seven, in the order I get them.

The eighth? Having been swindled lately of 150,000 baht, I can’t afford any longer the 1000 baht demanded of collectors for one copy of the hard-cover, 400-run, signed edition of the autobiographical first novel of 61-year-old versatile video artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook (อารยา ราษฎร์จำเริญสุข – pronounced rat.jam.reun.suk). That novel is entitled in Thai “Born to say goodbye” (ผุดเกิดมาลาร่ำ – phut keut ma la ram) but the author, in her wisdom, prefers, I’m told, to call it “A flowery cry of birth”. Sure, why not.

 

Before long, we’ll all be deadsoon dead.jpg

[Ik Mai Nan Rao Ja Sun Hai – Omkaew Kalayanapong]

[อีกไม่นานเราจะสูญหาย โดย อ้อมแก้ว กัลป์ยาณพงศ์]

 

How true. If you like macabre farce, this is the book for you.

What happens in it is this.

Twenty years ago, when the female narrator was 10, her next-door neighbour of about the same age, fed up with being whipped and bullied by his mother, killed her, cooked her, and had his father and the girl eat some, to buy their silence.

Now our narrator manages an art gallery. The barbecuing killer resurfaces penniless and convinces her to help him write a cook book about the murder. With her PR savvy, it should sell well. It does – a million copies –, and both authors are instant hits with the media and the net.

Loaded but unhappy, the young woman can’t stand living alone in her frigging Bangkok condo and moves back to the warmth of her family home, where her younger brother is their demented mother’s punch-bag. One day, unable to stand it anymore, the young man takes a knife and … slits his own throat.

From then on, the mother, heavily drugged, behaves herself, sort of. One day, the daughter takes her on a drive to Racha Buri. On the way, they decide to do some boating on a secluded lake, and of course, the daughter drowns her mother.

It could go on in this fashion, but it doesn’t. We are on page 92 of a very skinny book (156 printed pages, some 40 000 words perhaps) and all of a sudden we jump to September 2023 when a black hole opens up in the sky above Bangkok and a few other Thai towns.

That’s when I stopped reading.

The writing style is serviceable but lacks any poetic glimpse as might be expected from the surviving daughter of the most famous poet cum calligrapher of his time, Angkarn Kalayanapong, who died in 2012. Significantly perhaps, fathers are as good as absent in this youthful indiscretion.

Jomthian, 31.08.18

 

Vanish Island

vanish[Koh Long Hon – Kriksit Palamart]

[เกาะล่องหน โดย เกริกศิษฏ์ พละมาตร์]

 

This is written by the man who won the 2016 SEA Write Award for poetry under the pen name Phalang Phiangphirun. He now uses his real name, Kriksit Palamart. First off, this prized poet can handle prose finely. The problem is with the fine prose, which endeavours through simulation and archetype to achieve hyper-reality and thus confuse the reader in a fashionable way.

At first, the conceit sounds interesting. First sentence (Pardon its logic.): “The rumour is that because a young girl phom klaeh [with head shaven but for two tufts of hair left and right] dropped her teddy bear somewhere in the sea, when the teddy bear came into contact with the water, a whole island appeared in the middle of the ocean and all the people thus came back to life.

Follows a long line of nameless set characters, female journalist, poet, novelist, short-story writer, artist (painter), child, roti eater, etc., who will take turns gabbing in between glimpses of history going back centuries during which Vanish Island is allegedly recorded as emerging or vanishing.

To further whet the appetite, there is Chapter 2:

A turtle is laboriously crawling up the beach. The poet has been standing alone in the coconut plantation watching it for a long time. Both front flippers, which are as flat as paddles, flap back and forth on the sand. On the carapace are incrusted a great number of knobby grey barnacles which make it look like a monster. Its body is smeared with sand. Under the rugged wrinkles of the eyes water keeps running down. A great number of people are calling on one another to come and watch the turtle lay eggs. They claim her belly about to deliver hurts so much she is crying. The turtle slowly pushes forward its one-tonne bodyweight. An unthinking grownup jumps onto its back and then shouts at his friends to take pictures, sharing in the clamorous jumping and straddling with the numerous men that follow suit. The turtle still shuffles forward, ever so slowly. One man on its back takes a tumble and is scraped raw by the barnacles drawing wide gashes. Another is also wounded by the barnacles so that soon blood stains the turtle’s shell. While it keeps crawling up, it looks as though it might change its mind, turning its head backwards as if to crawl back down to the sea. The people who are waiting aren’t happy because they want to see it lay eggs, want to see it dig a big pit in the sand, stretch its nether regions to lay its eggs at the bottom of it, something like a hundred eggs judging from its own size. They want to see the eggs, white and round more or less like ping-pong balls coated in clear elastic mucus, and wait to cheer the appearance of an egg eventually. When the turtle has no egg to show, they become frantic. Many of them help one another push it back up the beach, but the turtle is very big. They all try to push until they feel drained and give up. It slowly, awkwardly crawls back into the sea, disappears in the waves that keep swashing noisily. The poet stands head down. His tears drop onto the sand.

That turtle has dived and is gone, and has laid all its eggs into the sea.

Unfortunately, this, in my view, is the best this book has to offer. Soon the novelty of the approach wears off: the short bouts of dialogue lack depth and are repetitive, the characters are stilted, there’s hardly any action, even though the last chapters mature from bombs to arson into some sort of civil war, and if that vanishing island is a symbol of something, I still have to figure out what. For some reason, the novel has a dozen and a half photographs of presumably sea gypsies down South of no obvious relevance to the text; every third chapter ends on the repetition of a single word, up to 477 times on pages 275-276, a great gimmick, that; and the icing on the cake: the systematic maiming in transliteration of nearly all foreign names.

Jomthian – 14.09.18