marcel barang

Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

Chronicle of a flood foretold – Day Four

In English, Reading matters on 30/10/2011 at 11:20 am

8am: Another peaceful air-conditioned night. Sometime after midnight, leaving the water about level with the second step (about 26cm) and apparently receding, after only two glasses of pastis and a dose of Franzen I fall into a sleep which must have been very deep: when I take the laptop out of hibernation this morning, I find a distraught message from my daughter, posted 00:55, complaining she can’t reach me on the phone. She must have had a terrible night. True, I’ve disconnected the True line downstairs but the TOT line still works fine – the Alcatel handset on the table is less than a yard away from my sleeping head.
Not to wake her up again, I mail back: ‘Water is down to 18cm this morning.’ She hasn’t read the message yet when she calls back, annoyed at me for her scare.

9am: Water rising again, to 28cm. There’s little movement all around. The cockcrows are deafening in this silence – and resound nonstop. Birds are chirping: it’s a bright day.
First things first: breakfast and carting fresh water upstairs for a shower.
There are empty plastic bottles in a kitchen cupboard I can use for that purpose. When I open the door, they come out, bumping into each other drunkenly. Worse: so does the top shelf, lifted off its tacks by the intruding water, and the five bottles of ‘other’ booze (the whiskey, bourbon, gin, vodka and rum I keep for guests) are equally drunk. I rescue them.
The local papers online tell me that, according to the PM, the worst is past, there’s less water from the north than previously feared. Is that so? Then, what of the alarming calls of those municipal workers yesterday? Where are they, by the way? Oh yes, this is Sunday.
Voranai Vanijaka’s for once factual investigation rather than opinion piece in the Sunday Post confirms what I’ve been deploring all along: that the decision to spare Bangkok has made the situation much worse for all than it should. He points the finger straight at the Bangkok governor for keeping the canals underused with re-election prospects in mind rather than common sense and the common good. Except that I seem to remember reading that Banharn did the same early on for his Suphanburi fiefdom and sundry Phuea Thai stalwarts for their strongholds.

We should know by the end of the day whether the worst is past and what the future holds. In the best-case scenario, it’ll take days for the water to leave the houses and then the lane and probably a couple of weeks or longer to get everything dry and attend to household damage.

Meanwhile, on Day Four, I realise I’m still alive and well, working some, reading for work and for pleasure, even listening to FIP at times – and telling the world about it. Hundreds of thousands of people all around are much worse off who sleep on roofs or starve or are sick, unattended, or see the little they owned gone forever or are out of work and penniless.
Relatively privileged that I am, it’s quite an experience nonetheless, having to think twice before going down to waddle into that highly polluted water to minimise the risk of foot and skin disease (‘Oh shit! I forgot the spoon for the jam.’); having to reassess almost every habit of daily life (‘Ah, no, I can’t do the dishes like that.’ ‘Where did I put that …?’); having to find new approaches to use as little of the precious clean water remaining as possible – I find it takes less than a mug of water to brush one’s teeth and the rest of it to rinse one’s feet after cleaning them with … a drop of washing liquid; and so on.
In the enforced slowing down of life’s pace, there are also precious moments, such as when I went into the bedroom at the back last night to smoke a cigarette and listened to the various sounds of the night: the exultant guttural trills of the toads celebrating the welcome bonanza of water galore, answering one another at a sustained modulated pitch which abruptly stops and then resumes, stops and then resumes indefatigably; the shrill yet discreet racket of the crickets like stitches on the cloth of silence; and of course those zany cockcrows. No engine noise, no human sound. The world slept under a blanket of water.

10:50am: 38cm again. Wait! What’s that noise downstairs? Oh, great! The jar still a third full is now floating in the backyard. I’d been wondering about that.

12am: 42cm. I call Karoon. No answer. So I venture out for the first time, in my briefs and Phan Ma Ba t-shirt. Brown to black water thick as soup up to the hips, and to the waist at the entrance of the lane, a little lower in the next lane. Karoon and his wife are busy shuffling things in their front yard. ‘Actually, it’s a lark shifting things,’ Karoon says. ‘See, everything floats.’ ‘Stop fooling,’ barks Khun Lee. Khun Yui has just one word, ‘Seng!’ (Fed up!). In the next lane, three men are conveying a huge refrigerator standing on an inflated rubber boat to a townhouse down my row. ‘In my house, sixty centimetres,’ says one of the men proudly. I’m told some old people have taken refuge in the Wat Karaoke, which, hard to believe, isn’t flooded. Yet a few centimetres can make the difference between dry ground and disaster. No crocodiles around yet.
Back here, a large, low table is floating freely. So is the sofa. I fold the door curtains on themselves as I reckon their ends won’t stay on the top of the sofa. On the other side, the armchair is weighed down by the rocking chair, and things, and the door curtains, which I can’t reach. When I measure the water level again, it’s now 45cm. The full Monty.

Now for a shower. No! I must prepare lunch first.

18:20pm: 41cm and going up from a low of 37cm at low tide…
It looks like every new day adds a dozen centimetres to the tally, even though high tide is due to gradually decrease from morning to morning from its yearly high yesterday. This promises long days before the soup leaves the house.

With the water ten centimetres below its plug, I’ve unplugged the hotplate, which means that cooking food is going to be a hit-and-miss affair with the defective Picnic contraption. Hot water from the coffee machine won’t cook spaghetti but might help swallow oatmeal. I foresee a future of cold meals…

I spent some time this afternoon bringing whatever edibles can be consumed uncooked to my living level (should have done that earlier, actually), and solved, I think, the problem of shit and pee, as the ambient air was developing a smell I don’t quite fancy. Having three bathrooms helps. I wonder how the others, often with multiple household members, do cope – nobody talks about this. At best, they assure you they’ve plenty of water to shower.

Survival tip: I find that after-shave is a better alternative to whisky or rum to anoint my already itchy toes or newborn scratches.

New problem, after a series of tests with daughter and Karoon: the telephone still works when I call but it either rings or doesn’t ring or shuts up on a click! when one calls. This might explain why I never heard it when my daughter called last night or my brother by 3pm Bangkok time yesterday (though he got through today). From now on, I’ll email my daughter twice a day, since she seems averse to plugging into this blog. Remarkably, her family compound is still dry and she’s confident she can make it back to work in the Sathon area on Tuesday.

7pm: 43cm. So, who was right, of the PM last night or of the guy warning us that ‘there’s only up and up’?

Oh, I forgot. A friend sent me this link.

9pm: 44.5cm.

11:35pm: 37cm.


Chronicle of a flood foretold – Day Three

In English, Reading matters on 29/10/2011 at 12:28 pm

8am: My daughter calls, waking me up. Downstairs, the water level is 13cm, pretty much as just past midnight, the last time I checked. Again, beautiful skies, cockcrows and a rumour of churned water; temperature climbing from 26°C to past 30°C as usual.

9:10am: Karoon calls to say he made it back around 8pm last night. A friend drove him from the airport through the elevated expressway to the other side of Pinklao Bridge. After making it across, he walked home, with water to his chest at the entrance to our street. There’s enough food in the house for the two of them, he says. We promise each other’s help in case of trouble, but basically things are going swimmingly.
My daughter calls again, offering to come over with food. Just how? I predict to her a maximum rise to 40cm today (‘Nothing to worry about, sweetheart.’) but what do I know?
While I went through breakfast (the usual two mugs of coffee and (last) four pieces of toast with butter and jam), I read the Post and The Nation online, which are both obviously running with skeleton staff. Accessing the Post is difficult most of the time, due to heavy traffic and the wrong decision to open all articles in the same window. The Nation comes up instantly. If only they had real reporters! The news part of both sites is pretty hopeless, scant, vague, confused or contradictory: authorities are obviously running with skeleton brains too. For instance: some big wig from Outer Mongolia kindly warned us last night that ‘Thon Buri might come under 50cm to 1 metre of water’. Is this on top of what we already have? On Thursday, civil servants were given five days off ‘to cope with the floods’; in the same breath, all Bangkokians were told ‘Don’t stay; scram!’ How many civil servants will show up on Tuesday? All of us, clamours the head of the Bank of Thailand; all branches will be open – to a flood of H2O. I can’t quite see Khun Ngoh, a department head at the Bank of Agriculture in Thewet, swim upstream and across the raging Chao Phraya to report for duty on Tuesday. She, like most of us townhouse people, won’t budge until we know what the score is, in the next forty-eight hours or so.

Fortunately, there are still some Post columnists to make us laugh with or without malice. Thank you, Thirasant Mann, for starting your piece with: ‘The American humourist Robert Benchley (1881-1945), on arriving in Venice sent home this telegram: “Streets full of water. Please advise.”’

10am: 23cm and up. As expected the sofa and armchair are thriving in brownish water: they are working up a tan.
For once the public address system is being put to good use. There are repeated announcements for slum people at the back to register to be taken by lorry to Kanchanaburi, ‘where there will be two meals a day and doctors to take care of you’. I hope they take their damn fighting cocks along with them.

10:50am: This is the real thing: the water is now on its way up to the second step, which means 26cm for the moment.
Karoon, with water to his black briefs out there, calls me out to take pictures and a video ‘of this historical event’. I strike poses for him by the 1995 wall, now hardly visible under the mucky water. A whole family I didn’t know was there emerges from the bottom of the impasse, kids in an inflatable round boat pushed by a man with a ‘volunteer’ jacket. No luggage but they’re having a whale of a time.

12am: 31cm. My ruler is too short. As I dip it into the water at the foot of the stairs, a startled little fish darts past in the direction of the bathroom!
Back here on the mezzanine floor, a couple of beautiful turtledoves are feasting on the creepers that cover the roof of the garage area. The creepers are going for a new round of flowering; their fragrant white flowers will soon attract the bees, midges and hummingbirds of the neighbourhood. Time for lunch.

2pm: 30cm! The worst seems to be over – for today. [Wrong: read on.]
I’ve just finished first-draft translation of ‘What happened in the future’, a mock sci-fi short story by Win Lyovarin. I’m not sure I want to polish it: Win often comes up with brilliant plots, but mars them with too much scientific or technical background or else, when sci-fi for him rhymes with social satire, fails to exploit them to their full potential, as is the case here. A forty-year-old son coming back to his parents trying artificial insemination begs them to desist as he doesn’t want to live in a country gone sour: the possibilities for satire come down here to a series of commonplaces: traffic jams, rote learning, ghost movies, deforestation…

7pm: Rising again: 32cm.

8pm: 38cm.
All day the public address system has been urging people to leave, becoming very insistent, even alarmist, before the ‘volunteers’ from whatever municipal unit manning it left at 7pm: ‘The mass of water from the north is huge; the level of water will not get lower but higher and higher.’
They seemed to have a point: the amplitude of tides today was 1.40 metres, but the water hereabouts receded by only two or three centimetres, and the sudden, quite fast rise of the water level has prompted me to act on Stage Two for the past hour: the water can now run as high as 1.50 metres inside the house before it sends anything floating.
For the time being, the upholstered sofa and armchair are a sorry sight; the water pump outside is totally under water; so is of course the water tank; murky water is entering the fridge but it’s still working. So is the coffee machine. With electricity, telephone and internet connection, I can still hold the fort. If they fail, I’m out of here.
I called Karoon at seven to warn him of the water rising again and suggest they leave: they’ll be better off with their in-laws in Chumphon – though the irony is I read it might be one of the southern towns flooded next, due to some imminent deluge.
I’ve just boiled the last four chunks of fish from the Pacific on the hotplate and thrown the remaining boiled potato with them to warm it up.
Earlier, I ferried clean water from the jar at the back of the house to a large pail in the mid-level bathroom, for my ablutions now that there isn’t piped water any longer. I’ve just noticed the pail leaks and has lost two-thirds of its content. Damn! More noria tomorrow. Less water to drink.

Now for some Colin (without Maillard) and some Freedom, which I didn’t find to be the Great American Novel last night, but let’s persevere.


In English, Reading matters on 05/10/2011 at 12:36 pm


Don’t ask me how it happened, but last week I bought two novels and – John Irving’s still unfinished, mea culpa – gulped one down right away, I who was confessing here the other day I haven’t read English novels in years.

That novel is Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar: a wonderful romp through the English language at its finest – McEwan writes as succulently well as John Updike did – for a disjointed novel of ideas and satire on the hottest topic of the times, global warming, whose whimsical plot turns find their coherence in the degeneration of its antihero, one of the most despicable I’ve ever come across in modern fiction, a larger-than-life character in the fashion of Henderson the Rain King or Sabbath or Martin Amis’s fictional monsters, but a thousand times more toxic: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard who, from 2000 to 2005 to 2009, will go from fat to obese to porcine, from anhedonia to carcinoma, from wives and flings to flings and wife-with-child, from England to the North Pole to New Mexico, from has-been status to fraudulent saviour of mankind, while remaining a monster of overconsumption, greed and hypocrisy, a philanderer, a liar and a thief, self-centered and callous beyond belief: in other words, as a negative replica to Saturday’s brilliant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne; another, here black-on-white embodiment of the times we live in, allowing our author to wax satiric on a huge spectrum of phobias: the Blair government, George W, opportunistic second-rate scientists and academics, modern art circles, feminist viragoes, environmentalists, the mass media – the whole caboodle. Everything here is solidly grounded in scientific research regurgitated in perfectly pitched lectures or sallies that will either worry, bamboozle or bore you; and everything here is highly improbable, starting with being crowned with a Nobel prize in your early thirties; or with the same, fiftyish man in his adipose state being able to attract so many broads; or getting away with disguising as murder an accidental death; or not having his pecker actually frozen off when he pees in –26oC open country; and so on.

Mind you, it’s fun, with satire stretching to farce to gallows humour (“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. … Toby, listen. We’re facing a catastrophe. Relax.”). It’s a measure of the author’s storytelling genius that by the end, as dramatic tension builds up to fever pitch, I found myself rooting for such a loathsome character and hoping his artificial photosynthesis experiment would indeed succeed and save the world.

But all in all this novel is too much of an assembly of parts, a collection of stories, too much predicated on dichotomy and paradox, and – like Saturday – too preoccupied with petty contemporary quarrels beyond real planetary concerns to ever rank among the classics or even alongside McEwan’s best, Atonement and Chesil Beach.

The other book I bought is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Getting into this latest novel last night I found myself thrown back to Irving’s prose level – and might as well get on with the last hundred-odd pages of The Cider House Rules, though I must say on reflection I don’t quite like them, apples.