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Posts Tagged ‘Sakorn Poolsuk’

A composite tale

In English, Reading matters on 06/08/2012 at 6:03 pm

If it’s a pleasant enough read altogether, the first three dozen pages of Saiphin’s Scar are hard to cope with: we are introduced first to a tree with a Southern Thai name, lamphaeng (ต้นลำแพง), unknown to most Thais: on the Net, a few think it’s a lamphaen (ต้นลำแพน) or perhaps a kamphaeng (ต้นกำแพง) – and I’ve yet to find a picture of that tree that matches its description in the book as, basically, a tall tree whose branches suggest human hangings but which, curiously, is in these pages grown in pots. Lamphaeng is also the name of the older of two sisters, the other one being Saiphin, who may be the author of the book we are reading, whose title she took from a shadow-play tale performed by her absentee father. Help yourselves, dear readers, to a smorgasbord of symbols and shadows within shadows.

But to put things in order: the plot centres on three generations of women on an island (Koh Yo) at the mouth of the Songkhla Lake in southern Thailand. To simplify, there is Khun Nai (Madame) Thongtuk and her female servant Thongkhiao. Matron Thongtuk lives off the local Chinese tile factory inherited from her dead Hokkien husband, and rules the life of everyone around – a recurrent theme of the novel: others make us what we are. The khun nai first beds her servant then pushes her to sleep with a guest, a tough skipper who will die protecting the mansion from armed bandits. Of their brief acquaintance Lamphaeng is born. Two years later, at the matron’s instigation still, Thongkhiao has a one-night stand with a master shadow player and ends up pregnant with Saiphin. She will also be made beneficiary of the tile factory (which will progressively be run to the ground) and weaned away from her slavish subservience to her mistress, but at the cost of a bare life of muted madness. She teaches her daughters to speak with a crime novel entitled Thongsun kills her child

Daring Lamphaeng and bookish Saiphin grow up happy but fatherless. A great event in their lives will be the advent of menses. Soon it’s time to leave the island for school on the ‘continent’ – the ‘outside world’ ten miles away, I guess. Lamphaeng the rebel will leave school to explore her dead father’s risky background and will become a dancer, while Saiphin eventually will find her shadow puppet father and embark on her novel. Both girls have passing infatuations or affairs with an assortment of often bizarre males, from the one using coffins as boats and raising cobras and mongooses to the grotty boy whose sweat stinks so enticingly. When they happen to find suitable partners, those partners drown, are killed or disappear: another constant theme of the novel (the power of fate on individuals) along with the dismal sexual life of most characters, all the more striking as, when the author decides to turn erotic, his treatment is at once enticing, ironic and tender.

As constant flashbacks have told us about local seafaring banditry and seaport life, other developments will have for background the terrible political events of the 1970s – first in a subdued manner and then, to excess: the sixteen-page-long rambling of a ‘seer’ named Plort Theiwada (Pure angel? Free from angels?), addressing it isn’t even clear whom, about the (de)merits of democracy is totally over the top and mars an otherwise intricately and subtly built tale that hovers between adventure story, folklore documentary and psychological drama of varying depth.

But what about Saiphin’s scar of which so much is made here? First, there is the very real physical scar, when Lamphaeng, scared by an intruder real or imagined, ‘by accident in the dark’ knifes her sister deep in the shoulder. Then there is the mental scar, with its metaphysical dimension of course, the one every one of us suffers ‘by accidents in the dark’ during life’s wanderings (‘Life is going out and about never to return’ is one of the leitmotivs here). That, and the insistence that everything leads to nothingness, to void, a corny enough notion if it means decay and death, are what pass for the moral of this entertaining but far from uplifting tale.

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A bit of a bore…

In English, Reading matters on 30/07/2012 at 6:34 pm

First thing Saturday, I went to buy the missing four novels of the SEA Write shortlist and found out I already had one of the four and thus owe an apology to its writer, Sakorn Poolsuk, who kindly sent it to me by mail last December along with his two previous novels. I meant to report on those two and had gone thirty pages into ‘Saipin’s scar’ when after-flood chores derailed that project. Partie remise.

The Nai-in bookshop chain is a darling to book lovers but their newly transferred from fifth to ground floor and expanded outlet at Central Pinklao is a shambles: it took three people ten minutes to find two of the three titles I was after – what with no SEA Write shortlisted books corner, former SEA Write winners lined up in the Kids Lit section, and so on.

Most of the rest of the weekend I wasted going through the slimmest two entrants, one a bit of a bore, the other a bit of a fraud.

Let’s start with the bore: Nai Roop Ngao (In the shadow) by Ngao Jan, less than 120 pages of text. Judging from the teeny picture provided with the bio (none on the net) in the last pages, chubby Ms Moon Shadow could be anything between fifteen and fifty years old. Her listed works cover the last seven years: two collections of short stories and no fewer than five novels. In the shadow is her fifth, crowned by last year’s Nai-in Award. You don’t say!

Unless you want to get intimate with all manner of cows, read the first five or six pages to know what the story is about and jump to page 65 when the action begins to gel as you’ll have expected all along.

What the story is about is implied at the turn of the first page: as villagers are wont to rumour, if father and son live alone and live one for the other, it isn’t that the mother drowned by accident but that she committed suicide because she was pregnant from her lover. The father is a man of few words who raises and sells cows he trusts better than he does women. When on page 8 ‘a young girl as small as’ the son makes a fleeting appearance, you know you’re headed for a tragic love triangle; too bad you have to wait for the second half of the book for a series of laughs at the absurd dialogue (when the scruffy little girl returns as a nurse giving the son a sergeant-major’s berating out of the blue) and will find out what’s really been going on only three pages from the end. Perhaps I read too fast, but the timeframe is weird and I’ve a strong suspicion that, on top of everything else, the father in the story is a paedophile. Check that for yourselves. Sure, the writing style is fluid with occasional curlicues, but how can a bovine soap like this be listed amongst the best Thai literature has had to offer in the past three years?

And then they were seven

In English, Reading matters on 27/07/2012 at 6:26 pm

Since, judging from their online versions, neither the Bangkok Post nor The Nation seem to bother to report it, you might as well learn it from me: the SEA Write shortlist was announced yesterday. This year, it consists of seven novels:

1) Khon Khrae (The Dwarf(s)) by Vipaj Srithong;

2) Diaodai Tai Fa Khlang ([Lonely] Under a demented sky) by Daen-aran Saengthong/Saneh Sangsuk;

3) Nai Roop Ngao (In the shadow) by Ngao Jan (‘shadow of the moon’: how is that for a pen name?);

4) Roi Phlae Khong Saiphin (Saiphin’s Scar) by Sakorn Poolsuk;

5) Rueang Lao Nai Loak Luangta (Tale from an illusory world) by Pichetsak Popayak;

6) Lak A-lai (The nature of regret) by Uthis Hemamool; and

7) Loak Pralart Nai Prawatsart Khwamsao (A strange world in the history of sadness) by Siriworn Kaewkan.

Of the seven, I’m familiar with three: Saneh Sangsuk’s Under a demented sky, which I’m in the process of translating (see previous postings); Siriworn’s Strange world…, whose two versions have left me unhappy; and Uthis’s Nature of regret (if that’s the right translation: อาลัย, a-lai, is usually a verb meaning ‘to miss (someone); long for (someone); grieve over the loss of’), which I’m currently reading: with the first 90 pages, I can see through the story but proceed cautiously: I could have said the same thing of Uthis’s previous novel and would have been utterly wrong.

I’m glad that the rumour about Saneh Sangsuk not making the shortlist was unfounded. So far, I’d wager his novella deserves the prize, but I have yet to finish reading Uthis’s novel and to buy and read the other four.