marcel barang

Posts Tagged ‘Thai fiction’

Bulan Sastra

In English, Reading matters on 18/09/2016 at 9:45 pm

bulanThat’s the title of a superbly produced and edited anthology of short stories and poems by Thai and Indonesian writers published in three languages by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture (OCAC) of the Thai Ministry of Culture. I edited the English section. This 660-page-long trade book is available free of charge upon request to OCAC, whose mission is to distribute it to all manner of public libraries for the promotion of regional literature. Trust me, it’s a great gift.

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La Korn, Tak Wong-rat (2)

In English, Reading matters on 05/12/2010 at 5:18 pm

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At nearly dusk one day:
After eating fried minced pork with basil and chilli, across the road at the entrance to his street he walks smoking a cigarette, walks and stops, walks and stops, leaning on his cane.
When he stands looking at a man selling crepes displayed on two trays for quite some time,
“You want one, uncle? I’ll buy you one.”
The clear voice of a very young woman.
He hastily thanks her, refuses, startled.
Asks himself, Do I look like I want one but haven’t got the money or what?

After the sun has set, carts selling food at the night market at the entrance to the street all have lights with electric cables running in a batch from a shop that’s open round the clock.
He’s of two minds about eating egg noodles with Chinese dumplings or buying plain rice and fried mackerel with shrimp paste sauce to take home.
Stops and stands for a while in front of the cart selling Southern food.
Not quite hungry yet.
These days, for people in the capital dinner is food­stuffs in plastic bags; they don’t cook rice themselves.
“What do you want to eat, uncle? I’ll buy it for you. Rice and fried mackerel with shrimp paste, perhaps?”
“Thanks. Thank you, but you mustn’t.”
He walks back to wait for the bus without hurrying, lights up a cigarette.
A schoolgirl in uniform half-walks half-runs up to him.
“Mum told me to give you this, for your bus fare.”
She holds a one-hundred-baht note in her hand and presents it to him.
Startled once again, he drops his cigarette, walks faster back to the Southern food cart and hands the money back to the mother.
“You take it, uncle, for your bus.”
A bit peeved after failing to return the money, he walks back slowly to the bus stop, sits down and smokes another cigarette, feeling dazed and tired.
There are still people like this in this town?
If it were downtown, Siam Square, Siam Paragon, Silom or Pratunam…
Hard. It’d be hard for something like this to happen.

The elderly man wakes up, yet doesn’t get up from his sleeping mat, still thinking about the mother and daughter in front of the Southern food cart.
Every morning he wakes up with a glass of water, a coffee and a strong cigarette.
He doesn’t believe in auspicious times, in life predictions, doesn’t make merit. Many of those wrapped in yellow robes these days he won’t bow to wholeheart­ed­ly.
He’s never been ordained, even though his mother believed in holding to her son’s yellow robes to reach heavens.
There is no heaven. There is no next life.
Hell there is.

Before going to bed day after day, he tells himself, Going to sleep never to wake up is a good thing.
When it’s over it’s over.

La Korn, Tak Wong-rat (1)

In English, Reading matters on 05/12/2010 at 5:17 pm

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Putting together in the last couple of days 10 Thai Short Stories as a 2010 pendent to last year’s 9 Thai short stories, I went to look for pictures of authors on the net and learned that one of them, Tak Wong-rat, died two weeks ago. This look jeen (his father came from Swatow) was a journalist, book designer and short-story writer of some renown. As a young man, he was part of the Phra Jan Siao (Moon crescent) school of writing, and indeed his spare style is reminiscent of that of his lifelong friend Nikom Rayawa.
One of his stories, ‘Generosity’, published two years ago in Chor Karrakeit, took my fancy and I found it worth including in that collection, which is to be sold as an e-book both at thaifiction.com and immatériel.fr (as soon as some bugs in both places have been fixed). Reading it, it was obvious it hadn’t been written by a young man and was somewhat autobiographical.
In homage to him, here is the story, in two installments.

Generosity

The elderly man has lived in this single-floor wooden house for more than thirty years, since a time when it had no running water and used rain and well water instead. This being the sub­urb’s very outskirts, a provincial bus connection is needed to reach it from downtown.
Two years ago he was persuaded and gently pressed to volunt­arily resign from his work, which is only natural when a factory owner insists on cutting back on expenses.
Like when you’re a police colonel and volunteer (under orders) to resign you’re upgraded to police major general.
He very seldom goes into town.

Today: He goes to the cremation of an old schoolmate of the same age. His friend was tall and lanky, didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, graduated in science from Kasetsart University, entered civil service at the Pharmaceutical Organisation, ended as head of its chemical and drug production department and died from acute drug poisoning.
Last year a younger friend went to sleep and never woke up.
For many years now he hasn’t attended weddings and instead confides an envelope with money to friends, but he attends cremations.
Many people don’t have true friends.
These days as soon as he wakes up, it’s half happiness half sorrow.
Breath he still has, which is half-good, half-bad.

Friends from the old school at the foot of Memorial Bridge:
Many have died of cancer who never smoked, but that’s not the reason why he doesn’t quit.
He lives alone.
There’s no kitchen in the house.
He relies mostly on the food shops in his street.
Some days, he makes do with just one meal.
He’s been eating all his life – enough.

The elderly:
In the past year, whenever he’s taken the overpass to cross the road, he’s had to stop and stand resting at intervals; now he must use a cane.
He’s not afraid of dying.
Only to have to sit in a wheelchair…

Something unexpected:
One afternoon, he takes the overpass to go to the newsstand across the road and stops to buy a bag of iced coffee from a handcart with a board saying “Coffee the ol’-fashioned way”.
As he hands over the money the young coffee seller grins.
“No – no – no charge for you, uncle.”
What’s this about? Am I looking that decrepit? No need for an alms collection yet.
Thinking thus, he feels like crying.

“Please be considerate of children, pregnant women and the elderly.” The notice pinned over the windows in buses has no meaning at all, as if people couldn’t read. City dwellers only care for number one. No one gets up from his seat for a pregnant woman. Even those seats with stickers saying “For monks and novices only” are occupied with a straight face.
One day he has to go into town.
Hands over the right fare. The conductor returns him half of it. To qualify for half-fare you have to show your ID.
He hasn’t shown any ID.
There are still bus conductors like this one? he wonders in his heart.
Almost all of the hundred red back-benched three-wheelers of the suburbs are the same: they pick up passengers in the middle of the road, shoot off at top speed, as if they have no time for schoolchildren and the elderly and speed away to take ailing relatives to hospital.
In the morning, all seats are taken from the start of the line; hardly any standing room either.
He gets up and stands with his cane.
A young pupil with a big satchel heavy with schoolbooks gets up at once and offers him his seat.

The evening of the cremation:
The dozen or so friends who’ve stayed throughout the real cremation invite him to dinner in the air-conditioned eatery next to the temple. This eatery is famous for its roast duck menu.
His friends are generals, deputy director generals and busi­nessmen.
It’s been a long time since he drank imported liquor.
He’s quietly glad there are still friends that don’t ignore a friend.
Fully aware he has no high social position.
“What do you do these days?”
An old friend from high school days, a native of Bangkok who’s gone to do business as a foreign trade advisor in Phuket. They haven’t met for more than twenty years. He’s flown over especially for the cremation.
“I make pictures for sale.”
His friend is silent for a while. Pours him a whisky.
“I’ll buy your pictures.
“Take half of the money now. Tomorrow in late morning I’ll go and get the pictures.”
Attending the cremation to meet that old bunch of friends, he’s never thought before he’d get money from Phuket.

It’s raining non-stop:
When he comes out of the eatery he lights up a strong cigarette. His friends go on to a shop selling rice gruel.
At first he decides to take a bus back home, but he’d have to walk half a mile, because the road in front of the temple is one-way.
Then he thinks he’ll take a taxi, what with the Phuket money.
“Don’t drink a lot, so we stick around for a long time,” his friend had said.
When it was time to chip in for the bill, he asked:
“How much each?”
Another friend who’s a lieutenant general said in a rough voice:
“Sit back. Forget it.”
It’s still raining when he reaches home, full of delicious roast duck and delighted his Phuket friend is buying his pictures.
From Khon Kaen to Bangkok almost forty years ago, if he’d failed entrance to the state school, that would have been the end.
He didn’t know at all how hallowed the school at the foot of Memorial Bridge was.
Sure, one had to pass the written exams
and the 100m race in front of the flagpole.
The letter to the principal of the Khon Kaen Airfield school said he’d go on with his studies, not to worry…
Passing by Khon Kaen, an old school friend there told him, “You know what? The principal read out your letter in front of the flagpole.”

Another literary UFO

In English, Reading matters on 04/04/2010 at 4:15 pm

 

It landed in my mailbox on Thursday.

It’s the latest, ‘scientific’ novel by Win Lyovarin, an exceedingly clever writer of many artistic talents he mostly squanders by writing too much in too many directions and, belatedly, for a middle- to low-brow readership.

The cover – a lavishly prettified Möbius strip on an almost white, 010101 background – is striking. Striking too are the many pages of drawings, graphs, engravings, tables, etc., that go along pages and pages of half-baked ‘scientific’ explanations that run the gamut of I Ching, Tao and Zen all the way to the Big Bang, black holes, space-time continuum and the latest string theory – in other words, this Atthasutra or Octasutra book, in which Lao Tzu joins hands with Stephen Hawking and which is based on the perverse notion that the Ancients knew better than we know about life and the universe and still have a few things to teach us, is a hotchpotch of ancient Eastern and modern Western astronomical and metaphysical concepts and theories that masquerades as a novel.

There’s hardly any plot to it: a young Thai mathematics genius is called upon to solve the puzzle of an octahedron, an archaeological find in the middle of an unnamed Chinese desert by his would-be lady-love Tara who, on the Möbius band of romance, must be the flip side of his defunct but still beloved wife Maya. He has forty-eight hours to cerebrate before, for whatever reason is left unexplained, World War III breaks out and – briefed in heavy doses on the quaint notions of the Book of Changes, reminiscing about his hardy past and the wise and weird teachings of his mentor Prof Suzuki, and welcoming in his dreams the tremors of outer space and the palinodes of parallel worlds – cerebrate he does, and I guess we are spared world conflagration in the end.

Much of this is basically the same field as harrowed only last year by Fa Poonvoralak in his The quietest school in the world. But whereas Fa’s reach was even wider and he went at it in a poetic, dreamy, even jocular way, Win is his usual bookish schoolmaster going through a PowerPoint presentation that assumes that pupils are ignoramuses that must be clobbered with facts and figures until they gape transfixed. This is the same technique that spoiled his 1997 SEA Write Award-winning novel, Democracy, shaken and stirred, by crowding the plot with too many happenings to the point of implausibility.

As I said to begin with: too clever by half.

Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi: revised

In English on 22/08/2009 at 10:36 pm

 

laplaekaengkhoiFor those of you who are interested in translation and editing – my vast public of two or is it ten? – here is another go at the first pages of Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi once my very able English editor has worked her magic and I have adopted (or rejected) her corrections and suggestions or else, thanks to her prodding, found a better formulation.

My name is Kaeng Khoi; my surname, Wongjoojuea. Before, my name wasn’t Kaeng Khoi; my name was Lap Lae. I only changed my name from Lap Lae to Kaeng Khoi two years ago. I am well aware that to start like this is puzzling and creates confusion about my identity. Besides, both names are words very few parents would be unconventional enough to give their children or grandchildren. As we know, they are names of districts more so than names of persons, but then all names have an origin. Therefore please give me time to explain about such an unusual name to bestow upon a child, and why my father was adamant he must call his progeny with names both dignified and full of hope that he could be proud of without paying attention to the mockeries of relatives and people around him.
Father told me of various events in the past after he had concluded I was old enough to learn about what happened in his life and able to remember them as so many lessons to guide me in the conduct of mine. It began one evening when I was nine years old and he, at the time, was getting on for forty-four. He sat in the middle of the house platform after the three of us – father, mother and child – had had dinner and he was on his sixth glass of pretty stiff Hong Thong, the brandy he set out to drink every evening after the food Mother had prepared was set by her on a tray before us. That evening Father kept staring at me all the time. I was aware that his eyes, unyielding and angry-looking as was his normal expression, were all over me, and I felt ill-at-ease. I was racking my brains trying to remember if I had done anything that day that would earn me yet another beating. When I looked up and glanced at him, I could feel his eyes looking at me in a probing way or trying to figure out something about me. After that, he raised his glass to his lips, drank up and then held out the empty glass to me.
“Get me a refill, son.”
I haven’t told you yet, have I, that I have a brother who is four years older than I am. His name is Kaeng Khoi. I know that mentioning my brother at this point will add to the puzzlement and confusion, but please allow me time to explain things a little. I believe the muddle will soon be sorted out and in the end the confusion will clear. So allow me to mention my big brother now merely to let you know that he sat by my side, quiet and obedient, but he was someone else altogether when he was outdoors. I’ll tell you about that on another occasion. For the moment, let us go back to when Father held out his empty glass and told me to refill it. I went to the fridge to get ice cubes, carefully poured alcohol in the glass I topped with soda water, used a chopstick to mix spirit and soda, stirring until foam rose to the brim of the glass and then I held the drink out to Father. During the whole process my brother had advised me on how to go about what, as he later told me when the two of us were in bed, was a ritual Father relied upon to convey some meaning to us. He said that when he was my age, he had been asked to refill the glass for the first time as well.
Father raised the drink I had mixed and took a sip. “Needs work.” After that, he drank it up. This time he held out the glass, with only ice cubes left in it, to my brother, who mixed the drink expertly while giving me high signs with his eyes. Father tasted the drink my brother had mixed. “That’s more like it.” He put the glass down beside him, shot a glance at Mother as if she was in the way and said, “You go and wash the dishes, now.” And then Mother did as she was told diligently without uttering a word. I felt strangely gratified every time Father ordered Mother around. I lowered my head and slipped a smile at my brother. We giggled while Mother picked up the food tray and went out of our field of vision to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Come closer. There’s something I want to tell you.”

Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi: a preview

In English on 20/08/2009 at 4:48 pm

 

uthis

Here is the beginning of Chapter 1 of Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi by Uthis Haemamool [pictured here, courtesy of the Bangkok Post Online], winner of this year’s SEA Write Award, although the novel starts with a Foreword that is very much part of the story. This translation is unedited and may need some finetuning.

My name is Kaeng Khoi, my surname, Wongjoojuea. Before, Kaeng Khoi wasn’t my name; my name was Lap Lae. I only changed my name from Lap Lae to Kaeng Khoi two years ago. I am well aware that to start like this is puzzling and creates confusion about my identity. Besides, both names are words very few parents would be unconventional enough to give their children or grandchildren. As we know, they are more names of districts than personal names, but then all names have an origin. Therefore please give me time to explain about a name so weird to bestow, as my father was adamant he must call his children with names both dignified and full of hope which he could be proud of without paying attention to the mockeries of the people around him and other relatives.
Father told me of various times and different occasions, after he had concluded I was old enough to learn about what happened in his life and would be able to remember it as so many lessons to guide me in the conduct of mine. It began one evening when I was nine years old and he, at the time, was going on forty-four. He sat in the middle of the house platform after the three of us – father, mother and child – had had dinner and he was on his sixth glass of pretty stiff Hong Thong, the brandy he set out to drink every evening after the food that Mother had prepared was set by her on a tray before us. That evening Father kept staring at me all the time. I was aware that his eyes, unyielding and angry-looking as was his normal expression, were all over me, and it made me ill-at-ease. I was racking my brains trying to remember if I had done anything that day that would earn me yet another beating. When I looked up and glanced at him, I could feel his eyes looking at me in a probing way or trying to figure out something about me. After that, he raised his glass to his lips, drank up and then held out the empty glass to me.
“Get me a refill, son.”
I haven’t told you yet, have I, that I have a brother who is four years older than I am. His name is Kaeng Khoi. I know that mentioning my brother at this point is adding to the puzzlement and confusion, but please allow me time to explain things a little. I believe the muddle will soon be sorted out and in the end the confusion will clear up. So allow me to mention my big brother now merely to let you know that he sat by my side, quiet and obedient, but he was someone else altogether when he was outdoors. I’ll tell you about that on another occasion. For the moment, let us go back to when Father held out his empty glass and told me to refill it. I went to the fridge to get ice cubes, carefully poured alcohol in the glass I topped with soda water, used a chopstick to mix spirit and soda, stirring until foam rose to the brim of the glass and then I held the drink out to him. During the whole process my brother had advised me on how to go about what he later told me when the two of us were in bed was a ritual Father relied upon to convey some meaning to us. He said that when he was my age, he had been asked to refill the glass for the first time as well.
Father raised the drink I had mixed and took a sip. “Needs work.” After that, he drank it up. This time he held out the glass, with only ice cubes left in it, to my brother, who mixed the drink expertly while giving me high signs with his eyes. Father tasted the drink my brother had mixed. “That’s more like it.” He put the glass down beside him, shot a glance at Mother as if she was in the way and said, “You go and wash the dishes, now.” And then Mother did as she was told diligently without uttering a word. I felt strangely gratified every time Father ordered Mother around. I lowered my head and slipped a smile at my brother. We giggled while Mother took the food tray and went out of our field of vision to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Come closer. There’s something I want to tell you.”

Read the rest of the chapter in the Outlook section of the Bangkok Post on 7 September.

And the winner is…

In English on 18/08/2009 at 3:33 pm

 

It didn’t take ten days after all. The news just broke: this year’s SEA Write Award goes to Uthis Haemamool for his novel Lap Lae laplaekaengkhoi– Kaeng Khoi. Let us see how the jury justify their choice and the reactions this will generate.

Some time ago, the Bangkok Post Outlook section asked me to translate a few pages of the winning novel for the Monday 7 September issue, instead of the usual monthly short story. Good idea, I said. To work, then.