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Posts Tagged ‘Thai novel’

Wrapping the baby in swaddling clothes

In English, Reading matters on 04/10/2012 at 12:21 am

==
Yesterday (Tuesday) was pleasurably busy: Saneh Sangsuk was here to go through Under a demented sky, my translation of his latest masterpiece. He found half a dozen errors (some of a stupid kind: ‘cane sugar’ for ‘palm sugar’, ‘clogs’ for ‘sandals’ and the like) and spent some time explaining a few bawdy lines – such as the lewd song whose first verse is ‘Pee nee som sa Pee na som-o’, which became crystal clear when I knew it referred to breasts: ‘Lemons this year, melons next year’ – and a few cusses, such as tchet!, which he explained was a rude interjection used to chase dogs (all the ruder as being used by our nun heroine to dismiss her husband). We agreed on ‘You mangy dog!’ followed by the easier ‘You devil!’ (marn!).

Saneh, whom I’d been trying to contact even before I left for France, had called me a couple of days earlier under his own steam, as it were, to inquire about our baby’s health. He had turned off his phones (he’s got two now!) because, he said, he was fed up with people calling to tell him why he would get the SEA Write this year and with people calling to tell him why he would not get the SEA Write this year, disturbing him in his current writing spell, a novel on … euthanasia.

In the event, I was the one who informed him of which work the award went to last week! I tried several times to foist the damn book on him (I’ve got two copies, remember?) but he wouldn’t take it: he’s writing; he has no time to read – or so he said.

My thanks to the hermit of Phetchaburi for interrupting his schedule for a day just to come and see me in Bangkok, where he hadn’t set foot in months.

He must have heard a lot, though, before turning off his phones: he regaled me with reports of what some critics had said about this book, one female professor in particular (whose name he conveniently couldn’t recall) who found it repellent and unworthy of the holy SEA Write, which everyone knows crowns pious works for prissy ladies which innocent children can be trusted to read too without being laid astray.

Passages such as these, I guess:

[About the husband:] But even so he came round to see me who was a nun, no longer concerned with the world, clad in the robe of sorrow, living a life of simple peace of mind and merely persevering in the search for the absolute truth, whereas in reality he was most pleased with the practices of the nude heretics, those so called Sky-clothed that clad themselves in wind. He or his parents would invite such practitioners to eat – Sky-clothed with coarse, broken feet caked in dust, Sky-clothed with dirty hands, Sky-clothed with mottled complexions, their flesh full of rashes from the bites of ants, horseflies, mos­quitoes, midges and mites, Sky-clothed that squatted on the ground to wolf down their food, their penises hanging down to the ground, their testicles hanging down to the ground. He and his parents were devoted to the Sky-clothed. He was mystified by the daring of the Sky-clothed, didn’t see that the daring of the Sky-clothed was absence of shame. …

[Encounter with a bandit, who tells the mother of the snake-bitten child:] Let me have a look at his wound. He moved and sat up. Don’t, I said. I don’t want to see his wound yet. I can’t stand looking at it. And right then I laughed and then I cried, feeling such a throbbing pain in my chest that I didn’t know what to do next besides walking ahead, running ahead or tumbling about ahead. That man slipped his hand beneath his loincloth with a straight face, grabbed his penis and shook it to make it swell erect, smiled pleased to see its turgescence and spoke again as if talking to himself, Nabob Paiti’s wife, is it? And coming alone too! I should have this defile you but since you hug the corpse of your child and have entered the jungle alone like this, you must have lost your mind. Look at yourself. What’s the point of raping a mad woman like you? And what’s that black thing clinging to your left ear, the size of your little finger? That’s a buffalo leech, you know. His face took a disgusted expression that was plain to see. Well, let me have a look at that child of yours. I said, No need, elder brother. I have to hurry. And I discreetly heaved a sigh of relief when he said, Suit yourself. I motioned to take a step but I was startled out of my wits when he shouted, Wait! …

[Of bawdy drunks:] Their drums beat loudly, Ta-toom! Ta-toom! Ta-toom! Resonating, their bandoh were all shivers, their oboe was shrill and provocative, their lyre aggressive and caustic, their cymbals, clappers and gong a fluid addition. And the songs they sang? … They sang, Lemons this year, melons next year. If you want a man, don’t be afraid to fall pregnant. They sang, Poor Sita, you’ll have to wait for your hubby Till your yoni gets mouldy. They sang a song about a goofy trooper who returns to base too late and explains the reason for his difficulty with My woman’s got hair down there aplenty It’s such a jungle and so hot Before getting through to reach the spot The monks’ morning bell’s ringing. Vulgar, obscene songs of worldly people that spent their lives in a whirlpool of worldly pleasure, had thought only for the whirlpool of worldly pleasure and performed their various occupations for the sake of worldly pleasure only. …

Literature at its best. Positively disgusting indeed!

I spent the rest of the day entering the corrections, checking up Indian place names and Indian names, and sending the result to my favourite editor who will work her magic on my English. Publication in about a fortnight, I guess.

Another copy is with Le Seuil, Saneh’s French publisher…

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Second best

In English, Reading matters on 13/08/2012 at 11:17 pm

The nature of regret by Uthis Haemamool is an engrossing novel about a funeral. In fact, it purports to be a funeral book – and is, in more ways than the one statement on its last page. Funeral books are put together by the wealthier Thai families to sing the praises of the deceased, of his or her life and work, for distribution to those attending the cremation as mementos instead of the usual thingies. A collection of testimonials by nature, they can be forgivable packs of pious lies or they can be great compendiums of rare knowledge and thus are often sought after and collected. I own a few.

This novel works on the same principle: each of its twenty chapters (the twenty-first and last is a coda ‘one hundred days later’) is divided into two parts, with titles often at loggerheads … and as far-fetched or at least puzzling as they come (Chapter 1: ‘Making love with death | The future of the past’). The first part deals with the main plot; the second part tackles a variety of topics bearing on the plot to subvert it or give it more resonance: scenes of the past of various characters and their current social conditions; cameos of bit parts for local colour; lucubrations on the (mainstream) Thai romance novel; and lengthy historical developments dating back to the origins of the current Chakri (read ja.kree) dynasty.

The main plot covers the seven days of the funeral and cremation of the father of the main protagonist, Uthis [Uthit in the proper, Royal Academy sanctioned transliteration]. Uthis the protagonist is 27 (Uthis the author is 37). A former art student, he lives in Bangkok as an independent editor. As the novel begins, he’s in bed in a short-time motel with a found-again former girlfriend who’s now the wife of a much older, Army bigwig (‘Making love with death’ applies to her, I guess, poor girl). He has just accepted urgent work on two typescripts – a trendy South-Korean-style romance in the underworld and a chronicle on the short Thon Buri interlude between the fall of Ayudhya and the birth of Rattanakosin (i.e. Bangkok, the current Rama dynasty) – when a call from his younger brother upcountry informs him that their father has been run over by a ten-wheeler of the local cement factory he worked for all his life. As the elder son, Uthis goes back to Kaeng Khoi, the northeastern village he deserted five years earlier because he could no longer stand his father’s bullying, to preside over the funeral and, besides finding out exactly what happened to his father, deal with the factory owner, who is bound to offer token financial compensation to the family for the loss. Uthis’s connections with a friend in the popular press and more effectively through his one-time girlfriend with her Army bigwig husband will come in handy in this context.

The return of the black sheep to the family pen is thus the pretext for a thorough, contrasted and often gratifyingly mystifying investigation of conflicting relations between fathers and sons and between siblings – present (Uthis’s family), past (the brotherly rulers of Thon Buri) and … fictional (the pseudo brother and sister lovers of the Korean-flavoured novel under editing). But it is also much more than that: a deft psychological portrait of Uthis, whose past misdeeds, perennial delusions and current motivations are scathingly exposed, not least by himself; a questioning of the reliability of personal memories; a contrasted, and in many ways accurate, depiction of the alienation between country and city folks; an impressionistic denunciation of the ravages of mindless capitalism in the country; and an expose on how this country ticks – not to mention a prediction, to be read between the lines, of what the present state of affairs at the top portends for the future of this country: current political happenings are all the more powerfully evoked as they raise distant echoes here.

Three years ago, Uthis Haemamool won the SEA Write Award for his novel Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi, in which the masterstroke was the two main characters turning out to be one and the same. Kaeng Khoi is again where the action is, but the schizophrenia has shifted to the structure, as we’ve seen. Since then, Uthis’s prose has become smoother, the dialogue throughout The nature of regret is superb, and I’ve derived more pleasure reading this novel than I did from the previous one.

Nonetheless, I have a couple of reservations about the whole enterprise. First, the imbrication of the various parts is sometimes forced: in Chapter 7, the cow expert’s question-and-answer interview rings false: who is interviewing him? And in Chapter 13, who is Uthit addressing with his repeated ‘You understand, don’t you?’ when he’s apparently talking to himself? Second, no doubt because I’m a slow reader in Thai and even more so in its high-falutin high language, I found the intricacies of the conflicting relations between the rulers of the Ayudhya/Thon Buri/Rattanakosin period that go on throughout pretty much the second half of the book far too long, even for the essential points they mean to score in the overall scheme of things: an over-squeezed lemon.

At this point, I still have to tackle the real ‘black sheep’ novel – Vipaj Srithong’s Dwarf, I’ll come back to it in due time if I manage to get through its Lilliputian printed squiggles – but I’ll venture that Uthis Haemamool’s novel will again earn the man the distinction, what with its postmodernist sophistication and appeal to Thai intellectuals, except that I believe the more lasting literary values are to be found in the linear if sulphurous, one-of-a-kind tale of Saneh Sangsuk’s Under a demented sky.

…and a bit of a fraud

In English, Reading matters on 30/07/2012 at 6:42 pm


As for the fraud, Rueang Lao Nai Loak Luang Ta (A tale in an illusory world) by Pichetsak Popayak, about 120 pages long, is a collection of folk tales masquerading as a novel.

Judging by his bibliography, the author is a poet (four collections in the last ten years) and a writer of short stories (one collection, published last year). The initial ‘declaration’ by a mysterious ‘editorial team’ (no publisher registered) states this is one of nine works commissioned to ‘writers from different sub-districts’. Indeed the book is ‘printed and distributed by the Sub-district Administration Organisation of Bagdai in Surin province’, right by the Cambodian border – congratulations to the Bagdai SAO, then, for making it to the SEA Write shortlist.

The author’s foreword starts with last year’s floods, due to 1) deforestation and 2) dam building, predicts more of the same and pleads that ‘One thing we must do because no one can do it for us for sure is to delve deep into the expanse of our hearts and keep watching … the flowering in there’.

Then comes the prelude entitled ‘Before it became a tale’, a five-page elegy of a young woman in bliss (‘Her laughter quivers like a bell of dew.’) making flower garlands for her beloved big brother. When we come to the tale, the young woman is dead at seventeen, bitten by a snake; her brother is mad with grief, swears vengeance and turns into a full-time snake hunter. ‘Blood must be washed with blood. Fangs must be washed [sic – fought] with fangs. I shall wash [sic – clear] the land of all snakes. Wherever I am there must be no snakes. Wherever snakes are there must be no I’ – oops! Let’s change this to ‘Wherever snakes are I’ll show no mercy.’ From then on the snakes will play the role of the cows in the other book.

Again, by mid-book the plot changes course and tone: as the snake hunter ‘delves into the expanse’ of the jungle to reach the swamp that is rumoured to be the capital of snakes, the tale turns into a discussion of the pros and cons of life in the jungle, encounters with dangerous animals (elephants and bears essentially) and stone monuments and the various myths and tales attached to them, with past and present blithely mixed. Having kept watching ‘the flowering in there’, the mad hunter has sobered up (and caught his death). ‘On the way in I’ve used madness as my compass. On the way back I’ll use mindfulness as my compass.’ In the last chapter, as our reformed hero ‘takes the downstream boat of a lotus petal’, the moral is, Life has saving graces. Not all snakes are in parliament: they are crawling within us. Look for the silver lining. Life springs eternal…

According to the SEA Write selection panel, this is (in the Bangkok Post’s translation) ‘a novel that shows the human heart full of love and vengeance which ultimately leads to the termination of karma’. Whoever wrote this nonsensical sentence should go back to temple school to learn about Buddhist concepts if not the difference between a novel and a tourist information pamphlet compendium of folkloric myths.

PS – 01/08/2012: I finally found on the net the text of the SEA Write selection committee vaunting the merits of each of the seven shortlisted novels (my being unable to type Thai is a definite handicap).

The sentence quoted by Kong Rithdee in the Bangkok Post is this:  “เรื่องเล่าในโลกลวงตา” เป็นนวนิยายที่แสดงให้เห็นถึงภาวะจิตใจของมนุษย์ซึ่งเต็มไปด้วยความรักและ ความแค้น จนนำไปสู่หนทางของการต้องไปตัดกรรม เพื่อให้กรรมนั้นสิ้นสุด

This sentence is far from clear, in fact duplicitous in its use of กรรม (fate, karma), ตัดกรรม, literally ‘put an end to karma’, actually meaning ‘ending one’s life’, whereas เพื่อให้กรรมนั้นสิ้นสุด literally means ‘for that karma to end’, which is tautological. It requires interpretation and mine, in plain English, is this:

[A tale in an illusory world] is a novel that shows man’s state of mind as full of love and resentment to the point of seeking his own demise in order to put an end to his karma.

This leaves me wondering who should go back to temple school. Let the chips fall as they may.

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?

Thai to English…

In English, Reading matters on 03/06/2010 at 9:48 pm

.

I’ve just gone through the (pre) final French version of Chart Korbjitti’s Phan Ma Ba, to be published in November by Asphalte-Editions, Paris, which runs to 140 000 words or, as the French have it, a little over one million signs. The French title has yet to be decided on.

I translated that novel into English at various times during the 1990s and published it (as an e-book) earlier this century under the title Mad Dogs & Co.

It might be instructive to compare the two translations from the Thai, over the first couple of pages, even in the absence of the original text. For this, I need two postings.

Here is the English version:

Lead-up

The sea at that time had turned pitch-black and glossy. Bulgy monsoon clouds blurred the sky above. Vicious blasts of wind pounced on the beach, relentlessly driving rain and waves to the shore. An army of huge waves, gloomy walls of coiled-up water, crashed thun­der­ously on the seafloor upon reaching the shore. Wave after wave crashed in a ceaseless, caroming cannonade, assaulting the beach and forcing it to recede, but the beach stayed put and refused to yield. Instead, they retreated in a sizzling slush of seawater, leaving behind white foam that smeared the sand with telltale signs of defeat, but still more impetu­ous waves came rolling in, doomed yet undaunted.
The sun had gone into hiding, as if it didn’t want to know what was raging on below.
There wasn’t a human soul in sight on the wide-open stretch of the beach, which was strewn with driftwood, torn nets, plastic bags, rotten fish and garbage swept up and thrown onto the sand, as if the sea meant to tell the beach it didn’t want any of this rubbish.
Three or four local dogs were foraging for food on the beach, undeterred by the raging downpour. The smallest of them stood gnawing at a dead fish while snarling at the other dogs and soon a war started under the pelting rain.
Way beyond the beach luxuriant rows of green coco­nut trees bowed low in terror of the wind. It was as if they were putting their last energies into a fight to sur­vive the monsoon and make it to the next dry season, when they would stand still, merely flicking the tips of their fronds as they played with the breeze.
Amid the shaking coconut trees a little hut nestled in a recess of the hill. It seemed to be trying to keep out of sight, but the wind and the rain were unrelenting. At times, violent gusts made its thatched roof flap.
A small red-earth track ran from the main road to the beach, parting neatly the long rows of coconut trees into two sections. In the hot season, this track was full of tourists of all nationalities, but now the rain was its only custom.
At a junction, down the better part of the track to the beach, was a large lean-to that had been turned into a food shop. Only the kitchen at the back had walls. The thatch of the roof had been covered with nets as protec­tion against the wind. The floor had been built at a slight­ly higher level than the road. A thick, dark-green awning was stretched across the side of the shop ex­posed to the rain, and the wind shook and slapped it deafeningly.
A short distance from the food shop was a small gift shop that sold souvenirs to tourists. It was so simple it looked more like an ordinary hut. On the red-earth land­ing in front of it, an ancient motorcycle stood basking in the rain, leaning on one side. Its paintwork was so flaky it was hard to see any trace of the original red.

…et du thaï au français

In English, French, Reading matters on 03/06/2010 at 9:47 pm

 

Et voici la française, à partir d’une version thaïe plus récente légèrement « émondée » par l’auteur :

Balises

La mer à cette heure est d’un noir d’encre chiné. Au-dessus d’elle, le ciel n’est qu’un magma glauque de nuages de mousson. De violentes bourrasques poussent sans cesse averses et vagues vers le rivage. Une armée de vagues géantes menaçantes, en rangs serrés, sans arrêt déferlent, s’enroulent sur elles-mêmes aux abords du rivage et s’écrasent en un vacarme assourdissant. Les unes après les autres, en un grondement continu, les vagues se ruent vers la plage en un assaut incessant, comme pour la forcer à reculer. Mais la plage, placide, tient bon et, loin de reculer, renvoie l’eau d’où elle vient. Les unes après les autres, les vagues doivent refluer vers le large à la façon des vaincus, laissant seulement un peu d’écume blanche sur le sable en signe de défaite, mais de nouvelles vagues montent à l’assaut, inlassablement.
Le soleil à cette heure se voile la face, comme s’il ne voulait rien savoir de ce qui se passe.
Pas la moindre âme humaine en vue sur la longue étendue de sable jonchée de bois flotté, de filets en lambeaux, de sacs en plastique, de poissons pourrissants et de quantités d’autres déchets que la mer a balayés et jetés sur le sable comme pour dire à la plage qu’elle ne veut pas de ces ordures.
Trois ou quatre chiens de race indigène tournicotent sur la plage en quête de nourriture, sans se laisser démonter par le déluge ambiant. Le plus petit d’entre eux ronge une tête de poisson tout en montrant les dents aux plus grands qui, l’œil torve et le nez frémissant, s’approchent à pas de chiens, et bientôt une guerre éclate sous la pluie battante.
Très en retrait de la plage, des rangées de cocotiers luxuriants ploient, terrorisés par la force du vent, comme s’ils luttaient à la limite de leurs forces pour survivre à la mousson en attendant la prochaine saison chaude, quand ils se dresseront, fiers et robustes, remuant seulement le bout de leurs palmes pour faire joujou avec la brise.
Entre les cocotiers, une hutte est nichée dans le giron de la colline. On dirait qu’elle essaie de passer inaperçue, mais le vent et la pluie s’acharnent. Par moments, son toit de chaume se soulève et retombe sur un coup de vent.
Un chemin en latérite reliant la route à la plage coupe au travers des longues rangées de cocotiers qui cernent le rivage. À la saison chaude, ce chemin fourmille de gens de toutes nationalités, mais à présent seule la pluie le fréquente.
À un croisement en haut du chemin de la plage se tient un appentis de bonne taille transformé en restaurant. Seule la cuisine à l’arrière est murée. Le chaume de la toiture est recouvert d’un filet de pêche pour le protéger du vent. Le plancher du restaurant est légèrement surélevé par rapport au chemin et le côté exposé à la pluie est entièrement tendu d’une épaisse bâche d’un vert terne que le vent fait claquer puissamment.
Légèrement en retrait du restaurant se trouve une échoppe, une boutique de souvenirs pour touristes, si sommairement construite qu’elle ressemble plutôt à une simple hutte. Dans la cour en latérite sur le devant, une motocyclette antédiluvienne, de guingois sur sa béquille, prend un bain de déluge. Sa peinture est si écaillée qu’il ne reste guère trace du rouge originel.

PS: I’ll busy myself for the rest of the week and some of the next, I expect, with a (pre) final smoothing of the 350 000 words of Four Reigns in English.

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.

Did you say novel?

In English on 17/08/2009 at 11:25 pm

 

After a little over one hundred pages, I gave up last night on Talei Namnom. It was an arduous read, for very little profit. The language, as we have seen, is top of the shelf. But this isn’t a novel. In those one hundred pages, nothing happens, or so little. We have met Joom and his girlfriend Nipha. He is in his early thirties, sells toilet paper as a corporate white-collar, and alternatively rants against consumerism and globalisation, and dreams about the Lord Buddha’s teachings and lore – and oh yes, he is also looking for fountains. Within pages, Nipha graduates from a demure young lass of times past into a modern girl he kisses and hugs. She sells clothes at the market for a living. They see each other, go for strolls and hold, every three pages or so, spasmodic bouts of conversation, either prosaic or verging on the hermetic. Ironically, the major event in their lives is the purchase by Nipha of a washing machine. By the end of this first part, the couple takes a train for a visit to their native village. We’ll leave them there.

There is nothing I find more off-putting in a novel, no matter how well written, than solid pages of repetitive political ranting, even when I happen to mostly agree with it as a thinking person, or solid pages of religious preaching or divagations. Here we have both, and no action, and both Nipha and Joom are as three-dimensional as pancakes.

So where are we, SEA Write-wards? Of the seven preselected novels, the outstanding one, in my view, is The Quietest School in the World by Fa Poonvoralak, with Lap Lae – Kaeng Khoi by Uthis Haemamool and Butterfly Dream by Uea Anchalee as distant outsiders. The final selection should be announced in the next ten days or so.

The Quietest School…: a preview

In English on 15/08/2009 at 2:45 pm

 

seawritefa

On the other hand, translating The Quietest School in the World is like a stroll in the park, until you come to the thorny bushes of ‘conceptual writing’ that seems to be the hallmark of canto-honcho Sky – sorry: Fa Poonvoralak: coinages such as maya-khati (illusionism?); metaphysical jargon; and English words that can’t possibly mean in Thai what they mean in English, or do they?
Consider the following: tanka … mee order rai khorpkheit, ‘logic … has (an) order without limits’. Odd enough, yet nothing compared to what follows: phiang khae sarm order thaonan man kor kharm khwamjing: ‘with three orders only, it goes/extends beyond the truth/beyond reality’. And then what of phiang khae see order thaonan man kor mee phalang-ngarn mark kwa eikaphop: ‘with four orders only, it has more energy than the universe’? Help, someone!
Meanwhile, the first chapter presented below is mercifully limpid, and its sobriety refreshing.

1 – The call of the butterfly 

Within the classroom there are eight sets of desks and chairs arranged in two rows, four to a row. To the left there are eight windows; to the right there are two doors.
This morning, three pupils have come to school: Wind, a young woman of about twenty; Earth, a fifteen-year-old girl; and Mountain, a thirteen-year-old boy. They all sit in the back row. They are always together wherever they go. They are the least quiet group in the classroom. Sometimes they come and sit chatting like chirping tailorbirds.

 “Today, let’s play Suppose,” Wind begins. “Suppose the Lord grants us one personal wish each. What will you choose?”
Earth looks uneasy, because Wind is staring at her. The three of them accept Wind as their leader, not just because she is the oldest but because she has the most energy. She’s always finding things to do.
“I’ll ask to attain enlightenment,” Earth after much thought answers.
Both Wind and Mountain burst out laughing. The answer is unexpected.
“We’ve known you for ages and it’s only now we know you’re a true Buddhist,” Wind teases. “Why did you choose enlightenment?”
“I don’t know,” Earth answers. “Maybe it’s because I think life is sorrow. I don’t want to be born again. And besides, following the Buddha is safer.”

“What about you?” Wind turns towards Mountain.
“I’ll ask for everyone in the world to enjoy peace and quiet,” Mountain answers. He’s always had a way with words.
“You can’t! You must ask only for yourself, not for others,” Wind objects.
Mountain sits silent for a long time. He really can’t think of anything. “I don’t know. I can’t think.” When he must think about himself, he feels confused and self-conscious.
Wind nods understandingly.

“Then what about you?” Earth turns to ask Wind in turn. She and Mountain look at Wind expectantly.
“I’ll ask to be able to run at the speed of the wind,” Wind answers as she laughs. Wind isn’t exactly good-looking, but she’s got charm. She’s someone whose energy is radiating all the time, making those near her happy, making them feel that being alive has meaning.
“I think that running at the speed of the wind in itself is one form of happiness without compare. It’s something easy in physiological terms. It isn’t thought, can’t be sought, can’t be swapped.”

“Your turn to ask a question,” Wind turns to tell Earth.
“Then suppose we choose to be some kind of animal. What will you be?”
“I’ll ask to be reborn a male orang-utan,” Wind answers almost without thinking then smiles broadly with a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“It must be male too? Why?” Mountain asks, nonplussed.
“I don’t know actually. When I stare at a male orang-utan, I feel it looks half stupid half clever. If I stare at it long enough, my heart falls apart,” Wind answers blithely, making Earth and Mountain laugh.

“How about you?” Earth turns to ask Mountain.
“I’ll ask to be reborn a tortoise,” Mountain answers in turn. “I like the slowness of the tortoise. When it walks from the front of the room to the back, it’s a long span of time, stately and full of meaning. I like the time span of the tortoise.” 

“Then how about you?” Wind asks Earth, who has thought up the current quiz.
“I’ll ask to be reborn a butterfly or any insect that lives one day only.”
“You mean to thwart Mountain, don’t you?” Wind teases.
“Not at all,” Earth protests. “I truly feel like that. I think that creatures that live for one day only – it’s an exciting span of time, and a most meaningful one. Every second is learning, seeking experience, probably lots of fun. Even though the span of time is short, it’s impressive, I feel. We humans live too long, so that beauty in our lives diminishes without our realising it.”

Right then, a butterfly flies into the classroom. It enters by a window to the left, flaps its wings leisurely for a while then casually exits through a door to the right. This sudden visit throws the three of them into silence.

Now back to Four Reigns, a different kettle of glitches altogether. I’m on page 669 of 1262.