When you’re trying to get through a book from every country in the world in a year, the research can take up almost as much time as the reading. Whether you’re following leads for a sovereign state with apparently no literature available in English or trying to work out the best book to choose from a nation with oodles of stories on the market, googling and emailing can eat up hours.
So I was very grateful when Matt Read stopped by the blog and left a comment saying he’d decided to help me out researching one of the gaps on my list. He’d chosen Laos and, after a bit of googling, he’d concluded that Mother’s Beloved, a short story collection by Outhine Bounyavong, was a good bet.
I was particularly thankful for Matt’s help as Laos was shaping up to be one of the tougher nuts to crack. Politics and the legacy of Laos’s 22-year civil war mean that the country’s publishing industry is in a relatively early stage of its development. Many writers, including Bounyavong, had to finance and distribute their books themselves in the early stages of their careers and translation from Lao into English is rare.
The book was interesting for another reason too: containing both the Lao and English versions of the stories (with the Lao on the left and the English on the right), it would be the first parallel text I’d come across this year. I hurried to order my copy.
Simple and engaging, Bounyavong’s collection consists largely of first person accounts of moments where characters gain new insights into the world around them. These epiphanies often centre on a clash between the modern world and the ancient traditions and require the protagonists to develop more humility and respect for the natural world and their fellow human beings. So we see the frumpy girl at the village dance making a lasting match with the man who sees past her looks and the young upstart in the VIP stand at the basketball match taken down a peg or two when the charity collecting plate comes round and he faces revealing he is broke.
Often the stories provide fascinating insights into Lao culture. The title story, for example, hangs on the local belief that anyone eating in the presence of a pregnant woman is morally obliged to share the food with her. Similarly, the strange little vignette ‘Fifty Kip’ yields an intriguing explanation of the traditional criterion for judging whether children are ready for school: they must be able to reach their arms over their heads and touch their ears.
Now and then the moralistic tone of the stories sticks in the craw a bit. The modern world, synechdochically present in the Coke cans and fag packets hurled from passing logging trucks, is always bad, while the traditional ways – captured in the flight of birds and the frangipani, ‘the flower of glory for Laos’ – are good. The beautiful girls end up working as prostitutes and the plain ones find true love.
Taken as a whole, though, Bounyavong’s writing has an intriguing and wistful quality that captures what it’s like to live in a country caught in the approaching headlights of Western commercialism. The book will be of interest to anyone keen to know about life off the beaten track in South-east Asia. A thought-provoking read. Thanks Matt.
Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos by Outhine Bounyavong, translated from the Lao by ? (University of Washington Press, 1999) Strangely enough I couldn’t see a translator credited in my edition – can anyone tell me who this was?