Thailand: watching the watchers

Chart Korbjitti caught my eye on Wikipedia’s list of Thai writers. Not only is he a two-time recipient of the Southeast Asian Write award, but he was named a National Artist in Literature in 2004. He made his career through self-publishing his work and is one of that hardy breed of full-time writers who commit to doing nothing but waking up and spinning stories all day long. I also like his glasses.

This is fitting because, as it turns out, vision is a central theme in the book I chose to read. Set in a theatre, the novel records the reactions of a 62-year-old filmmaker as he watches a show dubbed ‘the most boring play of the year’ by Thailand’s drama critics. As the action unfolds in an old people’s home, the protagonist finds himself drawn into the slow drift of events, pausing now and again to imagine how he would represent the action if he were portraying it in a film. Distanced from his everyday routine by the strange suspension of reality the theatre affords, he reflects on the sad events of his life and in the end takes a great deal from the drama playing out in front of him – although whether what he infers is what the play’s director intends remains a mystery.

The novel is one of the most structurally innovative books I’ve read. Jumping between the action on stage, the protagonist’s interior monologue and his imagined shooting script for the scenes he witnesses, the narrative tests the limits of the written medium while exploring the visual arena of stage and screen. The filmmaker’s watching and commenting makes even the most mundane of onstage actions – washing, feeding and entertaining the frail and largely bedridden inhabitants of the home – come alive.

This is particularly true when what he sees encourages the protagonist (if that is the right word for someone who is essentially watching the actions of others) to look for parallels in his own experience. These reflections range from pettish and sometimes funny reflections on the selling of lottery tickets through social issues such as child labour to admissions of his own fears and loneliness. Indeed, the narrative is frequently startling in its stark reflections on ‘the pain of being left alone in the world’. ‘To tell you frankly, when I see something like this, I’m scared. Scared to have to lie on a bed like this. I’m thinking of my wife –’ says the narrator, striking a balance of honesty and reticence that means the narrative never tips over into wallowing.

Yet Korbjitti pushes the boundaries even beyond the trope of a man sitting in an auditorium watching a play. As the show progresses, we find the thoughts of the characters on stage beginning to spill into the narrative, forcing us to question where these recollections and preoccupations come from. In addition, the nagging smell of urine that irritates the filmmaker throughout the show invites us to wonder exactly where the boundary between the real and the imagined lies.

The result is a masterful dissection of the experience of consuming art. At times, I had to stop myself from turning round to see Korbjitti watching me read, constructing a story about a blogger reading a book about a filmmaker watching a play. But perhaps he’s already written it…

Time: a Thai Novel by Chart Korbjitti, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thai Fiction Publishing, 2010)

Laos: a helping hand

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?