Book of the month: Saneh Sangsuk

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Experts have been a great help to me since I decided to try to read the world. Many of the books I read for my original project in 2012 were recommended by people who had devoted decades of their lives to studying or translating literature from particular regions or languages. My Chinese and UAE choices were two very good examples – in both cases, the advice of people with in-depth knowledge of the books of those nations directed my attention to fascinating titles that I may well not have considered otherwise.

So when Sutida Wimuttikosol, a Thai literary critic and lecturer at Thammasat University,  introduced herself to me at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, I lost no time in asking for her suggestions for literature from her homeland. Wimuttikosol emailed me details of three writers with work available in English translation: Khamsing Srinawk, Prabda Yoon and Saneh Sangsuk.

I tracked down work by all of them and can second Wimuttikosol’s recommendations – they are all, in their different ways, intriguing authors. However, the book that grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and has colonised a large swathe of my imaginary universe this month is The White Shadow by Saneh Sangsuk, and that’s the title I’m going to write about today.

In many ways, Sangsuk was a controversial writer for a Thai literary critic to recommend. Although his talent has long been recognised outside Thailand (the French government even made him a chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008), the wordsmith’s work has historically had a less-than-glowing reception in his own nation.

According to the biographical note at the end of my edition of The White Shadow, in Thailand the author ‘raises twice as many jeers than cheers’. The novel was struck off the 1994 SEA Write Award pre-selection list and sold less than 1,000 copies, forcing its author (who had funded its publication himself) to survive ‘with no computer, no phone, no TV, but books from floor to ceiling in his rented room, writing in longhand […] and occasionally being treated to lunch at the market by his friends after he helps them sweep the floor’.

The eccentricity and single-mindedness the description above suggests is reflected amply in The White Shadow. As its subtitle – ‘portrait of the artist as a young rascal’ – suggests, it is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Looking back on the excesses, cruelties and bad choices of his youth, the narrator, who has retreated to a ramshackle house in the rural north to try to write, oscillates between self-loathing and self-pity, with numerous flights into mania, fantasy and humour along the way.

It’s subject matter that thousands of bildungsromans around the world – from Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and JM Coetzee’s Youth to MT Vasudevan Nair’s Kaalam, not to mention the James Joyce book referenced in the English-language title – have tackled over the centuries. Yet no-one has done it quite like Sangsuk. Extraordinarily inventive, merciless and sometimes offensive, his writing zeroes in on the smallest dust mote before spiralling out to look at the world from the perspective of outer space. All of life is here – digressions on Western art and Eastern mysticism, dissections of music and scientific theory, ponderings on philosophy, politics and psychology. You name it; you’ll find it in these pages.

In addition, the narrative bristles with lush descriptions of Thailand in many of its guises. The seedy underbelly of Bangkok and the wild splendour of the jungle all appear in lavish detail. We trail through the slums and universities, and jostle against the hawkers and hoodlums in the markets and on the beaches. Beauty and brokenness abound.

The same can be said of the writing. Some passages are astonishingly virtuosic and playful. Nevertheless – whether through glitches in the translation or quirks in Sangsuk’s style – there are odd turns of phrase and the occasional malapropism.

The book is also not an easy read from a liberal Western standpoint. Its questionable handling of gender issues and the unabashed misogyny of its protagonist make for some very uncomfortable moments.

For all that, though, this is an extraordinary performance. Whether its compatriots own it or not, the novel has things to say to readers everywhere. It will delight, challenge, unsettle and move.

Pleasingly, more than 20 years after this book met with the opprobrium of many of his peers, Sangsuk does seem to be getting more homegrown recognition. In 2014, his collection Venom and Other Stories won the SEA Write Award denied to his earlier work.

If The White Shadow is anything to go by, the accolade was richly deserved. The author, however, with the directness that makes that book so powerful, wasn’t convinced that his new work deserved the recognition. ‘It’s readable, I’d give it B+,’ he told the Bangkok Post.

The White Shadow: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Rascal (Ngao See Khao) by Saneh Sangsuk, translated from the Thai by Marcel Barang (Thaifiction Publishing, 2009)

Photo ‘Bangkok, Thailand’ by Simon Marussi on Flickr

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)