By Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Grove Press, 2005
General reading value: 2.5 /5
Armchair travel value: 3.5/5
Fly-by summary: An eye-opening (pardon the pun) tour of daily life in Thailand.
Why this book? In the mood for short stories; had seen it recommended in several sources.
Take the full tour: Don’t be fooled by the joyful connotations the title of this book suggests. This is not a happy hop around the delightful sites and scenes of Thailand. And Lapcharoensap is not some exuberant travel guide armed with over-sized microphone and equally over-sized itinerary of “must-sees”. He will not gently lead you around the country and drop you off in time for cocktails by the pool. Rather, he will give you a swift kick up the backside and send you face-first into the underbelly of Thailand – the seedy, the sad, the soulless. I suspect that after reading this collection of short stories, you will either have no desire to travel to Thailand ever or you will be even more inclined to do so just to try to find the beauty that is so persistently absent from this book.
There is always a risk with short stories that they will end up anti-climatic. Just as you are finally finding your rhythm with the characters and the plot, the short story can be prone to premature termination, leaving you unsatisfied and vaguely unsettled. Lapcharoensap’s stories, in contrast, are so jam-packed with movement and meaning that each one is quite exhausting and the end is often welcome. Having said that, there was one story that ended with such a lack of resolution that I was quite distressed by it. I should preface this by saying that I have a strong aversion to stories about animal cruelty. Unfortunately, this features in more than one of Lapcharoensap’s stories but interestingly it was the one where there was only a suggestion of forthcoming animal violence that most disturbed, rather than the other which is centred around cock-fighting and therefore of necessity is filled with bestial blood and gore. If, or when, you read this book, I think you will concur that not knowing what fate befalls the pig named Clint Eastwood is frustrating to say the least and given this is the first story in the collection did not exactly set me up for enjoying the rest of the book.
I persevered, however, and was rewarded for it with a rich, if not idyllic, tour of this country that is such a drawcard for my own countrymen and countrywomen (Aussies) that Lapcharoensap even jokes about this:
“By September they’ve (tourists from other countries) all deserted, leaving the island to the Aussies and the Chinese, who are so omnipresent one need not mention them at all”.
The book is comprised of seven stories covering a wide range of topics: natives’ views on tourists; fraternal bonding over prostitution and paint sniffing; a woman going blind who finally takes the time to truly sightsee her homeland; the transient and tumultuous lives of Cambodian refugees; the experience of a foreigner who moves to Thailand to be closer to his son and his son’s Thai wife and children; and family dynamics played out around a cockfighting business.
The book specialises in casual moments of poignancy, dropped in without trying to make a social reflection, yet encouraging the reader to do so. A woman desperately trying to sew 800 bras in a month while her family disintegrates around her; a crippled old man throwing caution to the wind and riding dodgem cars with his grown-up son and grandchildren; a young boy who finds a forgiveable liberation in riding a motorbike on the speedway despite not being able to reach the pedals.
There are plenty of elements of culture in this book but they are subtle and often exquisitely sad. It is a non-anaesthetised version of Thailand – one you won’t find in the guide books or travel magazines and probably will never need to experience – unless the next time you go sightseeing there you open your eyes a little wider.
Next time we go back into the annals of Oondatje family history in Sri Lanka.
The Literary Nomad xx
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Area: 513,120 km2
Delay your stay: The Beach by Alex Garland; Bangkok 8 by John Burdett; The Whispering Cloth by Pegi Deitz Shea; The Land of Smiles Trilogy by Christopher G Moore.