Even in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s cultural capital, which is Lonely Planet famous for having more second-hand bookshops than pubs, my search for Thai literature in English translation seemed hopeless. I’m here on an Asialink residency, the perfect excuse to indulge my interest in world literature. I eventually found a stash in Bangkok that held one of my now-favourite books, but I had to read Thai literature written in English and wade through some seriously bad translations to get there.
I started with Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a young Thai-American guy who was born in Chicago and raised in Bangkok. Stories about being a young man, a son, a brother, a lover and a ‘disenfranchised citizen of the global village’: yes please, how fitting! His debut story collection, Sightseeing, was a good start, but written in English, so I stepped up to a Thai classic.
The Dreams of an Idealist, by M R Nimitmongkol Navarat, appealed immediately to my own idealism by pitching itself as a vision for the ideal Thai society. But it was disappointing: an unwieldy, over-earnest, politically naive clunker, this fictionalised autobiography of a freedom fighter in the revolution of the ’30s, which replaced Thailand’s last absolute monarchy with its first constitutional monarchy, was more boring and laborious than Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory.
I pushed on with a Chart Korbjitti novel I had found in the Bangkok stash, which also appealed to my inner idealist. Claiming to be about a young man determined to not leave the world’s problems for the next generation, Carrion Floating By (translated by Marcel Barang) is a haphazard patchwork of events concerning a young man who failed to set up an advertising agency as a social enterprise, with a scene of a dead dog floating down the river tacked on as an ambiguously symbolic conclusion. The translation was painful to read.
I gave up hope. I read DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, resumed my fan-boy affair with American cult sci-fi author Jack Womack, and developed a new genre crush with one of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.
This trifecta constituted the first time I can remember reading three amazing novels in a row, but I couldn’t keep reading this Western literature in Thailand while I watched a friend reading all these amazing books in Thai: cool, quirky books, with illustrations and beautiful design and, apparently, beautiful and thought-provoking depictions of daily Thai life.
Where was my understanding of Thai life? So I went back to my Bangkok stash, like a skanky raver who keeps getting speedy pills. Siriworn Kaewkan’s The Murder Case of Tok Imam Storpa Karde, also translated by Barang, read just like a book by Chart Korbjitti.
But Jasmine Nights was also in that stash: Jasmine Nights, by S P Somtow, ‘the classic coming-of-age novel of Thailand in the 1960s’. I expected to find ‘The Catcher in the Rye for Thailand’ promised on the back cover, but what I found instead is one of the most magical books I’ve ever read.
The boy who’s coming of age is Sornsunthorn, patronisingly nicknamed Little Frog by the three maiden aunts he calls The Three Fates. The only son of absent, aristocratic parents, his companions are Homer, his pet chameleon, and Samlee, his maidservant and first crush, who constantly smells like nam pla (fish sauce).
Speaking only English, answering only to Justin and refusing to eat Thai food, twelve-year-old Sornsunthorn has retreated into himself with a steady supply of Western literature he found in his great-grandmother’s quarters. His Dean Moriarty is Virgil, a black American boy, who chooses for his dialect the southern American lingo of his also-absent father.
Jasmine Nights is hilarious: Justin is a precocious, sarcastic, cheeky little sod, but also endearingly naive. In the opening chapters, at the funeral of an important family member Justin doesn’t know, Homer is impaled on a stiletto heel, under a table where Justin also finds Samlee trying to suck his uncle’s soul out through his ‘aubergine’.
Justin and Virgil’s exploits begin with escaping from their estates to chase Samlee down the canal, where they stumble upon a shaman crafting a love potion for Samlee to use on Justin’s uncle. Justin quickly discovers book learning cannot prepare you for the real world – least of all for the sort of lewd jokes Virgil is fond of.
As Justin approaches adolescence, he learns that regular adulthood, seemingly characterised by infidelity, vanity, social politics and the clashing of East/West values in Thailand during the ’60s, make for a divisive and corrosive experience. Determined to avoid this and prevent it from happening to others, he resolves to share this vision for an undivided world through the school plays he likes to write.
Somtow is also Thai-American, and writes in English, so I still haven’t found the holy grail of Thai literature in translation, but Jasmine Nights is gold: slightly magic-realist, very much not social realist, about a young boy growing up with his idealism intact, through a deep relationship with literature, a range of challenging relationships and one enduring friendship.
Finding a sensibility like this in Thai literature will buoy me in my ongoing search for good translations.
Ryan Paine is a 2012 Asialink Writer in Residence at Nou Hach Literary Association, blogging at Socratic Ignorance is Bliss II.