Beyond The Pancake Trench:
Road Tales from the Wild Eastby
2004. 192 pp., 16 colour plates, 215 x 152, Softcover
ISBN-10: 974-524-047-8 $23.00
Review of the Week - Asian non-fiction
Book review by Ed Peters
(South China Morning Post, 26 March 2005)
There’s a tremendous - and tremendously fresh energy to Tom Vater’s writing, as he pinballs around Asia, recording his observations of everything from a gathering of naked Indian holy men to bearding a corrupt Cambodian official.
Beyond the Pancake Trench is his first collection of essays, some of which were previously published in magazines and on websites, while others are new.
English is not Vater’s first language, and he lists photographer and filmmaker as alternative trades. This gives his text a remarkable vitality. The narrative advances like a slide show, with snapshots of life through his personal lens. Pancake is a wholly enjoyable book, free of the pomposity that dogs many travelogues and Vater’s gritty acquaintanceship is the antithesis of the coffee table book.
One of his chief strengths is a marvelous knack for pithy, firecracker sentences. ‘The best tarantula in the world is deep-fried in garlic and salt’ makes you wonder if you are about to embark on a horror story or a simple cookery lesson. ‘I’m just your average gun-toting American’ licks off an excerpt entitled Harvey in Vietnam that’s written almost entirely in reported speech, and speaks volumes about Asia, the US and dangerously loud-mouthed, small-minded foreigners. Vater declines to explain whether Harvey is real or fictional and - as with many Pancake episodes the reader is left pondering, imagination piqued and thirsting for more. This is very much Vater’s style. He relates life how he sees it, commenting by not doing so simply setting out the pertinent facts. His review of a gangster flick set in Bangkok called 69 is mainly spelled out as straightforward reportage: ‘ The girl gets rid of the bodies with the help of a friend whose life she has just saved. The friend gets subsequently shot by the Godfather’s half mad side-kick.’ It conveys much about Thailand and its film industry.
Vater’s dry humor comes to the fore while relating the efforts of India’s finest trying to look as if they care when a bag is stolen from under his nose in a 100.000-strong crowd.
He has no qualms about tackling larger issues. His account of an afternoon at a village of brothels outside Phnom Penh is an arresting piece of prose that rails against abject poverty and moral pusillanimity by using innuendo rather than blatant condemnation. The atrocity that is the Plain Of Jars in Laos, littered with tons of unexploded ordnance left by the Americans, is a story he tells through the life of a tour guide who spent part of the war years living on rats and insects in a cave. Pancake’s epilogue, one of the longest pieces in the book, is a lyrical account of the life of the sea gypsies in the Mergui archipelago, under pressure to join the mainstream, yet supremely happy with a marine existance that they’ve sustained for millennia.
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