Book Reviews

cover image

Siamese Bestiary

written & illustrated by
Kristiaan Inwood

(1978) 2005 Second revised edition, index, 136 pp., 70 b & w drawings, 254 x 191 Softcover.

ISBN-10: 974-524-058-3 $23.00
ISBN-13 978974-524-058-2

Joys of the jungle

Book review by John Cadet,

(The Nation, 5 February 2006)

Domestic bliss is subjected to hilarious incursions from beyond the door—and wonderfully illustrated as well.

   Most farang even the residents, have problems describing Thailand, so for the most part, we resort to the “them and us” approach, setting ourselves and our culture firmly in the centre of the canvas, and then round the edges work in all the curious ways the people and culture of Thailand are different.
   In fact there’s one writer who claims a “glass wall” surrounds the country, permitting the inhabitants to be like the chameleon, fully in view but more or less invisible.
   One of the things that make this extraordinarily attractive book exceptional is that there are no “them” or “us” here. If there is indeed a glass wall, Inwood is inside it. Thanks to the lucidity and humour of the writing and illustrations, we are in there in the Thonburi orchard with him.
   That’s to say with his wife Anong and their newborn baby Hilary, with the birds, beasts and insects that make up the bestiary both inside their ramshackle house and more or less outside.
   And if you can’t feel the warmth of the sun, the pelting cold of the rain, and hear the tweet, hiss, click, howl, rustle of their more or less sentient neighbours, Inwood’s drawings on every page will help you see them, in all their intricate detail.
   The book begins with the writes “now wife-less and drinking beer for breakfast… feeling disorientated and wishing days would pass quickly before wife and son, both beautiful in my eyes, return.”
   And while watching ants foraging in the sink, a spider dancing at the edge of the table, the idea for the book hits him, about the exuberance of tropical nature in his comer of the world.
   And the human inhabitants are not neglected. Wife goes off one day to register the birth of their son—and what first-time father won’t laugh ruefully at the events that follow? The little fellow cries, howls, refuses to be put down and then, of all things, a sudden storm blows up, engulfing a house that’s never weather-proof at the best of times.
   The haplessness of the husband is exposed in all its hilarious detail. And if you don’t snort your morning cuppa through your nostrils at one or other point in the narrative, it’s because you’ve never been a hapless busband yourself.
   The narrative moves along briskly, mostly from one creature in the orchard or house to the next. One of my favourite descriptions is of a run-in with a snake.
   Neither Inwood nor his wife are too keen on snakes in the house, and you can understand that, but Inwood has a special problem, since for him the only place a snake should be is in the zoo.
   However, it’s all put into perspective by a visit to a professional snake-catching neighbour, Kasem. This neighbour describes how a king cobra he’d been manipulating bit him, and how he felt after taking his herbal medicinal concoction.
   “And so what worked?”
   “Not immediately,” ruefully.
   “Soon I felt incredibly lousy. I couldn’t walk properly. I couldn’t breathe easily. My eyes were going out of focus. My bones seem to have melted.”
   Sometime later, Inwood goes to one of the hole-in-the wall restaurants in his neighbourhood “where fried-ant omelettes and frog soups are commonplace”. He has a bowl of something and learns afterwards that what he’s downed is a python curry.
   “After a sleepless night,” he writes, “my intestines had never felt cleaner… Conclusion: nothing gives you a better run for your money than python curry.”
   Just once in a while, Inwood cheats a little. One of the very best episodes comes in a chapter on frogs.
   “Wisecracks about frogs and the French apart, there was once something that gave me a frog in the throat—the most memorable breakfast I have ever seen.”
   A somewhat tenuous connection there, you might think. But what follows are four priceless pages, appropriately illustrated, about a cheap Chinese riverside cafe: a vivid vignette—ancient rickety stevedore, “the morning-after personified” gulping down raw eggs in 7-Up with spoonfuls of hotter-than-hell red and green chillies.
   In one swift movement, he opened his throat, swallowed the mixture in one gulp and expectantly held out his hand. The restauranteur promptly reappeared with a half-pint glass one-third full with neat Thai rice whiskey. The old man virtually snatched the glass away and poured the whiskey down his gullet. It was like watching someone swallow a fatal dose of poison and then immediately swallow the antidote.
   Inwood later goes to the restaurant again, and asks if the same character still came to eat there.
   “No. He’s at sea.”
   That I could believe. “Doing what?”
   “His friends told me he got a job on a coastal steamer as a cook.”
   Maybe our thoughts were similar. We both laughed.
   Somewhere, if they survived the first week, the crew of one particular coastal steamer is dining, I am sure, on the most inventive cuisine anywhere.
   But what makes this work unique is not its humour, nor even the excellence of its exquisitely detailed drawings. What makes it one of a kind is the picture presented of a happy life in Thailand, husband, wife and newborn child in the bosom of tropical nature.
   When Siamese Bestiary first appeared it got the reviews it deserved, both in the Kingdom and abroad. Orchid Press have done an excellent job bringing it out again 25 years later, and it isn’t hard to understand why.
   Want to see Thailand from the inside? Want to see it through unjaundiced eyes, beautifully illustrated? If you can’t do it anywhere else, you can certainly do it here.

[Read another review from The Nation] [Read a review & excerpts from Bangkok Airways In-flight Magazine] [Read a review from The Bangkok Post] [More Orchid Press Reviews]