Portraits of a Thai Villageby
Michael Smithies,with sketches by
1st edition, 176 pp., 39 b & w sketches, 21.5 x 15.2 cm., softcover.
ISBN-10: 974-524-031-1 $18.00
Small Town Stories
Book review by John Haylock,
(The Nation, Sunday, 07 March 2004)
Michael Smithies has lived in Isaan for many years. He is also an experienced writer. His three volumes of short stories set in Thailand (the most recent, “Gulfs of Thailand”, was published in 1999) are entertaining and perceptive. He has translated a number of French writings about 17th-century Siam and written books on the same period. His editing of Two Yankee Diplomats in 1830s Siam, was a most worthwhile undertaking.
Interspersed between the portraits of characters described here in this typical Isaan village are short essays of various aspects of village life. One of the main features of the village is a lake, which provides fish, another is the primary school, which provides a basic education for the young, and a third is the temple, which gives solace to the old.
The population of the district is Lao; many people of Isaan speak Lao among themselves, but they have no desire to become part of Laos.
Many villagers migrate to the capital in search of a better standard of living. Some succeed. Others are trapped in miserable jobs. Of those who remain in the village, some live more colourful lives than others.
Ang, the fortune-teller, is deformed, but his ability to tell villagers about their futures is respected. He is also an expert fisherman and lives off his catches. Tong-Maa, the wife of the sub-district headman, considers herself the leading lady of the village. She has the reputation of loving money. She managed through her husband’s connections to get a car and uses it to motor to nearby towns where she buys cloth which she sells at a profit in the village. Winai has six brothers and six sisters; his father, a former village headman, sees that he studies hard, and he eventually becomes a lawyer.
Many young villagers are tempted to find work abroad and there are several companies who arrange such work, usually of an unskilled kind and often in Singapore, Taiwan or Israel. The pay is good compared to that in Thailand and part of it can be sent home. A contract has to be signed and this is costly. Land often has to be mortgaged to raise the required amount.
The lives of some of the villagers end in tragedy. There is Miss Cotton Bud (the Thais have a penchant for nicknames) who goes to Korat and becomes the mistress of a rich businessman. She returns on occasions to the village and boasts about her affluent life. The businessman is promiscuous. He catches Aids, and passes the disease on to her. There is nothing for her to do but return to the village to die. Nuk is an exceptional student; he is accepted by an advanced technical institute in Korat. He is ambitious; his future is bright. Riding pillion on friend’s motorbike he is badly injured in an accident; his friend is killed. Nuk recovers, but he has lost any ambition and does not want to do anything. Thanee wrecks his chances of ever getting a job in the civil service or even a passport by failing to turn up for military duty.
However, he does well in the construction industry in Bangkok and marries. Disaster strikes. He is blinded in an accident and goes home with his wife, but he, now a burden, is not wanted by his family. His wife’s family takes him in and he is led about the village by his son. Dam like many young Isaan boys goes to Bangkok in search of a job. A tout picks him up at the railway station and inveigles him into becoming one of the “hosts” at a gay bar. He does well. The money is good. He visits his village bringing expensive but unsuitable presents; he does not tell his parents what his job is. Some of his fellow hosts are heroin addicts; Dam gets hooked on the drug and dies of an overdose.
Smithies’ long residence in Isaan and his powers of observation enable him to have profound knowledge of life in a Thai village and of the villagers themselves. The essays that embellish the portraits are helpfully informative.
They include education, history, festivals, water, gambling and electricity. The last brought light, which was welcome, but also noise created by television, steroes and loudspeakers, which was not welcome.
Uthai Traisiwakul’s illustrations are appropriate and competent, as they help to bring the characters alive, while at the same time giving atmosphere to the book.
Careful thought has been given to the compilation of this book. It deserves a prominent place in the English literature on Thailand.
[Read a review from The Journal of the Siam Society] [Read a review from The Japan Times] [More Orchid Press Reviews]
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