As I’m always on the lookout for books by Thai writers available in English, I can’t believe it has taken me all this time to discover Sightseeing, Rattawut Lapcharoensap’s award-winning short story collection first published in 2005.
I chanced upon a hardcover copy with a smiling golden Buddha against a yellow starburst on the front, an image at once striking and hypnotic, almost painful to look at. It proved an apt metaphor for the contents, seven stunning stories as beautifully crafted as they are poignant to read.
The award-winning opener, ‘Farangs’, is set on an unnamed Thai island where time is measured in terms of tourist seasons. The narrator is a young man, whose Thai mother has taken over the running of the family’s motel after being deserted by the boy’s American father. While Ma is scornful of the farangs – ”Pussy and elephants. That’s all these people want” — that doesn’t stop the young man from falling hopelessly in love with a string of American girls. The story turns the tables on farangs in Thailand, showing what it means to be a local in a foreign tourist hotspot. Bittersweet, with laugh out loud moments involving a conversation about the dress code for riding elephants, and a plucky pet pig named Clint Eastwood.
‘At the Café Lovely’ is the story of two brothers desperate to escape the spiralling grief of their widowed mother, seeking solace — with varying degrees of success — in burgers, girls, glue-sniffing and motorbikes.
‘Draft Day’ takes place in an outlying district of Bangkok on the day of the annual lottery through which young men are drafted into military service. The narrator is a young man whose family has paid the requisite bribes to ensure he is not drafted, unbeknownst to his best friend, who is also facing the draft.
In ‘Sightseeing’, a young man takes his mother on a trip south to the exquisite Andaman Islands. The mother wears horn-rimmed, purple-rhinstoned Armani sunglasses she has bargained for at the Chatuchak Market, using ‘an inimitable combination of wit, commonsense economics, high theatrics, and old-fashioned psychological manipulation.’ It is supposed to be their last summer together before the son moves upcountry to study. But his mother is going blind, forcing the young man to reconsider his future.
‘Priscilla the Cambodian’ puts a Thai spin on a sadly familiar refrain: that in times of economic decline, foreign refugees inevitably become the target of anger and impotence. In this case, the refugees are Cambodians, squatting on the edge of a failed Thai housing development. For me this was one of the most moving stories in the collection, and Priscilla the Cambodian one of the most memorable characters.
‘Don’t Let Me Die in This Place’ is told from the perspective of ailing American man, forced to relocate to Bangkok where he can be cared for by his son, his Thai daughter-in-law and two bewildering grandchildren whose names he can’t pronounce. An unsentimental but hopeful story about bridging the cultural divide.
The final story, ‘Cockfighter’, is a coming of age tale narrated by Ladda, a young girl whose father makes the mistake of going up against a local gangster. Substantially longer than the other stories, ‘Cockfighter’ uses the microcosm of village life to illustrate broader power relations in Thailand. As Ladda says to her friend in the wake of tragedy,
she should know by now that we were living in a world where words like that didn’t mean a thing: right or wrong, left or right, up or down, inside or outside–our people didn’t speak that kind of language.
Rattawut Lapcharoensap was born in Chicago, raised in Bangkok, and educated in universities in both Thailand and the USA. While the stories in Sightseeing reflect critically on power and corruption in Thailand, as well as neo-Orientalism, they are not remotely didactic. These are first and foremost absorbing stories that also happen to educate and enlighten.
In an interview with Granta last year, Lapcharoensap described himself as:
allergic to didacticism in fiction of any kind, not to mention a certain form of humourless, self-aggrandizing social realism, wherein the characters are merely lifeless puppets for the writer’s ideas about things. On the other hand, I’m also allergic to writing that doesn’t have a sense of the world’s inequalities, injuries and injustices, and the way that people are necessarily shaped by those things. So go figure.
While Lapcharoensap’s writing does have a sense of the world’s inequalities, it also has humour and bite, not to mention characters who are entirely credible and appealing in their ambiguity. These elements add up to an outstanding read, leaving me hungry for more work by this author.