Review: Sightseeing

SightseeingAs 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.

About angelasavage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlett Stiletto Award and has twice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards.
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7 Responses to Review: Sightseeing

  1. Angela – It sounds as though these stories really look at the Thai culture from a wide variety of different perspectives.And if that’s true than they do some justice to a very complex society. Little wonder you enjoyed them so much. And really? A pig named Clint Eastwood? Of course the stories also include real sadness and sometimes grit. But those flashes of humour and wit must add quite a bright thread here and there through the collection.

  2. This was a very interesting book for me to read, since my research interests are in writing about Thailand in English. Of course, most of this writing is by non-Thais. It was intriguing to me when I spoke at a conference on this topic that a Thai in the audience said Thais didn’t really think of Rattuwat as a “real Thai” writer because he was born in the US and has spent a lot of time there. But reading Sightseeing, I got a real insight into many aspects of Thai life, and I agree that the stories are beautifully written. Years ago, I did an undergraduate course about writers in exile (including self-imposed), which was fascinating, and many of them said they thought they had a clearer view of their country from afar. I have found this to be true quite often: in the short stories of Katherine Mansfield about New Zealand, for example, which she wrote while based in Europe.

    • angelasavage says:

      I loved this book, Caron. How intriguing that a Thai person would question Rattawut’s credentials as a ‘real Thai’, when you think that in Australia, we are always trying to claim successful New Zealanders as our own (think Russell Crowe, Keith Urban), not to mention permanent expats, too (Germaine Greer, Clive James). Like you, I felt Sightseeing offered wonderful insights into Thai life; and I wonder whether Rattawut is not seen as a ‘real Thai’ because he doesn’t portray Thailand in a way ‘real Thais’ would like him to — rather like the way Christos Tsiolkas writes about Australia as it is, rather than how we like to think of ourselves.

      I like the idea that writers in exile can get a clearer view of their country from a distance.

      • Yes, I think there is a lot of that in it: it’s hard for people to see themselves without the rose-tinted glasses. It takes a brave writer to fight through the myths and get to the truth, doesn’t it? I’m looking forward to reading Tsiolkas’s latest novel, barracuda: brilliant premise.

  3. Pingback: Six degrees of separation: Burial Rites | Angela Savage

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