Monday, December 19, 2005

Between Pussy and Elephant: Gritty Social Reality

Rattawat Lapcharoensap writes with both compassion and maturity and his Sightseeing is a wonderfully self-assured collection of short stories from a first time writer.

All but one of the stories are written from the point of view of teenagers coming to terms with a confusing adult world. And although the setting for each story is Thailand, Lapcharoensap steers well clear of the kind of exoticism that bedevils most South-East Asian literature. Indeed, the Thailand of the tourist brochure is roundly mocked in the opening story Farangs. Says a hotel proprietor, tourists only want "pussy and elephant":
"You give them history, temples, pagadas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead geting skin cancer on the beach during the time in between."
There's a gritty social realism in his choice of settings: a down-market brothel, a smouldering rubbish-dump, a refugee shanty, cockpits, with many of the characters living on the edge in economic terms. Lapcharoensap has his characters speak in a street-smart, vernacular language which eliminates the distance still further.

In a collection this strong, it's hard to pick favourites. But I won't easily forget the poignant tale of a son taking his mother on one last holiday before she looses her sight in the title story, and the agonising betrayal of a childhood friendship in Draft. And the last story in the book, Cockfighter - at 80 pages more a novella than a short story - is a real heart-stopper.

I've not felt this enthusiastic about a short story collection since Jhumpa Lahiri's The Interpreter of Maladies . And if I were still teaching literature at college level, I'd choose this as a set-text for sure.

(You can hear Rattawat Lapcharoensap talk about his book and read an excerpt in this recording from the Guardian blog. I also wrote a previous post about the author here.)

7 comments:

starlight said...

i absolutely love this book!!! met rattawut at this year's singapore writer's festival and bought a copy right after his talk. figured that if he wrote as well as he spoke, his book would be a delicious treat. one of those books that gives you a sinking feeling when the number of pages on the right start getting thinner. :)

lil ms d said...

i loved the book!!!

Greenbottle said...

read one of his hilarious stories in the guardian online a few weeks back and would be interested to get this book... & oh hey...what's wrong with wanting only 'pussy and elephant'? i tought that's the reason why everybody goes to thailand for? ...temples? no, that's just an excuse...

btw, did he win the award he was shortlisted for?

bibliobibuli said...

a lot of applause it seems ... which makes me all the sadder that i didn't go down to singapore ... please kick me next time starlight, ms d. i need dragging by the scuff of my neck.

greenbottle - i go to thailand for the temples ... he did not win the guardian first book award but his was the only work of fiction shortlisted so that in itself speaks volumes ...

Nizam Zakaria said...

I found the hardcover version of the book and bought it because I thought I wanted to show to my publisher how my book is suppose to look like. And then I ended up reading Sightseeing. I've throughly enjoyed the book, although I have an inkling suspicion that most Thai books written in the vernacular language are written without the exoticism of local culture.

amir said...

Elepussy!

Yeah.

Muahahaha.

Frpg said...

Whose ?