Saturday, March 31, 2012

Monsoon Country--Review

Oh, I don't  know.

There was something so terribly earnest about this book, so self-consciously I'm-going-to-explain-my culture-to-you-interested-foreigner that it ended up feeling like an exercise--and dull.  I feel rather guilty about that, but the deadening weight of worthy intent kind of suffocated the book for me. As I read it, I kept remembering that this book was written not in Thai, but in English, and not, consequently, for the people that it is written about, but for the outsider who wanted to learn a bit about Thailand. How important is it that a book be written for the people that it's written about? How important is it just to get to learn about a foreign culture, however artificial the construct might be? In some ways, I feel that I learned more about Pira Sudham thought I should learn about Thai culture, and not  what I might learn by myself by sifting through a culture by myself. There's a thrill of reading a book about a foreign land when it isn't really meant for you--a sort of eavesdropping--that is entirely missing from "Monsoon Country." It's not that I think that I think he's been intentionally misleading, and I recognize that any literature or autobiography--indeed any writing at all--is going to be shaped by the narrator into the form that the author wants the reader to digest. Nevertheless,  I learned that being spoon-fed ideas that weren't even created for the original culture isn't my goal for this challenge. I don't care how many interesting facts I have learned.

It is an odd thing, but four of the five books I have chosen for Asia have an ethnic minority as the main character, and that even my book for Vietnam has a Laotian as an important minor character. I think that it's just a coincidence, but it is worth noting. In "Monsoon Country", the first half takes place in a remote region of north east Thailand; the main character, Prem, is Laotian, as is Pira Sudham, himself.  It depicts the severe isolation and poverty where several of the characters dream of possessing underwear--yes, underwear--as a status symbol, and where everyone in the village  (except for the politicking headman) is one bad harvest away from starvation. The language is very stark in a rather monumental way--it reminded me a bit of "The Good Earth." And like Pearl S. Buck. Pira Sudham employs an omniscient narrator in order to try to give a complete picture of this world.

It isn't completely successful, however, as a work of literature.  The conversations are unreal--long, long. discourses that serve to instruct and make no attempt whatsover to imitate real speech. I often found them tiresome rather than illuminating. Prem, too, is the perfect scholar and sensitive soul--he's rather like Keri in "The Bone People"--the not-quite-of-this-world artist avatar, except he's much more retiring and not nearly as irritating. Often, too, Sudham refers to his hero as that "poor Siamese", which didn't make me feel the sympathy I was supposed to have for the main character--it seemed a bit of mawkish sentimentality instead.

The best part of the book, for me, was when Prem moves to the city and lives with the monks while he continues his education. Sudham deals forthrightly with the student rebellions and massacres of the early 1970's, and with Prem's ambivalent reactions to them. Interesting, too, is Prem's relationship with another, far wealthier Thai student when he leaves Thailand for university studies in  London. I wish Sudham had developed this story line further, but instead he veers off into an unsatisfying  side-plot with a musician in Munich that adds nothing to the story. The book loses momentum and never really recovers. Prem's struggles with the West aren't really explored fully, but dwindle away in this story line that doesn't go anywhere. And the ending? Some other readers  are deeply unsatisfied with the denouement, though I found it quite believable. The way that Prem comes to his decision seems a bit understated, but this obliqueness in sentiment is something that I've some across before is Asian literature, so I found it satisfying enough.

So does "In Monsoon Country" offer some illuminating insights? Sure. Are they a bit too carefully composed? Each reader must decide that for himself.

                                                                   Three Stars


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