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from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

One of the unique qualities of theater translation is that the text the translator translates is not really a “text” at all. It is a written invitation to make theater—to occasion a moment of fleeting complicity between an actor on the stage and a spectator in the audience. In the movement from page to stage, the otherness of the playwright’s words—written in another language, in another time, and another place, imbued with dramatic potential and gesturing toward an untouchable, invisible, futurity of performance—are given dramatic substance. Through translation, contemporary performance can inhabit a contiguous border between past and present, arching backward and across this otherness of time, space, and language to make accessible, to audiences speaking a different language and living in a different time and place, the possibility in the past of the presence of something new.

It is this capacity for instruction, for renovation and contemporaneity, that encapsulates microtheater as a genre. “Microtheater,” “café-théàtre,” “short form theater,” “teatro por horas,” “theater in brief”—the mode itself is not new and its historical foundations, over a century in the making, are rich. But its (re)emergence in our cities today, in established theaters, cafés, bars, bookshops, and temporary spaces not previously designated for dramatic performance, is testament to microtheater’s continued offer. Pieces are quick to run, usually fifteen or twenty minutes to an hour, and because they are designed to be portable, with simple-to-no set or prop requirements and pared down casts, they are also quick to stage. In a context of fiscal austerity, where public funding for the arts has been reduced significantly and theater companies must seek alternative routes to performance, microtheater offers the shock of the new at a fraction of the cost of full-scale commercial performance. Companies such as Microteatro Por Dinero, sited in a former brothel in the center of Madrid, for example, are making the most of this most flexible of genres, staging fifteen-minute plays in parallel series, seven days a week, for audiences of fifteen, in rooms no larger than a hundred and sixty square feet. This structural flexibility gives rise to diverse programming, sensitive to the changing needs and interests of spectators. It is this ready route to the public, and the immediacy of response to some of the most urgent questions of our time, that gives microtheater its enduring appeal.

In this special issue we present five micro-plays in translation, each selected as much for its unique geographical and historical dimensions as for its potential to bring readers and new spectators to this re-emerging genre. Three of our selections (Number Six, No Direction, and Grandmother’s Little Hut) form part of an evening of microtheater performance in New York City on December 13, 2016, co-sponsored by Words Without Borders and the Translation Seminar on Public Engagement and Collaborative Research at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Number Six, “a micro-comedy” by José Ignacio Valenzuela, and Visitors from on High: A Tragiccomedy in Science Fiction, by Roberto Athayde, invite us to suspend our disbelief and enjoy the power of microtheater to craft scenarios with a cinematic edge that transport us outside the mundanity of the day to day toward a place where the extraordinary reigns. Translated from the Spanish by Sofía García Deliz and Edil Ramos Pagán, and edited by Aurora Lauzardo, Number Six is the story of a man caught out in a thunderstorm and a woman, safe and dry in her home not far from where the man’s car has broken down. When the man comes to her door seeking help, the woman faces a singular question: should she let him in? Visitors from on High, translated from the Portuguese by the author Roberto Athayde, presents an encounter with extraterrestrial life. Dr. Antaris and his assistant, Louis, are astronomers with the University of Brazil, chosen by a visitor from Venus, on a ten-year scientific and cultural mission with his mother, to learn the secrets of the universe. Visitors is a raucous journey across space and time that urges us to reflect on questions of language, existence, faith, and free will.

No Direction, by Miguel Alcantud and Santiago Molero, and translated by Sarah Maitland, makes the most of microtheater’s capacity to explore new modes of dramaturgy. The setting is tense, claustrophobic, and confusing by design. A man appears to be locked inside a basement or bunker room. There is a woman, Ana, who insists that he cannot be let out. Although the audience never learns his name, we are pulled inexorably into the mysteries surrounding the man’s evolving story. Alcantud and Molero craft their play in a space of temporal dislocation that requires spectators to collude in the destruction of any narrative structure that has a clear beginning and end.

Two plays situated in a very different historical context are Grandmother’s Little Hut, by Andrei Platonov, and Love Thy Savior, Part Three, by Jerzy Lutowski. Grandmother’s Little Hut, translated from the Russian by Jesse Irwin, is an unfinished play written in 1938. When we first meet Dusya, a young woman who has been orphaned, she has received a cold welcome at her relatives’ house. To her aunt and uncle, she is yet another mouth to feed. But her plucky spirit cannot be quashed, and she befriends the young Mitya, a fellow orphan who tells her of the hut where his grandmother lives. After the death of his mother, she is the only source of love in his life. In this moving play where the adults in charge seem cruel and uncaring, the grandmother’s hut, with its warm lights and gentle willow trees, is their promised land—if only they can get to it.

Love Thy Savior, Part Three, by Jerzy Lutowski, is a thoughtful comment on social and moral issues. Written between 1956 and 1964 and published in Poland in 1980 during a temporary relaxation of censorship rules, it is the third of three acts. Each act enjoys a very different geographical, historical, and sociocultural setting and each offers its own invitation to be staged as a separate piece. The setting for Part Three is Inquisition-era Spain, 1493. Rachel is prepared to renounce Judaism, much to the distress of her father, Abraham, so that she can marry Alonso, a Spanish nobleman who is helping her father flee Spain and the Inquisition. But their plan is shattered when Alonso reveals his true feelings about her faith and Rachel must make a terrible choice with profound implications.

Across the theater spectrum, cuts to public funding for the arts means reduced subsidies, more short-term contracts, and fewer paid hours for theater workers. While microtheater is not a new phenomenon, at a time of national budget-deficits, its commitment to a sustainable business model represents not only a potent artistic response to negative economic growth but also an opportunity to embrace the radical creative output that more conservative stages tend to reject. In an age of profound economic and social change, as well as cultural and political entrenchment, this may be microtheater’s most important role of all.  


© 2016 by Sarah Maitland. All rights reserved.

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Number Six

José Ignacio Valenzuela’s distrustful woman debates whether she ought to allow a stranger into her home.    
 

Characters

WOMAN
MAN
NEWSCASTER (voiceover)

A living room with a small sofa, a television set switched on, and a door. There’s an old- fashioned phone beside the TV. We hear the sound of rainstorm: thunder and lightning. A woman is sitting on the sofa watching the TV.

VOICEOVER OF THE NEWSCASTER  The police have issued no statements regarding the murder of five people this past week. Police have confirmed they were stabbed with what is presumed to be a hunting knife on a public street around midnight.

The woman covers her mouth with one hand, gasping.

WOMAN (Agitated) Useless. They haven’t a clue who’s behind it. Not one clue!

Still dismayed, the woman takes the remote control and presses “mute.” She stands up. She seems nervous and troubled by what she just heard. Suddenly, the phone rings, startling her. She goes to the phone and picks it up.

WOMAN (On the phone) Hello?

She stays still for a moment.

WOMAN (On the phone, serious) Hello? Who is it?

No one seems to answer. Thunderclap.

WOMAN (On the phone) I can’t hear anything.

The woman keeps the phone to her ear a bit longer. She gestures annoyed and hangs up the phone. She rubs her face. A police siren is heard in the background, passing by the house. The woman is about to go to the door, but the phone rings again. She waits for a moment, and then answers it. The police siren stops.

WOMAN (Coldly, on the phone) Who is this? Maybe the phone lines aren’t working or maybe for some reason you just don’t want to talk, but if you think you’re scaring me, I warn you, it’s not gonna work! You pranksters don’t scare me, because—

Another police siren. The woman flinches. She hangs up the phone and runs to the door. She’s about to open it but stops. She presses her ear to the door instead. The police siren continues and then stops. Dismayed, the woman fastens the door chain.

She’s about to go back to the sofa when someone knocks on the door. The woman is startled. There’s a louder knock on the door.

WOMAN (Serious) Who is it? (Louder) I said who is it?

MAN        (Off) Please let me in! I need help! (Pause) Is anybody there?

WOMAN Yes. What do you want?

MAN        (Off) Please let me in. My car broke down, my cell phone is dead, and I need to get a tow truck immediately. Please! It’s pouring out here!

The woman is apprehensive and hesitant.

MAN        (Off) Ma’am? May I come in or not?

WOMAN Some police cars just passed by. Ask them for help.

MAN        (Off) They’ve already gone! I couldn’t catch them in time.

WOMAN There’s a pay phone around the corner.

MAN        (Off) I don’t have any change. Don’t you trust me? I won’t hurt you!

WOMAN I’ll slide some coins underneath the door.

MAN        (Off, agitated) I just need to make a phone call, that’s all! It will only be a minute!

WOMAN (Agitated) I’m going to get some change!

The woman walks over to the sofa, where there’s a backpack. She opens it, puts a hand inside, and takes out a coin purse. She returns to the door with the coin purse in her hand.

WOMAN (Anxious) All right, here’s the change. (Pause) Hey! Are you still there?

Nobody answers. The woman steps closer to the door, pressing her ear up against it. She grabs the doorknob and tightens her grip, as if she’s going to open the door. A nail-biting period of suspense. Suddenly:

MAN        (Off) It doesn’t work!

The woman draws back from the door, startled.

MAN        (Off) The pay phone doesn’t work! Let me in, please! It’s really pouring out here and it’s dark! Haven't you heard about the murders? The people that were killed in this area? I don’t want to stay out here any longer than I have to.

WOMAN Of course I heard about the murders.

MAN        (Off) Why won’t you let me in, then? Are you alone?

WOMAN (Anxious) N-no.

MAN        (Off) What is it, then? What are you afraid of? Are you afraid of me?

WOMAN I’m not afraid.

MAN        (Off) Really?

The woman doesn’t respond. She toys around with the chain lock, staring intently at it.

MAN        (Off) Let me in, then. I just want to make a phone call. Nothing more, I swear. I just want to get a tow truck and get out of here!

WOMAN I can call it for you.

(Silence)

WOMAN (Insisting) I said I can call a tow truck for you, did you hear me?

MAN        (Off) All right. If that makes you feel better . . .

WOMAN Give me the number.

MAN        (Off) I don’t know the number! I told you my cell phone is dead. You’ll have to look it up for me . . . unless you want to let me in and look for it.

WOMAN No. I can do it.

MAN        (Off, nervous) Don’t take too long, please!

The woman goes back to the sofa. She takes out a cell phone from her backpack. She stares at it with a stern expression. Then she puts it back in the backpack, takes a deep breath, and walks back to the door.

WOMAN Done. It’s on its way.

MAN        (Off, surprised) What? Already?

WOMAN (Anxious) Yes. I called them, gave them the address, asked for an emergency towing service, and hung up. Thirty seconds. They said they’ll be here in half an hour. The best you can do now is get back in your car and wait for them.

MAN        (Off) I’ll leave you alone, then. Thanks.

WOMAN Don’t mention it.

There’s a deep silence. The woman leans against the door, trying to hear something. She has the urge to open it, but she controls herself. She goes back to the sofa, sits down, and turns on the TV with the remote control.

VOICEOVER OF THE NEWSCASTER  The police department is still searching for the killer who has terrified the community for weeks. A dedicated task force has been working day and night—

The woman turns off the TV. She takes the backpack and is about to take something out of it. Suddenly:

MAN        (Off) You lied!

The woman gets to the door quickly, very anxious.

MAN        (Off) You didn’t call them at all! You can’t manage to look the number up and talk to them in just thirty seconds! You lied to me! Let me in so I can make that goddamn phone call!

WOMAN Of course I did!

MAN        (Off) You didn’t! Please, let me in!

WOMAN I’m going to bed now. Why don’t you ask someone else for help?

MAN        (Off) The street is deserted. There’s no sign of life in any other house but yours.

WOMAN (Anxious) I have to go.

MAN        (Off) Please, for God’s sake! Call my wife, then! Tell her what’s going on, she must be worried! I was supposed to be home hours ago.

WOMAN Are you sure the pay phone is broken?

MAN        (Off) I’ve checked it three times. I’m soaking wet. Please! I just want to get out of here. Call my wife. Ask her to get a tow truck for me. Give her this address. I’m begging you!

WOMAN All right, I’ll get my phone!

The woman rushes to the sofa, takes the backpack, and presses it against her chest. She seems to have decided something. She takes her cell phone from the backpack and returns to the door.

WOMAN I’m back. Give me the number.

MAN        (Off) Why won’t you let me in? Are you afraid of me? You think I’m going to hurt you? (Pause) You think I’m the one who killed those five people, don’t you?

WOMAN  How do you know there were five?

No answer. The woman gets more agitated.

WOMAN HOW DO YOU KNOW THERE WERE FIVE?

MAN        (Off) I heard it on TV, OK? Like everyone else. Are you going to make the call or not?

WOMAN (Agitated) Give me the number!

MAN        (Off) Listen, I’m scared shitless, same as you, all right? The only difference is you’re safe inside and I’m out here alone in the dark.

WOMAN (Agitated) If you don’t want me to call her, then I’ll—

MAN        (Off, interrupting her, loudly) 229 . . .

The woman pretends to dial the numbers.

MAN        (Off) 62  . . . 66 . . . You got it?

WOMAN Yes. Just give me a second.

MAN        (Off) My wife’s name is Angelica!

The woman walks to the sofa. She brings the cell phone near her ear

WOMAN (Imitating the tone tune) Ring . . . Ring . . . Ring . . . Hello? Good evening. May I speak with Angelica?

The woman puts the cell phone inside the backpack and keeps pretending that she’s making the phone call.

WOMAN Hello. You don’t know me, but I’m calling because your husband is standing outside my front door. (Lowering her voice) He’s an idiot. He asked me to tell you blahblahblah (Scornful) Blahblahblah . . . and then yaddayaddayadda . . .

The woman stands up, takes another deep breath, and goes back to the door.

WOMAN Done. I did as you asked.

MAN        (Off) Did you speak with my wife?

WOMAN (Nervous) Yes.

MAN        (Off) What number did you dial?

WOMAN (Taken aback) The one . . . the one you gave me.

MAN        (Off) And you say you spoke to my wife?

WOMAN (Agitated) Yes, I told you I spoke to her!

MAN        (Off, furious) LIAR!

WOMAN (Screaming) NO!

MAN        (Off) You’re lying! That number doesn’t exist! I just made it up! I don’t even have a wife!

Even more agitated, the woman walks away from the door.

MAN        (Off) You’re a fucking liar! Every single thing you’ve said is a lie!

There is more banging against the door. It is obvious that the man is trying to break it down.

MAN        (Off) I’m coming in!

The door shudders with every blow, each stronger than the last. This continues on and on, until suddenly, it stops. There is a deep silence. The woman is standing by the sofa, gasping for air. Resolute, she goes to the door and presses an ear to it, trying to hear something. Everything is quiet. We hear the woman’s heavy breathing. She grabs the door latch and unfastens it. Then she unlocks the door chain and grabs the knob. She’s going to open the door. She takes deep, agitated breaths. It seems that she has made up her mind. She turns the knob and opens the door with a quick motion: there’s no one on the other side. The woman sighs, relieved. She closes the door without locking it. She goes to the sofa and turns on the TV again.

VOICEOVER OF THE NEWSCASTER  Sources from the police department have stated that a security camera captured what seems to be the killer’s silhouette. The suspect wore black clothes and carried a backpack presumed to contain the murder weapon.

There is a violent blow at the door. The woman screams.

MAN        (Off) I just wanted to make a phone call!

WOMAN (Screaming) LEAVE ME ALONE!

MAN        (Off, screaming too) I ASKED YOU FOR HELP AND YOU DID NOTHING!

The woman grabs her backpack quickly and pulls it to her chest, as though protecting herself.

MAN        (Off, agitated) What kind of woman are you? Have you no soul?

WOMAN (Defiant) Fine. You want to come in? Go ahead.

There is a silence that shows that the man is taken aback by the woman’s sudden change of attitude.

WOMAN You were right. I was inconsiderate.

The woman holds on tightly to the backpack, preparing for the encounter.

WOMAN I don’t know what came over me. I . . . I think I was scared of being all by myself in here . . . at night. Forgive me. Please forgive me.

The woman hardens her gaze, which is fixed on the door.

WOMAN My phone is all yours! Come and get it!

No answer. Silence.

WOMAN (Yells) COME IN! COME IN AND MAKE YOUR PHONE CALL!

The door starts to open little by little. The woman opens the backpack and introduces one hand inside.

WOMAN Don’t make me say it twice! I was stupid, I know! I already asked you to forgive me! Please come in.

The door opens completely. There’s a man on the doorstep. He is nervous. His hair is dripping wet. The woman smiles at him.

WOMAN Good evening. We finally meet. Come on in.

Hesitating, the man stares at her. He takes one step inside. The woman quickly takes a big hunting knife out of the backpack. She jumps on the scared man. There is total darkness, followed by a cry of pain from the man. Then there is silence, interrupted by . . .

WOMAN (Off) Welcome, number six.


“Número 6” © José Ignacio Valenzuela. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Aurora Lauzardo, Sofía García Deliz, and Edil Ramos Pagán. All rights reserved.

 

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

No Direction

Miguel Alcantud and Santiago Molero present the mysterious call-and-response of a nameless man and the woman who appears to be holding him captive. 
 

Characters

HIM
HER


The room appears to be a bedroom but with a bit of everything thrown in. It looks like a kind of basement area or shed, although it is well set up. There is a bed, a piece of low furniture that could be a dresser or chest of drawers, and a chair. As the audience enters a man can be seen lying on the floor, apparently dead. The man sits up and clutches his stomach in pain. The pain passes and he takes a drink from a bottle. He shakes it. He takes some ash from an urn and puts it in the bottle. He closes the urn. He goes to take a drink and stops. He shakes the bottle and adds some white powder from a small glass box. He places everything on a chair and looks around, downcast. He puts the bottle and box of powder in a simple bag from the supermarket and the urn in a backpack. He puts the chest of drawers back in its place, picks up the bags, looks around as if disoriented, and leaves through the door. Momentarily he comes back in again, without the bags. He puts the keys underneath the chest of drawers. He lies down beside the door looking at the keys and disconnects. He falls asleep. The light goes out. Only a faint, yellowish glow remains, similar to an emergency light. He bangs his head against the floor. The light comes on. He is in the same position, but awake. The light goes out. He does not move. He gets up.
 

HIM  Ana! Help!

(He tries to leave through the door, but it is locked. He goes to the chest of drawers and looks at the cell phone.)

No! No! (He looks at the cell in disbelief. The battery has run out.) Where have you taken her? Hello? Hello? What’s going on? She’s . . . No . . . No, I can’t speak to . . . No, that’s not possible. (Shouting.) What? Put her on! I want to speak to her. Where is Ana? Who? (Immediately his expression changes. He smiles.) You’re back already?  

(He presses a button on the cell phone, which starts to make a noise. He puts the cell down. Music plays: “No puedo estar sin ti” by Coque Malla. He lets himself go to the music while he gets undressed. He presses a button and the music stops. He breathes deeply and presses a button again.)

I love you. You’ve always been my better half, you know that, even if I am more of a quarter these days than a half. When I’m better it’ll be me who takes care of you. I’ll treat you like a queen. You’ve no idea how much it means to me. You’ve . . . You’ve . . . I want you to know that . . . I’m always asking you to forgive me . . . I’m sorry. I know you’re doing all of this for me, Ana. I wouldn’t have it any other way . . .

(He still has the phone to his ear, as if he is listening. He dials again and leaves the phone on the table. He takes off his trousers and picks up the phone.)

Don’t pick up.

(He listens and smiles. He dials again. He hangs up.)

Alright, hang up. Yes, I’m fine . . . I’ve told you a hundred times not to answer the phone while you’re driving. So don’t pick up. I wanted to . . . Ana, it’s me . . .

(He dials a number and listens. He picks up a cell phone, takes off his shirt, and sits on the bed. He takes off his shoes. He takes off a sock and turns it around in his hand. He turns it inside out and puts it back on. He looks at the sock, half-surprised, half-amused. He takes off both socks, sitting on the bed, pensive. A girl enters.)

HER  The battery’s nearly gone. I won’t be long.

HIM  Ana . . .

(He looks at a cell phone on the bed. He picks it up and gives it to her. She puts it in her handbag.)

Can you give me your phone, please? Yours does the music . . . Yes . . .

HER  You have the phone. I have to go.

HIM  I had an idea yesterday for a picture . . .

(He settles.)

HER  You know what we’re doing here. No one would be happier than me to see you get out of here, but it’s too soon . . . I don’t want to have to say it again.

HIM  It’s for my own good.

HER  It’s all for you, isn’t it? Who else?

(He does not reply.)

What are we doing?

HIM  Why do you say that?

HER  You make everything I do seem so senseless.

HIM  I just want to go out for a while and keep you company, do the shopping with you . . .

HER  Please don’t make me say it again.

HIM  I won’t do anything stupid. You said it yourself . . . I’m fine . . .

HER  I won’t be long. I wouldn’t . . . I wouldn’t be able to relax.

HIM  What if I need to go to the bathroom? At least leave the door unlocked.

HER  No.

HIM  I’ll get dressed quickly and come with you. Hang on.

HER  I have to go. I’m tired, that’s all . . .

HIM  You used to say it’s good to talk about it. You hardly talk at all any more . . .

HER  Jesus, I look awful!

(She looks at herself in a small mirror on the wall.) 

HIM  I don’t understand.

HER  Sometimes I feel like everything used to be so much easier. I’m sorry . . . It’s good to see you looking better.

HIM  What’s wrong?

HER  (Indifferent.) Yes.

HIM  It’s the nurse’s fault.

HER  You’re fine now.

HIM  (Suddenly happy.) Would you still love me even if I wasn’t sick?

(She finishes getting undressed and goes back to the bed. He lies down with his head hanging over the edge of the bed.)

HIM  Ana . . . It sounds just the same . . . Ana . . . Ana. I like saying your name with my head upside down.

(He starts moving nervously as if overcome by tics. He tries to place his hand on her.)

HER  (Amused, in spite of herself.) Silly.

HIM  I’ve got . . . Parkinson’s . . .

HER  You’re shaking.

(They embrace. They kiss. They look at one another.)

HIM  Don’t laugh at me.

HER  (Laughing.) You’re too much.

HIM  I can’t imagine life without you.

HER  It’s normal to feel a bit overwhelmed. You’re so close to the finishing line.

HIM  I was losing you . . . and everything went . . . like it did before.

HER  You know you still can’t leave.

HIM  I want to go with you.

HER  I have to go to the store.

HIM  Why?

HER  I have to go. It’s late.

HIM  I dreamed you weren’t coming back.

HER  What happened?

HIM  It was a nightmare.

HER  You were dreaming.

(They are lying down on the bed. He turns his back to her, she shakes him. He moves, restless, as if he is having nightmares. She looks at the alarm clock on the chair and falls asleep. Momentarily she wakes again. He moves restlessly. She looks at the clock on the chair. She turns to look at him affectionately and wakes him gently.)

You were dreaming.

HIM  It was a nightmare.

HER  What happened?

HIM  I dreamed you weren’t coming back.

(Everything is repeated from this point until the end.)

HER  It’s late. I have to go.

HIM  Why?

HER  I have to go to the store.

HIM  I want to go with you.

HER  You know you still can’t leave.

HIM  I was losing you . . . and everything went . . . like it did before.

HER  You’re so close to the finishing line. It’s normal to feel a bit overwhelmed.

HIM  I can’t imagine life without you.

HER  (Laughing.) You’re too much.

HIM  Don’t laugh at me.

(Silence. They look at one another. They kiss. They embrace.)

HER  You’re shaking.

HIM  I’ve got . . . Parkinson’s . . .

(He starts moving nervously as if overcome by tics. He tries to place his hand on her.)

HER  (Amused, in spite of herself.) Silly.

(He lies down with his head hanging over the edge of the bed.)

HIM  I like saying your name with my head upside down. Ana . . . Ana. It sounds just the same . . . Ana.

(She starts getting dressed.)

HIM  (Suddenly serious.) Would you still love me even if I wasn’t sick?

HER  You’re fine now.

HIM  It’s the nurse’s fault.

HER  (Indifferent.) Yes.

HIM  What’s wrong?

HER  I’m sorry . . . It’s good to see you looking better. Sometimes I feel like everything used to be so much easier.

HIM  I don’t understand.

HER (Looking at herself in a small mirror on the wall.) Jesus, I look awful!

HIM  You hardly talk at all any more. . . You used to say it’s good to talk about it.

HER  I’m tired, that’s all . . . . I have to go.

HIM  Hang on, I’ll get dressed quickly and come with you.

HER  (She hesitates a moment, somewhat bewildered.) No.

HIM  At least leave the door unlocked. What if I need to go to the bathroom?

HER  No . . . No, I wouldn’t be able to relax. I won’t be long.

HIM  I’m fine . . . you said it yourself . . . I won’t do anything stupid.

HER  Please don’t make me say it again.

HIM  I just want to go out for a while and keep you company, do the shopping with you . . .

HER  You make everything I do seem so senseless.

HIM  Why do you say that?

HER  What are we doing?

(He does not reply.)

It’s all for you, isn’t it? Who else?

HIM  It’s for my own good.

HER  I don’t want to have to say it again. No one would be happier than me to see you get out of here, but it’s too soon . . . you know that.

(He settles.)

HIM  (Trying to calm things down and keep the conversation going.) I had an idea yesterday for a picture . . .

HER  (She acknowledges this and looks away.)

(Addressing him.) I have to go. You have the phone.

HIM  Yes . . . (Before she leaves.) Can you give me your phone, please? Yours does the music . . .

(She takes out a cell phone from her handbag, looks at it, and places it on the bed.)

Ana . . .

HER  The battery’s nearly gone. I won’t be long.

(She leaves. He remains alone in the room.)


“No Direction” © Miguel Alcantud and Santiago Molero. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2016 by Sarah Maitland. All rights reserved.

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Grandmother’s Little Hut

An Unfinished Play

In Andrei Platonov’s unfinished play from 1938, two young orphans seek out their promised land.
 

Characters

DUSYA, an orphan
TATYANA FILIPPOVNA, DUSYA’s aunt
ARCHAPOV ARKADY, the aunt’s husband
MITYA, an orphan
MITYA’s UNCLE
A YOUNG WOMAN, the uncle’s girlfriend
 

ACT 1

Scene 1

(A room in the small old house of a tradesman. A dresser. Above it are photographs of the owners’ relatives; on it stand aging souvenirs and knickknacks from the nineteenth century. Furniture that had once been a part of the wife’s dowry—plush sofas and chairs, now threadbare; a trunk; a table covered by a tablecloth; one or two windows with ornate curtains cut from paper; pots with flowers on the windowsills; a mirror on the dresser—and any other bits and pieces that an old, thrifty couple might have possessed. The door between this room and the kitchen is open: in the kitchen can be seen a scoured kitchen table, plates, and a Russian stove in one corner. ARCHAPOV is in the room, sitting at the table and eating from a little bowl. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA, his wife, is in the kitchen; leaning on a large stove fork, she looks out at her husband.)

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    Full yet?

ARCHAPOV (Wipes his moustache)  Bring me some more.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    Sure that wasn’t enough?

ARCHAPOV    Too watery. Make it thicker.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    All right, have all you want! You’ll feel it later, though.

ARCHAPOV    Go light the samovar.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    You’ll be sweating after all that tea, won’t you? You’ll sweat and sweat—and then you’ll catch cold . . .

ARCHAPOV    And then I’ll get well again—don’t fret.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    Oh, go on, eat and drink all you want. With you around we’ll never be putting any money aside—you’re a bottomless pit! No money to fix the roof—but we eat beef every day . . . . (She wipes away her tears with the edge of her apron.)

(A latch rattles against the door that opens from the porch into the kitchen.)

ARCHAPOV    Are you going to open the door?

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    There’s no hurry. It could be a beggar woman . . .

ARCHAPOV    A beggar—in this day and age?

(TATYANA FILIPPOVNA undoes the latch and bolt of the kitchen door. DUSYA enters barefoot and bareheaded. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA looks her over coldly and indifferently.)

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    What are you doing here?

DUSYA    When my mother was dying, she told me to come to you. And now my father is dead too, and I’ve been living all alone . . . Dear Auntie, I don’t have anyone now!

(TATYANA FILIPPOVNA lifts the edge of her apron and wipes her eyes.)

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    No one in our family lasts long. And I’m no different—I only look like I’m doing OK, but I’m not in good shape . . . No, not in good shape at all . . . .

(Pause. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA cries. DUSYA watches her timidly.)

Oh, come on, have a seat here in the kitchen. There’s some herring on that plate over there—go and get yourself some.

(DUSYA takes a piece of herring from a wooden plate and eats it timidly. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA goes back out to her husband, into the main room.)

God relieves us of our own children—and what then? Then our relatives fling their children at us. There she is, Arkasha—my niece! She’s a true orphan now: she’ll need to be fed—not to mention new clothes and shoes!

ARCHAPOV (Sullenly) What more could we ask for!

(DUSYA comes out from the kitchen.)

DUSYA    I don’t need to be fed, I’ve eaten all I want. I just want to sleep.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    If you want to sleep, then lie down and sleep. There’s a trunk over there . . . When was your father’s funeral?

DUSYA    It’s been seven days.

(DUSYA lies down on the trunk, her face to the wall; she curls her body closer into itself and tries to pull down her dress—she is growing out of it. ARCHAPOV taps his fingers on the table and looks at the clock on the wall.)

ARCHAPOV    Bring me my food, I need to go to work soon.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    Why the hurry? (A little more quietly) Maybe she’ll fall asleep soon, just wait a little.

ARCHAPOV    I don’t care—he’s not my relative. I just want peace and order in my own home.

(TATYANA FILIPPOVNA goes to the kitchen, takes a pot and pan from the stove, slices some fresh bread, brings the bread to the table, goes back again, then bustles about between the stove and her husband, bringing things to the table one at a time—the salt shaker, a fork, a piece of bread. All the time, she keeps talking.)

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    In she comes—and makes herself at home just like that. Oh, my dear uncle and aunt, she says to herself, they don’t want for anything! They’ll feed me, they’ll give me clothes and shoes. They’ll find me a husband and give me a dowry!! . . . Here I am—what more could they ask for? A hungry, unwashed, barefoot, unhappy little orphan in a skirt she’s long grown out of. Soon, God willing, the two of them will kick the bucket—and then I’ll be the woman of the house. All they earned by the sweat of their brow—all mine to spend as I please! . . . Well, Dusya, you know what I think you should do? Find yourself bed and board down below with the devils! As for what’s mine, I won’t let you even blow the dust off them. And may my bread choke you! My man toils all day long—out in the wind and cold. I don’t sit down myself from dawn till dusk—and then along comes dear Dusya: “Here I am! Take good care of me! Love me and nourish me . . .”

(Short pause. ARCHAPOV eats. TATYANA FILIPPOVNA, irritated, hurries toward the trunk, where DUSYA, as before, lies facing the wall.)

Just look at her—how sweet and cosy!

(Short pause.)

DUSYA (Not turning over) I’m not asleep. I was listening to you.

(Short pause. DUSYA sits up.)

I’m going now. I’m not staying with you.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA  (With a sigh) All right, go. Seems you do, after all, have somewhere to go . . .

DUSYA    Yes, I’m going to the Soviet Union of Republics.

ARCHAPOV    You should say it in full: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

DUSYA    You don’t need it in full.

TATYANA FILIPPOVNA    Oh, she is sure of herself, she’s not one to be frightened! And she’s taken offense! . . . All right, go and live where you like—we’re not a roadside inn and we’re not a republic.

(DUSYA leaves in silence, without a glance at her aunt and uncle.)

Scene 2

(An apartment in a small building. Usual furnishings for a laborer’s or office worker’s family. Two large windows looking out onto a quiet, provincial street. Outside—the light of a sunny day; in the distance—two or three trees and a wide-open field stretching off into space. On the wall between the windows, facing the audience, is a large portrait of a smiling young woman; the portrait is decorated with pine branches and is bordered by black crepe. On the floor of the room—a rug; a boy, MITYA, sits on this rug, playing with some toys. It’s quiet everywhere—in the room and outside the building; all that can be heard is the heavy breathing of MITYA, who is intensely focused on his game. Solemn music suddenly starts up in the distance—Red Army soldiers or pioneers are marching somewhere. MITYA stops playing; he cries quietly and slowly and, sitting all alone on the rug, wipes his eyes with his hands. Eyes red with tears, he gets to his feet, walks up to the wall, looks at the portrait of the young woman, and begins speaking to her.)

MITYA    Mama, why did you die? . . . Papa is out at work, Grandma Povanna lives far away in a little hut, she’s sick, she just lies there without ever dying—and I sit here on my own, weeping for you . . . Mama, please come back and live with us—it must be boring there with only dead people. We’ll be together again, and I’ll listen to you—and when I grow up, then you can die again, and we’ll bury you with music. Or better still, don’t die at all. . . . Come back now, Mama, even if it’s only for a minute, and then you can go away again.

(Short pause.)

No, I understand—you’ll never be here with me. Your eyes are shut, you’ve gone blind, and you’ve forgotten everyone. I’m the only one who remembers you now, and I won’t ever forget you.

(MITYA bows his head before his mother’s portrait and cries quietly. DUSYA appears a little way from the window. She stops a little way away, and then comes closer; she presses her face against the glass and taps timidly on the frame with one finger, but MITYA, absorbed in his grief, his head now resting on the table beneath his mother’s portrait, does not hear her. DUSYA looks around the room. She catches sight of the boy—seeing him through the single pane of glass, she taps more loudly. MITYA looks up, goes to the window, and looks at DUSYA with his back to the audience).

DUSYA    Give me something to drink, I just ate some herring.

MITYA    We only have plain water—you need to add some syrup.

DUSYA    Sure, I’ll have it with syrup.

MITYA    They sell it in a booth on the corner—go buy some and drink all you want.

DUSYA    I don’t have any money.

MITYA    Are you poor?

DUSYA    Yes, I’m poor.

MITYA    You’re lying—nobody’s poor. We were poor too, but not anymore. We have milk now, and meat.

DUSYA    Just let me have a mug of water. Open the door for me.

MITYA    I stay locked in. My father locks me inside with his key.

He’s away all day today—he’s gone to the brick factory—and I’m living all on my own, it’s boring . . . They won’t take me at the kindergarten, there’s no room, there are a lot of people being born, and there aren’t enough kindergartens. We had saboteurs and we had spies—half and half!

DUSYA    If the building catches fire—you’ll burn to death. You’re still little.

MITYA    I won’t. I’ll open the window and escape. My father’s taught me everything.

DUSYA    Open the window for me.

MITYA    I’m afraid—you’re a stranger.

(DUSYA presses her face firmly against the windowpane; her face flattens out, distorted to the point of looking ridiculous. Then she sticks out her tongue. MITYA laughs at her.)

DUSYA (Stepping back from the window) Open up, I’m exhausted. I’m not going to kill you.

MITYA    Are you someone’s mama too?

DUSYA (Slowly tracing her finger across the glass) No, I’m not really anything much, I’m not a mama. My own mama died.

(Short pause.)

MITYA    My mama died too . . . Only my mama wasn’t like yours.

DUSYA    Yours was better?

MITYA    Yeah, mine was better. Yours was an old, old woman, soon you’re going to be old too. My mama just died—she wasn’t sick. It was poison—she died right away. She was in pain, but not a lot. Now she just lies there and she’s not in pain.

(Pause. MITYA climbs onto the windowsill and, with some difficulty, pulls the bolt and the hook free from the window frame. The window opens. DUSYA climbs through the window and into the room. MITYA hands her a mug of water. DUSYA drinks. MITYA looks at her a little nervously.)

Don’t take any of our stuff.

DUSYA (In surprise) Of course not. Who’s taught you to say things like that?  Do I look like a thief?

MITYA    My uncle’s taught me everything I know.

(DUSYA sits down on the rug in the middle of the room and starts putting the toys in order. MITYA squats next to her, on his haunches, and eyes his guest.)

DUSYA    Your uncle’s a fool. But where’s your father?

MITYA    My father left us for a fat woman. Mama said he fell in love with some other woman because she was fat, and then he went off with her to distant parts. My father didn’t love Mama anymore. “You’re bourgeois,” he told her. “I’ve found happiness in someone else, in someone gentle and wonderful—and anyway you and I were never suited,” he said—and off he went. In his suitcase he put his coat, his jackets and pants, his handkerchiefs and everything, and the ashtray—he spilled the ash on the floor, what did he care now?—and he took all the money from the table, then he came back again and told Mama to give him the savings book. Mama gave it to him—and my father left us. He said to me, “Farewell, Mitya, study hard, be a pioneer, do what your pioneer leader says, be a young Communist, be an activist, be an honest citizen, read some classics, and don’t smoke.”

DUSYA    And what did you say?

MITYA    I said, “Papa, it would be better to stay at home and become suited to Mama again.”

DUSYA    And what did he answer?

MITYA    He said, “No, we’re strangers now.” And I said, “Well then, go and get yourself suited to that fat woman. And take your Short Course with you.” Papa’s only read two pages this year, though he tells everyone he’s been studying it deeply. But I’ve already spelled out every word in it.

(Short pause.)

DUSYA    Did your mama live long after your father, after he left?

MITYA    No, not long. He left, then Mama fell and began to cry. She loved him all the same and felt suited to him . . . After that, Mama was always silent. She would talk quietly to me, but never to anyone else, and then she died.

DUSYA    How did she die?

MITYA (Distantly) She’s my mama, not yours. I’m the only one who knows how she died, it’s not for you to ask questions.

DUSYA    But what did she die from?

MITYA    She took poison. She loved Papa and couldn’t forget him. She would shout and call for him in her sleep.

(DUSYA takes MITYA and sits him on her knees.)

DUSYA    Your mama shouldn’t have died. She didn’t pity you, she left you to live all alone.

MITYA    That’s none of your business. You’ve had your drink—so go climb back out the window. (He gets up off DUSYA’s knees and moves away from her.)

DUSYA   Your mother loved herself and her husband—your father—more than she loved you.

MITYA    Wrong order. Papa more than anyone, then me—and herself least of all.

DUSYA    Better if she’d loved you more than anyone, then she wouldn’t have wanted to die.

MITYA    Better if it had been you who died, not Mama.

DUSYA (Standing up from the rug) Better . . . let me wash you, you look like a chimney sweep.

MITYA    Are you going to be our cook and nanny?

DUSYA    We’ll see.

MITYA    Will you go out for a walk with me later?

DUSYA    Yes, I will.

MITYA    I’ll tell my uncle to hire you as a nanny. He’s been looking everywhere, with no luck. He says the cooks are all snakes—all studying to be pilots and scientists.

(Meanwhile DUSYA walks through the door, on the right or left, to the kitchen and comes back carrying a basin of water, some soap, a sponge, and a towel. She puts the basin on a chair, or a stool, then quickly pulls MITYA’s head down over the basin. She washes and soaps it.)

The water’s cold. Why didn’t you heat some up on the Primus, you snake? I can see why they didn’t want you to be a pilot.

DUSYA    The water’s not that cold. You’ll be fine. It won’t hurt you . . . So when does your uncle come back?

MITYA    How would I know? This evening or maybe tomorrow. There’s food waiting in the kitchen—lunch and supper. You can have some.

DUSYA    Thank you.

MITYA    Don’t scratch my head with those nails of yours! Rinse the soap away, did you hear me?

DUSYA    I am rinsing it away. But who is your uncle?

MITYA    A fool, you said so yourself. He runs around with different women, he wants to bring me a new mother. But when he does, I’ll leave home for an orphanage. I’ll just take Mama’s portrait and go . . . Hey, that got in my eyes. (Hoarsely) Damn you, you klutz!

DUSYA    Just a moment. It’ll all be over soon. What’s your name?

MITYA    Dimitry Avdotich.

DUSYA    There’s no such name as Avdotich.

MITYA    It comes from my mother. I don’t use my father’s name.

DUSYA    Your mama and I have the same name.

MITYA    My mama didn’t scratch me when she washed my hair.

DUSYA    I won’t scratch you again. All over now.

(DUSYA wipes MITYA’s head with the towel.)

MITYA    Let’s have some food. Will you eat?

DUSYA    After you.

MITYA    If anything’s left.

(MITYA goes into the kitchen and comes back carrying a pot with two spoons inside, their handles sticking up from within, and he puts the pot on the table beneath the portrait of his mother.)

Let’s have some kasha. Take a spoon. I’m not going to eat on my own.

(MITYA and DUSYA eat kasha out of the pot. In the course of this scene the view from the windows has changed: it is getting dark outside.)

(Pointing his spoon at the window) My grandma lives in a little hut out there. It was Mama she loved most—and now it’s me. May she live on.

DUSYA    Is she old?

MITYA    She’s a hundred.

DUSYA    She’ll die soon.

MITYA    No, she can’t die. Her time’s come, but she can’t.

DUSYA    Why not? Does death not come to her?

MITYA    No, death comes, but Grandma’s afraid to leave me in the world alone. How would I look after myself, she asks. So she doesn’t die. She’s waiting till I grow up and get old and come to live with her in her little hut. Then she’ll die. She wants me to shut her eyes. And I will.

(Outside the windows it is now completely dark—a late blue twilight; crickets in the neighborhood have started chirping.

(Pointing into the far distance) That’s where my grandma lives—far, far away. Too far away to see.

(In the distance, a lonely, humble little light flares in the blue darkness.)

That was Grandma lighting her lamp. She can’t come to me—her legs don’t go.

(Far off, around the light, a little hut with a porch, faced with planks or boards, gradually becomes apparent; it has two windows lit from the inside; near the hut stand two old, bent willows.)

I’m going to Grandma’s. We’ll have some compote right now, and then I’ll go.

(MITYA fetches a pot of fruit compote from the kitchen, then puts it down on the table.)

DUSYA    You have it good, your grandma loves you. It’s because of you she won’t die.

MITYA    And it’s because of her that I won’t die . . . When Mama died, I wanted to lie down beside her. I wanted to lie there on the table and stop breathing, because she wasn’t breathing either. But then I felt sorry for Grandma—it would be boring for her without me.

DUSYA (Thoughtfully) I wonder where my own grandma lives?

(Short pause.)

MITYA    My grandma can be half yours.

(Evening has turned into night, but the light of the little hut in the distant field shines still brighter in the darkness; the light from its windows, along with the light of the stars, makes more apparent than ever the vision of the little hut and the two willows dozing beside it. Two people appear outside the open window: MITYA’s UNCLE and a YOUNG WOMAN.)

UNCLE (Excited and merry) Mitya! Feeling bored in there? I’ll open up for you and let you out for a walk. I’ve brought you a new mama!

(Sound of the door being unlocked from outside; the door opens; in come the UNCLE and YOUNG WOMAN.)

UNCLE (Gesturing toward the smiling young woman) Here you are, Avdotich, your new mama. Better than the old one. She’s going to live with us now. So you’d better listen to her, or else! Understand? (He looks closely at DUSYA.) And who do we have here? . . . Wait, stop! Nobody move! (He looks at the YOUNG WOMAN, then back at DUSYA, comparing the two of them.) Stop! I see! (To the YOUNG WOMAN) There’s been a mistake. Go back, my love, off you go.

YOUNG WOMAN: You trash! Don’t think I’ll ever marry you, not after this. I’m a citizen in my own right—I do light work and I get four hundred rubles a month for it! You know what you get for seduction of powerless women? (She grabs something fragile off a bookcase and throws it on the floor. It shatters.) I’ll teach you how to respect a woman! (She sits down in a chair.) I’m not going anywhere—and that’s that. You brought me here—and now you’ll be living with me for the rest of your life! I’ll be the one running things from now on, and that includes you! I’ll humble you once and for all!

(MITYA presses closer to DUSYA. DUSYA takes him by the hand.)

DUSYA    But I’m . . . I’m already married. I’ve got an uncle and an aunt. You can’t marry me. No, you can’t marry anymore!

UNCLE Oh, why were you in such a hurry? You should have waited!

MITYA    She’s my mama now! . . . (He squeezes DUSYA’s hand with both his own hands.) Let’s run away to my grandma.

DUSYA    Come on, Dmitry Avdotich, let’s go.

(DUSYA takes MITYA in her arms and climbs out the open window.)

MITYA    The compote! Get the pot of compote—we didn’t finish it!

(DUSYA lowers MITYA to the ground—both are already outside—then comes back into the room through the same window, picks up the jug and the spoons, and climbs out through the window again. And DUSYA, putting the jug in MITYA’s hands and then taking him in her arms, sets off toward his grandmother’s shining little hut.)

UNCLE   Mitya’s grandmother lives a long way away. (At this moment, the light in the little hut goes out; outside the windows, it is now pitch-dark.) They’ll never get there.

YOUNG WOMAN: What’s it to you if they get there or not? Good riddance! (And she starts to untie her boots.)

CURTAIN.


From Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, edited by Robert Chandler. Forthcoming 2017 from Columbia University Press. Translation © 2017 by Jesse Irwin. By permission of Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Visitors from on High

A Tragicomedy in Science Fiction

Roberto Athayde’s extraterrestrials invite terrestrial concerns around man’s place in the world and in the universe at large.
 

Characters

DR. ANTARIS   A Brazilian astronomer, an aficionado of UFOs.
LOUIS               His assistant, an attractive young man.
PERO                A Venusian ET on a scientific and cultural mission to Earth in the company of his mother.
ANIARA            Mother to the Venusian astronaut, a nice lady and herself a scientist and astronaut.
 

The action takes place in Rio de Janeiro during the last hour of Pero’s mission to Earth. Antaris is lying unconscious on the floor. Louis is awkwardly trying to make him come to. He may pour a glass of water on his boss’s face. Pero and Aniara are standing in the middle of the room, watching the scene with tranquility.

LOUIS       That was nothing. Dr. Antaris  you can come to, everything is fine! (Sprinkles water on the Dr.’s face) Dr. Antaris! Please wake up! Nothing happened, really—for God’s sake, wake up! The Venusians are our friends! (Turns to visitors) Couldn’t you possibly do something about this? After all, it’s your fault that he is like that. You made him pass out saying you’re Venusians.

PERO        Don’t worry, young man, he’ll be all right. Your master is perfectly well. Look, of all the Terran scientists I’ve visited so far, he’s had the best first reaction to us.

LOUIS       What happened to the others?

PERO        They didn’t want to believe in what they saw. Some accused me of fraud in spite of the word of my own mother.

LOUIS       (Looks at Aniara as if weighing her word) Didn’t you know that Dr. Antaris really believes in UFOs? For him there is no possibility of fraud.

PERO        Believing in flying saucers without ever having seen one is one thing: it’s the easiest thing in the world. What is difficult is believing concrete facts.

ANIARA    (Worried) Pero, I think Dr. Antaris should have come to already. We had better give him some Recuperator 0024.

PERO        For heaven’s sake, Mother, that’s way too strong! You always want to do everything with the recuperator. As if there were no other solutions to our problems. Besides, I’m afraid our bottle of 0024 may have deteriorated after ten years.

LOUIS       Ten years?!

PERO        That’s right, son. My mother and I have traveled for ten years to get here.

LOUIS       That’s great! (To Antaris) Wake up, doc, the Venusians are our friends! (The doctor starts coming to) Are you all right?

Antaris moves, sits up, and finally stands up with a rather perplexed expression.

PERO        Well, congratulations, Dr. Antaris. We see in your fainting a proof that you believe in our Venusian origin. (Pause) I’d like to introduce you to my mother, who came with me on this research trip.

ANTARIS  Nice to meet you, Mrs. . . .

ANIARA    Aniara.

ANTARIS  I understand you and your son have just arrived from . . . Venus.

ANIARA    In a way. In fact, we’re getting ready to go back. My son’s scientific mission is practically over. We had ten wonderful days. You just can’t imagine . . .

PERO        (Interrupting) We’d better skip straight to the important points, Mother. Afterward you’ll give your travel impressions to Dr. Antaris. I must deliver the great revelations of our mission.

ANTARIS  It’s incredible! Me, a poor astronomer at the University of Brazil, having the honor to receive all that information!

PERO        You are in good company, too. My list of scientists, issued by our intelligence center on Venus, is full of illustrious names. Names that are galactically known even though the people themselves aren’t aware of it.

ANTARIS  That’s wonderful! Extraordinary! Nobody will ever believe this happened. (Worried) I must call some other scientists to hear what you have to say.

PERO        Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. I have strict orders never to appear to more than two people at the same time. And, of these two people, only one can be a scientist.

ANTARIS  Oh, Mr. Pero, what you’re telling me isn’t possible! How can I prove anything with only my assistant as a witness?

PERO        That’s the point. You can’t. You’ll never be able to prove it. My mission to Earth is not to be used for promotional purposes. It’s strictly cultural and scientific.

ANTARIS  That’s revolting!

ANIARA    Though I am obliged to follow my son’s orders, I certainly do agree with you, Dr. Antaris. I find it unfair to waste ten years of interplanetary travel without leaving any proof with the visited people. Imagine, Pero didn’t even let me give an interview to Women’s Wear Daily in the United States.

PERO        Mother, I don’t want to have to call your attention to this again. We are dealing with top secret matter. Women’s Wear Daily has a huge number of male readers which, according to my Handbook for the Visitor to Earth, makes that audience all the more indiscreet.

ANTARIS  As a scientist, a man, and a Terran, I must protest against this information in your handbook: it’s the women here on Earth who get the fame for being indiscreet.

PERO        It’s possible that the handbook is wrong. We Venusians are hermaphrodites and that makes it difficult to assess differences among Terran genders.

LOUIS       What is a hermaphrodite?

ANTARIS  It’s an awful thing, Louis. It’s a person who goes to bed with himself.

LOUIS       Gosh, I’ve been a hermaphrodite since I was eight.

PERO        (Disgusted) I suggest that your assistant and my mother do not take part in our conference. I reckon neither one is sufficiently mature for the matters we shall deal with.

ANIARA    (Somewhat vulgar) What’s this business of maturity? Who do you think you are?

ANTARIS We had better not get caught up in details. After all, we all have the same goal: scientific advancement.

PERO        Well and good, I take back what I said about your immaturity, Mother. Let’s spare Dr. Antaris one of our arguments. (Kindly to Antaris) You know, Dr. Antaris, it’s a matter of language.

ANTARIS  I suppose in your own language the misunderstanding must be a lot easier.

PERO      Not only that, we Venusians have no language at all. We always function by thoughts and deeds, never by words. The fact that we have to turn on our so-called ‘verbalizer’ gadgets to communicate with you Terrans sort of jumbles our brains. For instance: if you think that Mother and I stopped quarreling the moment we were so rudely interrupted by you, you’re completely mistaken. Verbally, yes, but in thought waves we’re just getting started.

ANIARA    (Irritated) This conversation has already gone too far. Since you insist on being alone with the professor, I shall leave in the company of young Louis. Is there another room in this place where we could stay or would it be easier to fly? 

ANTARIS  Absolutely, Mrs. Aniara, please do not fly away. (With authority, to Louis) Louis, lead Mrs. Aniara to the bedroom and stay there and do whatever she wants you to do. (Louis seems slightly alarmed)

ANIARA    Thank you so much, Dr. Antaris. I happen to be doing some research of my own, on some aspects of the Terran creature. I’ve already collected some rather interesting data. There still are two or three items I haven’t been able to understand. Perhaps with the aid of your assistant I could make of this mission a complete success.

ANTARIS  Louis is entirely at your disposal, Mrs. Aniara. (The young man shows some apprehension) However I must let you know that he has very little experience. His knowledge of physics, for instance, is only what I have been able to teach him in a few months of daily contact.

ANIARA    (Benign) I’m sure he’ll be just perfect, professor. (She conducts Louis offstage)

ANTARIS  Now us, Mr. Pero. I’m dying to learn your discoveries. I want to know everything about life on other planets and their fabulous civilizations.

PERO        Not other planets: other planet. That’s something I want to make perfectly clear from the beginning. Venus was the only planet chosen to possess the gift of life. Earth was colonized with inferior specimens as an experiment. So, for your information, Dr. Antaris, Earth and its civilization is but a test tube where we Venusians breed animals of rather limited importance. The idea of there being spontaneous life away from Venus seems quite ridiculous to me. Life was created by God in Venus and only from Venus can it derive.

ANTARIS  (Shocked) Mr. Pero! Did you actually say “god”? You, a Venusian . . . who came down on a flying saucer?

PERO        Quite seriously. Dr. Antaris, I must confess to you that I personally do not believe in flying saucers. My mother and I arrived in a spatial vehicle that has little or nothing to do with these mysterious and laughable pictures with which you decorated your laboratory. Flying saucers were first conceived by the imagination of the less-educated Venusians and, accidentally, passed on to the most educated Terrans, whose IQ comes in just under the level of mongolism in Venus.

ANTARIS  (Disappointed) You mean you don’t believe in life outside the Earth, I mean, outside Venus . . . ?

PERO        That’s correct. That’s a heresy I cannot tolerate. And please do not mention such an idea in front of my mother. She is an exceptionally devoted lady.

ANTARIS  (Nervous) And Earth? And the Earth!? We do have life! And we are quite outside Venus!

PERO        Sure, but it’s the same life. This man-yard which you call “Earth” is nothing but an experiment that we Venusians decided to make at a certain point in our civilization. It’s a nearly faithful reproduction of Venusian civilization except for one thing: it’s on an idiotic level. That is, by creating men with a rather low level of intelligence, our scientists can much more easily control them, analyze their reactions, and study their development. And the point of all this man‐breeding is bettering our knowledge of ourselves through the research our psychologists carry out on terrestrial creatures.

ANTARIS  If I only knew that was the kind of news you had for me, I wouldn’t have received you. You can be sure of that much.

PERO        (Phlegmatic) There is a lot I can be sure of. This concept of the multiplicity of the phenomenon of life is fascinating but it’s just an idea. It flourished on Venus twenty–five thousand years ago. We imagined other galaxies with their billions of solar systems and planets bearing marvelous civilizations. Thank God all this is a thing of the past. We built a machine that would have detected anything within a radius of five trillion zillions of light years and there was nothing really worthy of being detected. There is really nothing much out there, you know. Thank God those ideas disappeared from the Venusian mind a long time ago.

ANTARIS  (Irritated) You keep saying “thank God.” I hope you realize I’m a scientist: I’m an atheist.

PERO        (Laughs) Oh, atheism! Think that our scientists still preserve it on Earth! That current also passed in Venus: twenty thousand years ago. There was time, a nefarious time of great liberalism, when civilization almost was lost. Such an enormous importance was given to material things that the spiritual sphere was totally neglected. People spoke about equal rights, you know, like giving every Venusian the same opportunities and things like that. There were even people talking about freedom itself. (Short pause) So, it’s that phase, from seventeen to twenty thousand years ago, that we are now reproducing on Earth, but on a primitive level, of course.

ANTARIS  (Revolted) You mean that in the past you’ve reached the same high level of social awareness that we have now and you didn’t push it forward?

PERO        Of course we’ve pushed it forward. We’ve progressed much further than that. After all kinds of political cataclysms, we reached maturity and, with it, the only system that is actually in tune with Venusian nature.

ANTARIS  (Dramatic) And what is that system?

PERO        Capitalism.

ANTARIS  (Horrified) Capitalism?

PERO        Well, don’t despair, Dr. Antaris. It’s not capitalism like you think of it here on Earth, let’s say, like in countries such as you find in Europe or North America. Those are experiments our scientists make to see if we can accelerate capitalist progress on Earth. So as to reach what we have in Venus: a society rigidly divided into classes in which each individual is completely controlled by a computer algorithm. We took four thousand years to get there. We’re trying to reproduce on Earth, at an inferior level, countries that would accelerate the process of automation and lead others toward computer control and therefore towards the happiness of the individual

ANTARIS  Happiness of the individual? How can you still speak of happiness of the individual?

PERO        Of course we can. There can be no happiness while there are still some traces of freedom. Happiness and freedom are entirely incompatible. The happy man cannot be confronted with choice. That is, not with real decision-making. He may believe he’s making his choices, though. He must ignore his real situation. Ignorance is an important factor for well‐being. The happy person has no freedom but he never realizes it. That would make him miserable.

ANTARIS  That’s outrageous! I am free!

PERO        That’s your problem. You’re free to be maladjusted. I never had one bit of freedom. Everything I’m telling you was programmed into my head. However, I’m utterly happy! (Short pause) Keep in mind that what you see is just a reproduction of events that took place in Venus seventeen thousand years ago. Brazil may be a backwater but the United States was created by us to try and speed up the improvements we want to make. In a couple of decades, Earth will have reached social perfection and therefore complete stagnation.

ANTARIS  It doesn’t look like any of that! You mean in Venus stagnation is regarded as a goal?

PERO        Stagnation is the goal. Change is synonymous with dissatisfaction. In the uppermost stage of civilization there is an end of history and you get complete stagnation. The perfect regime, Venusian capitalism, must be definitive. Quoting from one of our sacred books, “non erit finis” . . .

ANTARIS  But that is a Christian prayer!

PERO        Evidently. What makes you think that Christ’s doctrine died off in Venus?

ANTARIS  You mean that God also sent his son to Venus, I mean, God sent a son to Venus?

PERO        God sent his only son to Venus and, for your information, he didn’t send Him anywhere else.

ANTARIS  (Confused) You mean that the son of God, the one who . . . according to religious people, came to Earth two thousand years ago and . . . Jesus Christ himself . . . was sent by you? Like he was nothing but a Venusian?

PERO        (Flippant) To tell you the truth, he’s my cousin. That Jesus who came here two thousand years ago now lives comfortably in a suburb of Ipsilanti, one of our better cities. He is a contemporary of mine since I myself am twenty-two hundred years old. The true Jesus Christ however, the real son of God, was sent to Venus forty-five thousand years ago. He was sent by God to suffer and die for our sins.

ANTARIS  That’s exactly what he did here.

PERO        I’m not surprised. That Jesus was strictly programmed to do everything he did.

ANTARIS  (Slightly hysterical) That’s enough! I can’t take any more of this bullshit! You’re lying! There must be some reason the Venusian scientists made you tell me these horrible things! That’s what the real experiment was: you wanted to see what a Brazilian astronomer would do hearing these ridiculous revelations. I don’t believe a word of it! (He regains his composure and turns malicious) It seems to me that you really come from a less advanced planet!!

PERO        Dr. Antaris, you’re making a fool of yourself.

ANTARIS  (Triumphant) That’s it! You’ve just arrived from some remote underdeveloped planet and you want to steal my secrets pretending to despise them! Who’s ever heard of a self-respecting astronaut who travels around with his own mother?

PERO        Dr. Antaris, you’re starting to upset me. Maternity in Venus is very different from what you can imagine. I’ve already told you that we are all hermaphrodites. Reproduction involving more than one parent has been obsolete in Venus for thousands of years. The very idea of a person depending on another to produce a baby seems to me extremely inadequate.

Enter Aniara in underwear. Her looks in such attire should have an amazing effect.

ANIARA    (Seriously excited) Pero, my dear! You won’t believe what happened.

PERO        (Horrified) Mother!

ANIARA    Dr. Antaris’s assistant is quite an extraordinary creature. Oh my God! After a whole life of hermaphroditism, something like that . . .

PERO        But what, Mother, just what happened to you?

ANTARIS  Tell us confidently, Mrs. Aniara. If my assistant did you any harm, I shall punish him most severely.

ANIARA    (Melodramatic) No! Don’t punish him, Dr. Antaris! It was all my fault! 

PERO        But what was your fault, Mother? Better not to say it out loud. Transmit it to me in thought waves.

Aniara assumes a wave‐transmitting composure and contorts herself a bit, discreetly transmitting that she is alluding to the sexual behavior of young Louis.

PERO        (Horrified) No!

ANIARA    (Levelheaded) That’s it, my son. If you don’t believe me, go see it yourself.

PERO        (Perplexed) We weren’t programmed for anything of the sort.

ANIARA    It looks like a big snafu of our Special Center for Spatial Affairs.

PERO        I think it’s my duty to make some observations about this phenomenon and take my personal account back to Venus. (Starts to bedroom)

ANIARA    (Emphatic) Don’t go, Pero! This is a mother’s advice. Just don’t go there. You’ll certainly regret it.

PERO        (Epic) Duty comes first, Mother. (Exit)

ANTARIS  (Amiable) Please sit down, Mrs. Aniara.

They exchange a weird look or smile.

ANTARIS  (Resolute) Mrs. Aniara, I’d like you to be frank with me.

ANIARA    Oh, Dr. Antaris, your assistant is so . . .

ANTARIS  So what, Mrs. Aniara?

ANIARA    Oh God! Now I realize how limited my verbalizer is. I really wasn’t programmed for something like that, I’m sure you understand.

ANTARIS  I think I know what you mean.

ANIARA    If you could only pick up thought waves . . .

ANTARIS  Well, let’s see what I can do to help you. My verbalizer, I mean, my vocabulary is rather on the scientific side, you know, but I just might have a word to express your feelings.

ANIARA    (Technical) I have no feelings, Dr. Antaris.

ANTARIS  Yes, I know, I mean your ideas, whatever you have. Whatever may have happened between you and Louis for the sake of scientific observation, there is one point of basic importance. (Pause) Did you like it?

ANIARA    (Embarrassed) Well . . . you know, there is a novelty aspect and, of course, the scientific curiosity.

ANTARIS  Naturally. But still, taking all that into consideration, what would be your general impression of the experience as a whole? Did you enjoy it?

ANIARA    (Giving in, perplexed) Well, yes.

ANTARIS  Good, Mrs. Aniara. So, verbalizing this scientific thought structure, we could reach the conclusion that my assistant is . . . enjoyable? Oh, Mrs. Aniara! I don’t want to criticize your hermaphroditism, but things here on Earth can be rather interesting, too.

ANIARA    (Intimate) I can see that, Antaris. Too bad that Pero and I have to fly back to Venus today. You can imagine what a horrible drag ten more years on the flying saucer will be.

ANTARIS  I can well imagine how unpleasant it must be. Maybe I shouldn’t ask so many questions but . . . what do you and your son do as a pastime during the voyage?

ANIARA    We play cards most of the time. We play some chess, too. Oh, and one game of tic-tac-toe every evening before we go to bed. On our way here, for instance, out of the 3,650 games we played, I won three, Pero won four, and the other 3,643 ended up in a tie.

ANTARIS  How fascinating, Mrs. Aniara!

ANIARA    Indeed! Sometimes it can get a little monotonous, though. The three games I won and the four Pero won were in fact the first seven games we played, during our first week aboard the spacecraft. Once we both learned the ropes, we spent nine years and fifty-one weeks drawing every night.

ANTARIS  It would be great if you took some terrestrial games to play during your trip back, you know, just for a change.

Enter Pero with a very grave expression.

ANIARA    (Kind) Did you satisfy your scientific curiosity, son?

PERO        (Serious, ignoring his mother’s question) Dr. Antaris, I must inform you that, for strictly scientific reasons, I must take your assistant back to Venus.

ANTARIS  (Livid) I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Pero, but that is impossible. For equally scientific reasons I need my assistant here. (Pause) I have no objection to your taking back whomever you may want, since it’s for science’s sake. But not my assistant.

PERO        You don’t seem to understand the situation. Your assistant possesses some extraordinary qualities that are absolutely necessary to my interplanetary studies.

ANTARIS  Nobody is more aware of my assistant’s qualities than myself. I have the same interplanetary reasons to require his presence in my studies.

ANIARA    (Compromising) Dr. Antaris, are those qualities of Louis’s easily available on Earth these days?

ANTARIS  There are indeed other persons who possess those qualities, though they aren’t as easily available as any of us would prefer. But the cause of science is one that requires dedication. If you are considering an expedition in search of another sample, I believe you’d have a better chance on your own than with me.

PERO        (Impatient) And may I know why?

ANTARIS  Why, because you’re Venusians.

PERO        I never thought the idea you Terrans have of us is very flattering. You tend to imagine us as even more immature than yourselves, kidnapping people and scaring the country folk. Also as being somewhat ridiculous creatures, usually green, displaying antennae or soft like some sort of jelly. And I personally detest jelly and all soft bodies.

ANIARA    (Thoughtful) So do I.

ANTARIS  So do I.

PERO        I see we agree on many an important issue. But it’s necessary that I accomplish my mission to Earth. The idea of finding another specimen of Homo Ludens appears to me . . . difficult and troublesome. Besides, that would take much more time that what we have left before we take off to Venus. My mother and I absolutely must leave within a short while. In the name of science, I beseech you to agree with my taking your assistant back to Venus.

ANTARIS  (Energetic) The answer is no. I’m sorry.

ANIARA    (Silly) I suggest that you finish the part of our mission concerning “revelations.” Then we’d be left with only the assistant’s problem.

PERO        Good idea, Mom. Dr. Antaris, I want you to assimilate all the philosophic issues we discussed a while ago. So let us go once again through the main items of my revelations.

ANTARIS  I refuse to believe your revelations. It appears to me that you come from an underdeveloped planet and that you’re nothing but a spy.

PERO        Nonsense, Professor Antaris. Now our revelation topics. You two repeat aloud each thing I say. You too, got it, Mother? So. In the first place . . . (Short pause) Go ahead, you can start repeating: In the first place . . .

ANIARA    (Silly) In the first place . . .

ANTARIS  (Confused and humiliated) In the first place . . .

PERO        Life was created only in Venus and can come only from Venus.

ANIARA and ANTARIS  (In chorus) Life was created only in Venus and can come only from Venus.

PERO        God created life in Venus for His greater glory and passed that life on to Earth in an inferior rudimentary form also for His greater glory.

ANTARIS  (Confused) God created life in Venus for whose glory? Venus’s or God’s?

Pero ignores the question as he is too busy remembering his lines.

ANIARA    (Vague) Possibly both.

PERO        God’s glory, of course. Whose else could His glory be? (Resuming the recitation) Life on Earth is but an experiment that aims at a better understanding of Venusian history and psychology.

ANIARA and ANTARIS  (In chorus) Life on Earth is but an experiment that aims at a better understanding of Venusian history and psychology.

PERO        Thousands of years of civilization led us to the perfect political regime, which is totalitarian capitalism.

ANIARA    Thousands of years of civilization . . .

ANTARIS  (Interrupting) Wait, wait, is there a king in Venus?

PERO        (Severe) We haven’t had a king for the last thousand years. We are governed by princes of hereditary power, though it isn’t for life.

ANTARIS  How does that work?

PERO        Easy. Our scientists and computers can predict genetically the qualities of the descendants of our reigning prince. So, as soon as a better combination of genes of the royal family is foreseen, the royal reproduction is accelerated and the old prince is forced to retire.

ANIARA    (Helpful) Hermaphroditism helps a lot in that system.

ANTARIS  That's something difficult to understand, hermaphroditism.

ANIARA     It’s as difficult to understand as it’s easy to lose. As you may have noticed in the case of my son . . .  and myself. You know how both of us were perturbed by your assistant’s ways.

ANTARIS  I think I know what you mean. But I must tell you that there is no possibility that I can let him go on the trip with you.

PERO        (Cruel) You are abusing our consideration. For your information, we have the power to take back even you against your will, let alone your assistant.

 ANIARA   (Silly) What if we took both, son?

PERO        (With a fatal energy) Enough talking about that. (Looks at the time on his watch) The assistant comes and you stay. We’ve already spent too much time with an astronomer whose country was quite optional on my agenda.

ANTARIS  (Realizing danger) No! Mrs. Aniara! You just can’t do that. He doesn’t want to go.

PERO        (Cruel) He doesn’t want to go? We’ll see if he doesn’t want to go.

ANTARIS  (Nervous) I’m going to fetch my assistant. This is not going to stay like this. (Exit)

ANIARA    (Compromising) Dr. Antaris! Pero! Please don’t argue. We all have the same goal: science.

PERO        Let him get his assistant. (Checks watch again) We will leave in five minutes.

Enter Louis exhausted, tottering, destroyed by an almost magic and bizarre fatigue. Enter Antaris following him.

ANTARIS  (Appalled) Look at what you did to my assistant! He’s exhausted, destroyed! He does not want to go with you. (Louis stumbles and falls to floor) Louis! What did they do to you? My God! (Grabs Louis trying to make him stand up) Please, stand up!

ANIARA    (Alienated) He must be tired, that’s all.

ANTARIS  (Losing control) Louis! Speak! For God’s sake, speak! What’s the matter with you?! You don’t want to go! You don’t want to go with them, do you?

LOUIS       (Shaking) I do want to go. He promised me a beautiful gift.

ANTARIS  No! You don’t want to go! They’ll never give you any gifts! They want to kill you! You can’t go!

ANIARA    (Detached) The important thing is that he has no free will.

PERO        (Terrible) We will leave in one precise, the unforgiving minute. (He pulls a Venusian gun) Do you see this? This hurts. It hurts!

ANTARIS  (Tender, almost breaking down) No, Louis. Don’t go. It’s your death. (Hides his face with his hand)

ANIARA    (Increasingly alienated, smiling) Indecision, which is the consequence of freedom, is a beautiful thing on Earth. Too bad Terrans suffer so much for it.

LOUIS       (Tortured) I wanted to go. But I won’t. He made me weak.

Antaris trembles pathetically. A flying saucer noise is heard.

PERO        That’s it, Doctor. I made him physically weak with my curiosity. But unfortunately he is still free. I will destroy him for that. To space, Mother.

ANIARA    (Silly) But he says he wants to come . . . I don’t understand.

Pero shoots Louis with bizarre rays. Antaris throws himself over the young man hoping to cover the shot. An evil light comes out of Pero’s weapon and wounds Louis while leaving Antaris untouched. Louis squirms and dies.

PERO        Let us go.

ANIARA    Good‐bye, Dr. Antaris. Sorry to have disturbed your day.

Exit Pero and Aniara to the sound of ominous flying saucer noises, while Antaris pathetically caresses his assistant’s face. In a trance, he hears his own voice recite the final verses from Seneca’s Medea.

ANTARIS’S VOICE  Go throughout the infinite spaces of Heaven to prove that there are no gods in the space where you soar.


“Visitors from on High” © Roberto Athayde. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Roberto Athayde. All rights reserved.

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Love Thy Savior

Part Three

Jerzy Lutowski takes us to Inquisition-era Spain, where intolerance demands a bold choice of a young Jewish woman.
 

House lights down.

The measured peal of a bell.

The doleful tune of a penitential psalm is heard.

From the wings on the right three monks emerge, their cowls lowered over their faces. The middle one is carrying a black gonfalon, the other two carry lighted candles. They stop in mid-stage and turn to face the audience. On the gonfalon the words THE YEAR 1493 can be seen in white lettering.

The monks proceed slowly to the left wing and disappear. The psalm fades. Only the measured peal of the bell is heard.

Curtain rises.

The crypt of a cathedral. Grim, forbidding walls. On the right, in the background, are some stone steps leading up to an ironclad door. On the left, behind a narrow buttress, the outlines of some sarcophagi can be dimly seen. The scene is illuminated by the flickering light of two oil lamps—one standing on the floor, the other hanging on a nail driven into the wall.

Abraham, a short, frail old man with a long, patriarchal beard, is downstage, seated on a plain stool, rocking monotonously to and fro, with his eyes fixed on the floor. He is dressed in black, his attire half orthodox, half secular. He is wearing black shoes and has a small skullcap on his gray head. A little bundle is lying beside him on the stone floor, with a flat hat and a straight stick beside it.

On the right, in the background, Rachel is standing leaning against the buttress. She is staring fixedly at the door. She has long, black plaits and large, almond-shaped eyes. Her eighteen-year-old face has a slight­ly oriental type of beauty. She is dressed in accordance with Spanish fashion: a long dress with pearls sewn into it, and a small white cross round her neck.

A moment of silence is filled only by the muffled, monotonous sound of the bell.

RACHEL        (Without changing her position, keeping her eyes fixed on the door) He ought to be here by now. He was supposed to come as soon as they rang for vespers.

(Abraham continues rocking slowly backward and forward, without raising his eyes).

RACHEL        Perhaps something’s held him up.

(Abraham continues rocking as before.)

RACHEL        No! Nothing could have delayed him. He’ll come!

(Peal of bells fades.)

RACHEL        (Gently, glancing at father) Why don’t you say anything, Father?

ABRAHAM    I’ve said all I had to say to you already, Rachel. Anyway, my words are like birds. They fly away and leave no trace.

RACHEL        I remember them all, Father.

ABRAHAM    If you do, then remember my silence as well.

RACHEL        So you’re still reproaching me in these last moments? 

ABRAHAM    (Shaking his head wearily) I want you to be happy. 

RACHEL        And I will be. Not even the memory of you will cloud the days of happiness now approaching for me.

(After a barely perceptible shudder, Abraham goes on rocking to and fro.)

RACHEL        I suppose you think I’m cruel. 

ABRAHAM   You’re only telling the truth.

RACHEL        Children are always cruel, Father. Even when they grow up. I had to make a choice. When two emotions take hold inside you, you have to tear one of them out. Otherwise you perish.

ABRAHAM   You have torn one of them out, Rachel.

RACHEL        Because I want to live. And be happy. (More warmly, looking at Abraham) Don’t imagine I’ve forgotten what I owe you. Your fate will never be a matter of indifference to me. Even when you’re far away in Flanders, I won’t forget that I was your daughter.

ABRAHAM    You’ll stop being my daughter tomorrow.

RACHEL        (Proudly) That’s true. I’ll become Doña Rosina of the Castillo Vittinia. But even from there, and later on from the castle of the Condes y Collero, my thoughts will often fly to you.

ABRAHAM    (Shaking head) May the Almighty ordain that they fly to me as seldom as possible.

RACHEL        (After a pause) Are you telling me to forget about you?

ABRAHAM    I’m telling you to have no unhappy moments in your life, Rachel.

RACHEL        (Proudly) You’ve no need to worry. At Alonso’s side no moment can be unhappy. You don’t know what love is, Father.

ABRAHAM    (Shuddering again) I don’t know . . .

RACHEL        (Understandingly) You always thought that you loved me, but you only love me half as much as I love him.

ABRAHAM    You never told me anything about it. You were too proud.

(Rachel says nothing.)

ABRAHAM    So you really love him as much as that?

RACHEL        (Erupting) More than I love myself, more than life, more than my own being! He is to me what water is to a thirsty man, air to the lungs, light to the eyes! It’s true I’d never told you about it. But I haven’t seen him for three whole days!

ABRAHAM    (Softly) Tell me about it, Rachel.

RACHEL        Alonso! When I met him a year ago in the little winding streets of Seville I knew that I’d known him for an eternity—he was already mine when the earth was astral dust in the hands of the Creator. When he spoke to me for the first time I was ready to follow him anywhere: to the ends of the earth, or to the gates of Hell. He could be a mule-driver, a galley slave from Cadiz, a beggar, a criminal, an outcast—and I’d love him just the same! (Half closing her eyes) Alonso! How good it is to speak your name, and to wait for you!

ABRAHAM    (Softly) Happy the man who is loved so! May the Almighty ensure that his feelings for you are just as strong, forever.

RACHEL        (Passionately) Alonso’s? If it’s true that a woman can be a man’s whole world, that is what I am to Alonso. He believes in me as if I were a goddess; in my purity, my love for him, and the depth of my conversion. If anyone ever extinguished that faith that is in him, he would perish, too. Like a lamp that has run out of fuel.

ABRAHAM    (As above) I pray it is so, Rachel

RACHEL        It is so! (Looking at her father) Could you ever doubt it?

(Abraham stares at the floor.)

RACHEL        (In a different tone) Answer me!

(Abraham slowly turns his head away.)

RACHEL        Father! Has old age dimmed your sight? Don’t you trust his feelings? Why not? Can you really doubt them? (Patronizing­ly) Oh, I see. Your gray head wants proof. It doesn’t know how to read a glance; it doesn’t understand the language of a single embrace. The only truth you know is what you can add to yourself or subtract, take hold of like a bar of gold! (Changing her tone) All right then! I’ll give you your proof, just as I’ve given you food for your journey. I know you want it because you’re concerned about me—and I want you to go with your mind at rest. (Leans toward Abraham) Just think: Could he have overcome so many obstacles if his love for me had been less infinite than it is? Would he have brought me into Doña Leonora’s house, made her like a mother to me, and arranged that as from tomorrow I shall become a daughter of the Vittinia household? Could he have managed to find favor for me in the hearts of his proud family, and win the agreement of the Bishop of Seville himself? No! Enough of this! Trying to prove his love this way is to degrade it! But you your­self, who doubt his love—don’t you owe it everything? For whose sake is he hiding you here in the crypt of the cathedral, and sending you to Flanders today? For whose sake is he putting his dear head in danger if not for me, to allay my fears for you?

ABRAHAM    You’re right, Rachel. It’s true. My old eyes must be blind.

RACHEL        If this scheme were to be discovered . . . No, I can’t bear to think of it! But you know, anyway: neither his high lineage nor even the fact that he is the son of the governor of Seville would save him from the wrath of the Holy Office! (Proudly) But he cares nothing for that. He doesn’t weigh his deeds on the meaningless scales of reason! He’s bold, proud, resolute, and confident—he doesn’t know that feeling called doubt! (Gently) Now compare yourself to him, without prejudice: you with your kind, gentle, but fainthearted love, so quick to give up. And he . . . Just compare him, Father . . . It pains you that I had to make a choice . . . Could I have chosen otherwise?

ABRAHAM    Your choice wasn’t simply between the two of us.

RACHEL        (Heatedly) You’re wrong! I was never Jewish! You know that as well as I do! I wasn’t Jewish even when you sat me on your knee and taught me those letters, as black, grim, and sinister as the God of the Jews himself. Oh, how I hated them! Later I learned other letters. They shaped my world. How much closer to me was the joyful psalm of the Resurrection than the despair­ing prayers of the Day of Judgment! How much closer were the sonatas of Juan de Mena than the tales of the Diaspora! No, Father! I’m a Spaniard and always have been. Their language is my language, their country is my country, their past is my past!

ABRAHAM    And the present, Rachel? Are their fires yours, too? And the pincers they tear the flesh with? And the nails they use to pierce their victims’ feet . . . (He resumes his monotonous rocking motion.) Oh Lord, Lord! Let the scream of Rabbi Baruch ben Levi as the flames overcame him fade in my ears! Lord who heard that scream, ordain that the sons of your people never utter such screams again!

RACHEL        (Softly) Father . . .

ABRAHAM    (As above) “And the Lord spake in the wilderness: if thou wilt not harken unto my voice, to observe to do all my commandments, all these curses shall come upon thee and overtake thee. And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, and thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone. And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. And ash and flame will overtake thee, and fires will be lit . . .” (Plaintively) fires . . .

RACHEL        (Her head turned away) The fires will die down, Father.

ABRAHAM   No . . . They are sowing hatred in people’s hearts. The elders of the community said, when the fires started burning in Madrid, that they would die down. They said the same when the sky turned red over Leon, Castile, and Navarre. And the fire is spreading. The waters of the Guadalquivir didn’t stop it. It’s advancing like a wave. There’s no escape from a wave . . .

(Rachel says nothing.)

ABRAHAM    (Suddenly regaining his self-control; in a subdued voice) Never mind, Rachel. Tomorrow all this will be behind me. You’ll stay here . . . and be happy. Everything is all right, my child. All is as it should be . . .

RACHEL        (Staring straight ahead of her; in a strange tone) As a wave approaches, a man bends his back; when it has passed he straightens up again.

(Abraham shudders and turns toward his daughter.)

RACHEL        (Glancing at her father) Why are you looking at me like that? Isn’t that what the saintly ben Akiba taught his people?

ABRAHAM    (Lowering eyes; growing weary again) That’s true. But that wisdom is for the young. My back is too old for that now. And anyway, what can come of that wisdom? When we bow our heads they despise us, and when we straighten up they start to hate us.

RACHEL        (Angrily) That’s the tragedy of you people! You had too much faith in your wise man. And you

mustn’t bend your back! As the wave approaches you have to be able to meet it with head held high.

ABRAHAM    (Softly) And what do you mean by that, Rachel?

RACHEL        That it’s better to die a hundred times over than let anyone despise you even once.

(Abraham slowly turns his head away.)

RACHEL        (In a changed tone) You don’t answer? I know what you’re thinking. No! Don’t avert your eyes. That thought is an insult to me, and I won’t let you take it away with you. For the last few months you’ve been avoiding the subject like a plague-stricken house! But I want to talk about it. Because I want you to under­stand at last! (In two steps she is standing beside her father.) Admit it! In your view I’m the one who’s given in. You think that what I’m doing is bowing my head, and that I of all people have no right to speak of firmness and pride. Don’t deny it! That’s exactly what you’re thinking! But you’re wrong. You’re wrong, I tell you! I haven’t bowed my head. I’ve simply accepted something, accepted the new. I’ve chosen the only way, the way all of you so stubbornly reject, in your blindness and deafness.

(Abraham’s whole body makes a kind of helpless, defensive gesture.)

RACHEL        (Raising a restraining hand) You say there’s no escape. But there is. Only you prefer not to see it. You hide your eyes from it behind your tallith and block your ears with hurried quotations whose wisdom is as worn as a rag flapping in the breeze. (Bend­ing lower over her father) Why do you cling so desperately to out­moded form and extinct content? Why do you so blindly haul along with you for centuries the curse of your Jewishness?

ABRAHAM    It’s the faith of our ancestors.

RACHEL        (With passion) It’s just your obstinacy, Father! That dark, ingrained obstinacy with which you defend the old ways. You say they despise you? That’s not so. All you seek in them is a reflection of your contempt for them, contempt for everything alien, everything not created by your people . . . Oh, it’s not for nothing that I spent my childhood in your house and saw that whole world of yours, even if only with the eyes of a child. Not for nothing did I have to pick my way through the side streets to see Vallerbo, my tutor, because a howling mob of youths from the heder used to pelt me with mud and stones. And what about you? Weren’t you expelled from the community for sending your daughter to lessons in gentile music and poetry? Isn’t that why you had to leave?

ABRAHAM    (Horrified) Rachel . . .

RACHEL        (Screaming) You’ve turned your backs on anything that has life in it! You’re obsessed with the thought that you’re the chosen people. You rejected one wave of change, and now that another one has come, you can’t even meet it with your heads up.

ABRAHAM    Stop this! You’re filled with hatred.

RACHEL        Are you shocked by what I say? No, I won’t stop! You must hear me out. You think I was deaf when you were talking about the fires, that I didn’t realize you had me in mind then? (Pitilessly) You can’t understand how I’ll be able to stay here. Even less how I’ll be able to feel happy with pyres blazing all around, when people who used to be my own call out His name for the last time from the flames . . . But those people were never mine! I can feel sympathy for their misfortune, but they were never my people—do you understand? And it’s not my people stoking the fires either. I have the same horror of those who are filled with contempt as of those who let others despise them. And nobody lets others despise them more than your people! You’ve been living in Spain for centuries, eating the bread and the olives of Spain, but instead of putting down roots in its soil, and adopting its dress and customs, you fling your specialness in its face and offend its ears with your foreign language. You prefer to bow down and straighten up again a hundred times, rather than let the wave carry you along.

ABRAHAM    (Despairingly) The wave doesn’t want us, Rachel!

RACHEL        That’s not true. You don’t want it. You fight it with every word and everything you do. (Muffled organ music) The Church wanted to be a mother to you; Spain reached out its hands to you—but you preferred to accuse it of hatred. (Changing her tone) What blind fools you are! Do you know what joy is brought to Christian hearts by every single soul who finally sees the light? And how much love there is in the religion which is now mine? Listen to that organ. Can you hear any note of hatred in it? Take Brother Angeles, for instance, so pure and saintly that the birds fly onto his hands—could he hate anybody? Or the monk who released me from my retreat so that I could take food to you, a Jew? Does Doña Leonora hate anybody? Does Alonso hate anybody? (Gently) Spain isn’t just stakes and flames. The fires must die down. And you must realize: they’ll die down a lot faster than they flared up. And when the flames go out, the really important things will be left: love and faith in man, a new spirit, and a new life. (Firmly) And that’s why I shall be able to stay here.

(Silence for a moment; the organ is heard more clearly.)

RACHEL        (In a different tone) Now you know everything, Father . . .

ABRAHAM    (Softly) Yes. Now I know everything.

RACHEL        I had to tell you. I couldn’t have let you leave without understanding.

(Slowly walks back to the buttress she was previously leaning against.)

ABRAHAM    (Softly; after a moment) Does he think the same way as you, Rachel?

RACHEL        Alonso? Do you doubt that too? Do you want proof again? He and I are one emotion and one thought in two bodies. (Patiently) No, he’s never spoken to me about it. The subject might be painful for both of us . . . You’re still here in Spain. But I know his exalted soul; he is too noble to despise anybody, and too proud to hate. (In a different tone) Oh Lord! How late it is! When is he going to get here?

(A moment of silence, filled with muffled organ music.)

RACHEL        (Glancing at her father) You’re silent again, Father.

(Abraham continues the rocking motion.)

RACHEL        (Gently) Eat something. You must keep up your strength for the journey.

ABRAHAM    (Faintly) I’m not hungry, Rachel.

RACHEL        Don’t worry. You can eat this. I’ve brought you some feast-day food. I haven’t forgotten that today’s the second day of the Passover.

ABRAHAM    That’s true . . . The second day of the Seder.

RACHEL        (Warmly) Eat, Father, won’t you?

ABRAHAM   (Rocking; staring into the gloom; in a monotone) “And the Lord led his people out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire, that they might go by day and night . . .” Where have you led your people, o Lord? Where have you led your people?

(Rachel says nothing. The organ can be clearly heard.)

ABRAHAM       (Glancing at daughter; timidly) Rachel . . .

(Rachel looks expectantly at her father.)

ABRAHAM   (Averting his eyes; speaking with difficulty, stumbling) I wanted to ask you a favor . . . I suppose I’m a bit silly in my old age, and full of Jewish sentimentality. But I won’t see you tomorrow . . . Perhaps tomorrow before daybreak . . . Do you remember how, when you were little, you used to sit at the table at Passover, in the evening, and ask the ritual “kashot” questions. Those four questions, and you asking them in our house, made the holiday for us. Now I’m leaving all that behind—it’s probably for the best. But there’s one thing I’d like to take away with me: the memory of those evenings, and of your voice during them, Rachel. I know you’re another person now, with different thoughts and feelings—but just for a moment be that little girl again . . . Look the way you looked then . . . and ask me for the last time about the journey out of Egypt.

(Rachel says nothing.)

ABRAHAM   (Still not looking at his daughter, he takes a piece of un­leavened bread from his bundle and raises it between two fingers.) Do you see? This is the bread our fathers ate as they left the land of slavery . . . Well, Rachel? (Prompting) “Ma hishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot?” How does this night differ from other nights . . . “Shebekhol halaylot . . .” (Breaking off; turning toward his daughter, imploring her) Rachel!

RACHEL        (Firmly) You obviously haven’t understood, Father.

(Abraham looks at Rachel.)

RACHEL        (As above) Do you want me to humiliate myself and you? Those evenings are dead. And the words I said then have died for me forever. (Making a restraining gesture) I know it’s only a trad­ition, that those words don’t mean anything. But I have only one heart, and only one language, Father. (Not looking at her father, but with her voice still firm) Forgive me, I can’t lie. I can’t ask you those questions.

(Abraham slowly turns away, crumbling the unleavened bread in his fingers.)

RACHEL        Have I hurt you again?

ABRAHAM   (Shaking his head) Once again you’ve only told me the truth. And the truth is in the Scriptures: (Beginning to rock himself again) “Thy sons and thy daughters shall be given unto another people, and thine eyes shall look, and fail with long­ing for them; and there shall be no might in thy hand . . .”

(With the last chord of the organ music, the muffled refrain “A-a-men” reaches the crypt. A moment of silence.)

RACHEL        (With an effort) Your bundle’s come undone . . . (She goes to her father, kneels down, and ties the corners of the bundle. She notices something and pulls out a small package.)

ABRAHAM   That’s only a handful of earth. Put it back where it was.

RACHEL        (Raising her eyes to her father’s face) Would you like me to do anything else for you? Anything you like . . . I want to carry out your wish.

ABRAHAM   (Shaking his head) I’d like time to hurry up and pass.

RACHEL        (Faintly) So would I . . . But time pays us no heed—we have to help it along somehow. If you like I can tell you a story. About anything—no matter what. I can tell you about my walk through the town early this morning. Or about the market women squabbling in the corner of the Plaza del Estado. I can tell you about the gleaming roof of the Alcazar, or about . . . (She breaks off abruptly.)

(Hurried steps are heard. With a gesture commanding silence, Rachel looks expectantly at the door. It creaks; a patch of light appears. In the doorway Alonso appears, tall and slim, in an expensive costume adorned with a gold chain. He is holding his plumed hat in his hand, and has a sword at his side.)

RACHEL        Alonso! (Springing to her feet and running to him.)

ALONSO        Rosina! (Slamming the door behind him he runs down the steps, grasps the girl’s hands, and pulls her to him. The couple stand embracing for a long time.)

RACHEL        No, no! Say nothing! Let me stay like this for a while. (Caressing him) Yes, these are your fingers. Here they join your hand. And this is your shoulder, and your neck—how I love its shape and smoothness! Your hair, soft and sweet-scented . . . Your eyebrows meeting above your nose. And those are your eyes, your cheeks, your mouth, and this is the line of your beard . . . (Leaning back, opening her eyes) Yes, it’s you! (Gripping his hands again) Three days! Three days apart, Alonso!

ALONSO        Call it three eternities, Rosina!                  

RACHEL        Yesterday I saw a white cloud from my chamber window. The sky was clear and blue, and only that lonely cloud was sailing like a ship toward your castle. I wanted so much to be that cloud, so light and fluffy, that your eye might rest on it for a moment.

ALONSO        Yesterday a wild dove flew up from the castle court­yard. It circled once over the gate and sped straight off to­ward the slender spires of the cathedral. I watched it and thought perhaps it would alight at your window.

RACHEL        (Excitedly) That dove had silver plumage. It swooped low over the square of the Madonna del Pilar, and then soared up again.

ALONSO        The cloud was the shape of a caravel, and it sailed due south.

RACHEL        So you saw the cloud, Alonso?

ALONSO        And you saw the dove, Rosina? So we were together after all!

RACHEL        (Burying her face in Alonso’s shoulder) For a moment. For a brief moment. Oh, I don’t want to miss you like that any more!

ALONSO        (Pressing his cheek against Rachel’s hair) I was with you all the time. Precisely because I missed you. Things stop­ped being themselves. They all became memories. When I picked up a glass, I held in my hand the memory of that evening at the Vittinias’s house when we said good-bye. When I mounted my horse, the first time my foot touched the stirrup, it was on one of my rides to see you. I couldn’t bear to hear certain songs because we’d once listened to them together, and I couldn’t go along in silence, because you and I weren’t silent together.

RACHEL        (Raising her eyes to Alonso’s face) I couldn’t collect my thoughts, because they were all about you. When I tried to repeat the psalms after Brother Angeles, I couldn’t, because my every word longed to be your name. Your eyes were looking at me from between the pages of the psaltery, and the pictures of the saints had your form and face. But when good Brother Angeles was teaching me about the essence of godliness, I thought there was no sin in that; if God is love he’ll forgive my inattention.

ALONSO        My love, how your hands are trembling!

RACHEL        My beloved, how your heart is beating! Have you been running?

ALONSO        I was running to you. I was running to end our separation! Look at me. Do you realize? Tomorrow! How happy a man is when he can say “tomorrow”!

RACHEL        Tomorrow means Alonso.

ALONSO        Tomorrow means Rosina. (With his arm round her shoulders he leads her to the buttress of the wall.) Your godmother is already sewing you a dress for tomorrow’s ceremony. How lovely you’ll look in white, with a garland of white roses in your hair!

RACHEL        Oh, how good Doña Leonora is! Have you seen her today?

ALONSO        I was there after mass. (Laughing) She thought I’d come to see her, but I was only looking for your footprints in the garden . . . When I said good-bye she asked me to convey her fondest regards, (Reaching into his wallet) and this cross, her gift to you for your baptism.

RACHEL        Heavens! Isn’t it lovely? It’s one of the Vittinia family treasures, isn’t it?

ALONSO        You’re going to be a daughter of the family, aren’t you? Let me put it round your neck.

RACHEL        (Pushing his hand away) Not now! Do it tomorrow!

ALONSO        But you can wear it today.

RACHEL        I’d love to with all my heart. But let’s let tomorrow be a truly new day.

ALONSO        (Sitting down on the edge of a tomb, stretching out his hands to Rachel) Does tomorrow mean Rosina?

RACHEL        Tomorrow means Alonso.

ALONSO        My love, how beautiful you are! And how proud I am that I’ll soon be able to call you my wife. That month in the Vittinia castle will fly by faster than an arrow. And afterward we’ll stay together. Do you understand? Together every day! Our good old Pedro is already preparing our chamber. It looks out into the garden, onto beds of Asturian roses.

RACHEL        Like the ones you bought me.

ALONSO        And the ones you shall have every day. Juana and Maria, whom my mother has assigned to be your maids, already know how you love flowers. You’ll find them everywhere: in your bedroom, in the corridors, in garlands on the castle steps. I’ll decorate our carriage with them when we leave on our journey.

RACHEL        Our journey to Valladolid? Oh, how I look forward to it! We’ll stay at little roadside inns . . .

ALONSO        . . . and in our friends’ castles: with Don Miguel, and Don Diego . . .

RACHEL        We’ll listen to the ballads and romances of wandering minstrels . . .

ALONSO        . . . dance the pavane and the foffa in the Infante’s merry courtyard. And in the morning when the bell summons us to matins, our prayer-desks will stand side by side. And we’ll hear vespers without any fear that the night will part us.

RACHEL        Go on! I beg you! Don’t stop! I’ve missed the sound of your voice so much. And dreamed so much of the moment when at last I’d be able to say “Alonso.”

ALONSO        Say it then. Let me hear it!

RACHEL        Alonso! Alonso! (In a lower voice) My husband!

ALONSO        Rosina. (Still holding Rachel’s hand in both of his, rising from the tomb he has been sitting on) Rosina. (Drawing her to him) My wife! . . .

RACHEL        (Turning her head away) How strange! You’re here with me, but I still miss you. I get so worried about you. You were so long in coming.

ALONSO        You don’t ever have to worry about me. For me your love is a shield that protects me from everything. (Casually) I was a long time? I couldn’t slip unnoticed to the church door. There’s such a crowd in the square . . . After all, today’s . . .

(Rachel looks flustered and hurriedly raises her finger to her lips.)

ALONSO        (Breaks off in mid-sentence, turns round, speaking offhandedly) Oh, it’s old Gedali, is it? My greetings!

ABRAHAM   (With his back to the young couple; softly) Greetings, noble lord.

RACHEL        Is everything all right, Alonso?

ALONSO        (Confidently) I’ve thought the whole thing out thorough­ly. As soon as the crowd disperses, a covered cart will drive up to the porch. A yellow flag will be flying on the roof of it. (Laughing) You needn’t worry. Nobody will come near the cart all the way to Flanders!

ABRAHAM   (Staring straight in front of him; in a hollow voice) A yellow flag. The sign of the plague.

ALONSO        (Over his shoulder) Does that surprise you, Gedali? It’s quite clever, really. They say you Jews are the plague of the country, don’t they?

(Abraham says nothing.)

ALONSO        Well? Do they or don’t they? Answer me!

ABRAHAM       These days we Jews speak by our silences.

ALONSO        (Airily, as before) Out of fear of the Holy Office. But you’ve no need to be afraid of me. I’ve promised to help you, and there’s no power on earth that can make a grandee go back on his word. (Turning to face Abraham) Well, go on! Speak up! Are they utterly wrong to say that?

ABRAHAM   What can I say to you? Right is in the hands of those whose voice has an echo, and whose body has substance and a shadow. Nowadays my voice has no sound, and that bundle and staff are my shadow.

ALONSO        You’re exaggerating! I can hear you perfectly well, and you can see your shadow yourself.

ABRAHAM    No, sir. Only a man in his own country has a body and a shadow.

ALONSO        So you’ve never had either?

ABRAHAM       I used to think differently once. But in those days we Jews hadn’t yet become a plague.

ALONSO        Perhaps that’s putting it too strongly. But you won’t deny—will you?—that for centuries you’ve been ruining Spain economically and politically.

(Abraham says nothing.)

ALONSO        Are you going to say that’s a lie too?

ABRAHAM   (In a monotonous voice) Sixteen years ago, when the crops were blighted in the whole of Castile, my carts took grain and flour there from my granaries. When brave Fernando y Gomez was defending Cadiz against the Moors, our Seville community sent him galleys and arms.

ALONSO        Perhaps so, but what of it?

ABRAHAM       Is that the way to ruin a country, sir? Is that the way a plague behaves?

ALONSO        That’s the way Jews behave when they sniff a good deal in the air. After all, blight, famine, and war make excellent business for you.

ABRAHAM    Has it not occurred to you, sir, that ships can sink and plague makes no distinction between religions? It doesn’t choose its victims.

ALONSO        So? Are you trying to tell me you were guided by your love for Spain? Don’t make me laugh! You know as well as I do that the only thing a Jew really loves is money, clinking gold. That’s your homeland, and your God—every single thing a Jew does he does with gold in mind.

ABRAHAM    You’re right, sir, to say that we Jews appreciate gold.

ALONSO        (Scornfully) Appreciate it? You worship it. It means everything to you.

ABRAHAM    (Like an echo) That’s true too! Everything.

ALONSO        And you can say that without shame?

ABRAHAM   Are we the ones who should feel shame?

(Alonso looks at Abraham, not understanding.)

ABRAHAM    (Rising, stretching out his hand toward Alonso) What’s that you wear at your side, sir? That steel is called a sword. You can strike blows and defend yourself with it. But you never gave us the right to it. So how were we sup­posed to defend ourselves, and our homes and children? How was I supposed to defend even her?

ALONSO        (Shielding Rachel with an outstretched arm; sharply) Silence! She was never your daughter. Three days of penance at church have lifted that shame from her—and tomorrow she’s to be baptized as well! And her baptism will be no more than the seal placed by the Holy Spirit on a soul that belongs to it already! You can talk to me or not talk to me, but don’t involve her. Because there’s no bond between her and you! (Abraham slowly turns away.)

ALONSO        Did you understand what I said?

ABRAHAM   (In hollow voice) Yes, sir.

ALONSO        Then I advise you to remember it.

ABRAHAM   (As above) I will. I have no daughter, and never have had . . . (Glancing at Alonso) But if what you say is true, why then, sir, do you want to rescue me?

ALONSO        Rescue? I simply want you to disappear from Seville, so that no memory, no trace of your existence will remain in this town.

(Abraham sits down heavily on the stool.)

ALONSO        Did you really think otherwise?

ABRAHAM   When will the cart arrive?

ALONSO        What? Don’t you want to argue any more? Oh, of course! You prefer silence these days. But you must admit, it’s embarrassing how meek you’ve become since the Holy Office started its work. 

(Abraham shudders.)

ALONSO        (Raising his hand) Don’t shudder. I’m certainly not one of those who maintain that you Jews should be burned at the stake. It’ll be enough to expel you from Spain. That’ll solve the problem.

(As Alonso finishes his sentence the bell begins to toll, now sounding completely different from its previous sound—heavy, menacing, and penitential.)

(Abraham raises his head suddenly and listens.)

ALONSO        So that’s the end of our conversation, is it?

(Abraham’s face expresses horror.)

ALONSO        Why are you listening so hard?

(Abraham, dazed, steps toward the door.)

ALONSO        What’s the matter? Where do you think you’re going?

ABRAHAM   That bell . . . What’s it for?

ALONSO        That? It’s nothing to do with you. (Contemptuously) Relax. You’re safe.

ABRAHAM       No, no! Answer me, sir! Is a man going to be burned out there?

ALONSO        I said you’re safe.

(Abraham stares wild-eyed at Alonso.)

ALONSO        Control your fear. It’s hideous!

(Abraham turns away; he walks mechanically toward his stool.)

ALONSO        Incidentally, that Jewish cowardice of yours is repulsive. The moment the thought of the stake occurs to you, the fear starts out of your eyes.

(As the peal of the bell fades, joyless monastic chants are heard. Abraham stands with his back to Alonso, fitfully wringing his hands.)

ALONSO        You’re afraid of pain, aren’t you?

ABRAHAM       (Fervently, in a low voice) Oh Lord . . . Protect those who are now being burned. Wrap them in your mantle and let them . . .

ALONSO        What are you muttering under your breath? Your Jewish incantations have no power here. (In a tone of command) Answer me! Are you afraid of pain?

ABRAHAM   (Turning sharply to face Alonso) Aren’t you afraid of pain, sir?

ALONSO        Me? (Lightly) During the siege of Granada, a Moorish arrow pierced my leg and I sang while a soldier pulled the point out and cauterized the wound.

ABRAHAM     I’m not asking about your pain, sir. Aren’t you afraid of our pain?

ALONSO        Your pain? (Scornfully) Oh I see! A sample of your Jewish sophistry. Drop it! Your Jewish wiles have already brought down enough Christian folk!

ABRAHAM     And have you ever thought how many Jews have been reduced to such wiles by the decline of the Christians?

ALONSO        (Sharply) What do you mean by that?

ABRAHAM     “If thou shalt oppress thy neighbour, thy younger brother, or thy bondsman, the spirit of the Lord shall depart from thee, for thou art not following His commandments.”

ALONSO        You dare to quote the words of the Lord? Weren’t you the ones who nailed His Son to the cross? And who was the one who betrayed Him?

ABRAHAM     I’ve read my daughter’s books, and I know that Jesus of Nazareth had thirteen disciples. Twelve of them were Jews and the thirteenth was a heathen. If He had been betrayed by the heathen, you would call him by his name. As it was one of the twelve, you say he was betrayed by a Jew!

ALONSO        Because that’s the truth! Treason is part of your nature. You betray everything and everybody, even yourselves if there’s profit in it. Don’t go too far, because I could tell you more than you’d like to hear! What are all your baptisms these days if not betrayal? And how despicable they are! Even a filthy Moor commands more respect than you. You get baptized so easily. But don’t imagine you can fool us. We know: even if you bathe a Jew in ten fonts of holy water, he always re­mains a Jew. And if he accepts Christ, he does it not for salvation but for base profit: to worm his way into the heart of a foreign people, so as to go on exploiting them.

(Abraham turns slowly away.)

ALONSO        Well? Have you run out of arguments? Come on, tell me that these people are your people, too. Isn’t that what you were saying a moment ago? That this is your land, which you’re now so eagerly leaving. (Scornfully) Gedali! If shame were not alien to your people, you’d burn up with shame on saying that. Would any Spaniard abandon his homeland, even under threat of death? Would a Spaniard get into a cart under a yellow flag to get clear of the Spanish frontier?

(Abraham stands with his head bowed.)

ALONSO        Answer me when I ask you a question.

ABRAHAM   Permit me to remain silent, sir.

ALONSO        Your Jewish silence again? It really is very conven­ient for you, when you realize how well we know you. Don’t fool yourself! We know you better than you could ever imagine. No wonder the priests in their pulpits warn the faithful about you, about your false humility which hides a vengeful spirit, and your air of piety, with hatred seething beneath it. It’s that hatred that makes you kill Christian children, isn’t it, to use their blood for matzohs?

ABRAHAM    (Rounding sharply on Alonso; shouting) That’s untrue! Don’t believe that, sir!

ALONSO        (Sharply) Do you dare to tell me the priests lie?

ABRAHAM    It is written in our Scriptures: “Thou shalt not eat blood, for blood is the soul.” The Scriptures forbid even the blood of animals.

ALONSO        What are these Scriptures of yours? What is your famous Talmud if not a manual of instructions on how to exterminate Christians? Do you acknowledge God? Your inspiration comes from Satan!

(Abraham backs away.)

ALONSO        (More and more heatedly; outside the doleful chant of the monks swells in volume with his voice) You’re a reptilian tribe, plotting the extinction of the Church! That’s your only reason for living; that’s what you raise your children for. Your daughters are harlots, wanton and lascivious, sent by you among Christians to provoke sin in their hearts. Your sons are the seeds of decay: you scatter them among other peoples to bring about their downfall! To you any means are all right as long as they lead to that end. There’s no vow, no law a Jew wouldn’t break—even calling up the spirits of Hell by the light of your Sabbath candles—to realize your dream: the dominion of Israel over the world. And when your intrigues come to light, when you put a foot wrong, you run away like rats from a sinking ship, (pointing) just as you’re running away now, you old Jew!

(Still backing away, Abraham bumps his back against some tombs and puts his hand on them.)

ALONSO        Hands off! Those are the tombs of my ancestors! Your touch defiles them!

(Abraham steps aside, his eyes fixed on the floor.)

ALONSO        The mortal remains of the Colleros are too sacred to bear the slightest touch of a cowardly hand.

ABRAHAM    (Raising his eyes, with a martyred look) Haven’t you said enough to humiliate me, sir?

ALONSO        Humiliate you? Is it possible to humiliate you? Wouldn’t you endure any insult, just to save your skin? There’s no price you wouldn’t pay for your wretched life! (Pointing behind him) You dare to call her your daughter. But haven’t you risked her neck? Weren’t you prepared to sacrifice her just so that you could flee from Spain?

ABRAHAM   (Turning sharply to face Alonso) You people have succeeded in taking everything from me, sir—money, position, and homeland. But the one thing I won’t let you take away is my child’s respect.

ALONSO        What respect can a proud Spanish girl have for a contemptible coward?

ABRAHAM   You say I’m sacrificing her. But I’m leaving for her sake!

ALONSO        (Scornfully) For her sake? You’re fleeing from the stake. You’re afraid of pain, you old Jew!

ABRAHAM       That’s true. I am afraid of pain! Pain is something alien to the body, something contrary to nature. But my body is old, I might as well give it up to the flames. However, I don’t want my daughter to have the image of that fire left in her eyes and have to live with the memory of her father burning like a rag at the stake.

ALONSO        (In a mocking tone) Is that the only reason?

ABRAHAM   No, sir, it is not! There’s one other: a base, Jewish reason, which you will no doubt despise. (Stretching his hand out to walls) If I were burned by the fires of the Inquisition, my houses, granaries, and capital would pass into the hands of the Inquisition. That, sir, is the law! But if I disappear from Spain it will all fall to my daughter. It will go to the Monte Blanco, to the treasure house of the Colleros. It will open the castle gates to her, just as it opened the hearts of your proud family. Because they despise Jews, but appreciate Jewish gold!

ALONSO        (Shouting) Be silent! (Slowly approaches Abraham and stands facing him) Do you know what you have said?

ABRAHAM   I’ve told you the truth, sir! You might not have known it, but ask your father!

ALONSO        Enough! (Choking in fury, after a pause) Retract that calumny!

(Abraham is breathing heavily.)

ALONSO        (As above) You dare to insult my family, Jew? (Shouting) Take your words back! At once!

(Abraham turns head away, still breathing heavily. At this moment a despairing cry of “Adonai!” rises above the monotonous chanting outside the cathedral walls.)

ALONSO        (In a different tone) Do you hear? Somebody like you is burning out there now! You know how the flames roast, how the smoke blocks the nostrils . . . If you don’t take back everything you said, at once . . . (Losing self-control, shouting) On your knees, down! Beg for mercy! Get down in the dust, Jew! Kneel at my feet!

(Abraham’s fists clench convulsively. In the silence Rachel’s cool, controlled voice is heard.)

RACHEL        Do you hear? Kneel at his feet, Jew!

(Abraham stares in horror at his daughter. Rachel stands erect, pointing at the floor. Abraham sways, then falls with a groan at Alonso’s feet.)

RACHEL        (In the same tone) And now kneel at my feet!

(Abraham cringes, as if he had suddenly shrunk. A moment of silence, measured only by the muffled chanting of the monks, as he crawls inch by inch to his daughter’s feet and lowers his forehead in obeisance.)

RACHEL        (To Alonso, proudly) You see! Now the whole reptilian race lies at my feet. The tribe that is the plague of Spain, the tribe that must perish! Shall I make a worthy wife for you? One with enough pride and dignity to bear the name of Doña Collero?

ALONSO        (Horrified) Leave him alone, Rosina!

RACHEL        No! I want you to look and remember the sight. See how those old shoulders tremble, see that head groveling in the dust. What can I have in common with this coward, this fool who prefers to wander homeless in the world, rather than renounce his faith? But even if he did renounce it, what profit would it bring him? Not all Jews have the good fortune to find their way into a powerful family of grandees. Not all can exchange their Jewishness for a heraldic shield!

(Alonso knits his brows, not understanding.)

RACHEL        Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not talking about myself. I was guided by love—I love you, Alonso. I love your eyes, your cheeks, your mouth, and the line of your beard. (Coldly) And I also love your castle, the humility of my future servants, the opulence of the castle chambers, and the weight of the name of Collero. My love hasn’t been blind; it chose carefully! Even if I have betrayed my own people, I have got a good price for it.

ALONSO        (Astonished) Rosina, what are you talking about?

RACHEL        I’m talking about our love. About you and me, about us. Did you think otherwise? No, you didn’t! (Calmly) Just think about it: if you were a nobody, a commoner, a beggar, an outcast—could you have asked me to marry you and be baptized for the sake of a beggar? But you’re a grandee! You’ll give me all I ever wanted! I’ve had the sense to build my future on sure foundations.

ALONSO        Wait a minute . . . I don’t follow . . .

RACHEL        It’s all very simple, Alonso. In a month’s time I shall be your wife. When the bell rings for matins our prayer-desks will stand side by side. Does it really matter what brought me to that prayer-desk?

ALONSO        (Shocked) Rosina!

RACHEL        (Raising hand) I’m not Rosina yet. I’m not being baptized until tomorrow. Not until tomorrow will the Holy Spirit place its kiss on my soul that so yearns for it. But perhaps a monk’s kiss is sufficient to strip away the shame of Jewishness? Tell me! As a devout Christian, you ought to know.

(Alonso stands rooted to the spot, staring at Rachel.)

RACHEL        Are you shocked? Why is that? My behavior was proper, after all. In order to gain access to her Lord, Saint Martha surrendered her body. I, in my religious penance, made the sacrifice for a monk.

(Alonso’s expression is all horror.)

RACHEL        Don’t you believe he could want me? Look at me: Am I not beautiful? Can’t I awaken desire, even in a body clothed in a habit? (Steps provocatively toward Alonso) Don’t back away! Touch my breasts! See how round and firm they are. And how my belly strains beneath my dress. Feel the heat of my loins . . .

ALONSO        (Shouting) That’s enough! Stop it! You’re mad!

RACHEL        Are you really more virtuous than a monk? Good Brother Angeles knew how to accept my Christian humility.

ALONSO        (Shouting) It’s a lie! It’s all untrue!

RACHEL        (Calmly) Why should I lie? Have I done anything wrong? I thought that was what I had to do . . . But if I didn’t, forgive me. Perhaps my soul still holds the taint of the past. After all, I was created to provoke sin in the hearts of Christians.

ALONSO        It’s a lie! (Falling to his knees and pressing his brow against the hem of her dress) You’re lying, Rosina!

RACHEL        What’s the matter with you? Where’s your pride? Your Spanish grandee’s pride? Is that really you, in the dust at the feet of a Jewess? Control yourself! It’s revolting. (Pulling in the folds of her dress) Your touch defiles me!

ALONSO        (Raising his head; despairingly) Rosina!

RACHEL        (Firmly) I’ve told you I’m not Rosina. Today I’m still Rachel. My soul is still filled with darkness, still the abode of devils. I can even feel them within myself: Balaam and Abaddon, Dybbuk, Gog and Magog . . . Belial, and Behemoth! You don’t believe me? Look, here’s a cross! It burns my hand. I only have to squeeze it in my hand for it to turn into the Star of David. Or if I fling it against the wall, the cathedral walls will burst asunder.

(Alonso slowly rises from his knees while Rachel is speaking; his face expresses horror.)

RACHEL        (In a soothing tone) No! No! I won’t do that! Those walls would crush us, too! And after all, we have to live and be happy together! I must bear children for you, children with the same pride and dignity as we have. And it won’t be my fault if the voice of Israel comes to life again in some generation of your descendants, the voice that is sounding within me now—a sinister Jewish malediction! (At the top of her voice) “Ma hishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot. Shebekhol halaylot anu okhleem hamatsot u mayem, halaylah hazeh . . .”

ALONSO        (Shouting) Silence! Silence, Jewess!

RACHEL        (Relieved) I’m glad you said that. You would have said it eventually—in a month, a year, or in five years. Eventually I would have heard that word from your lips. You’re right. Now I’m a Jewess! But it’s you and your kind who make Jews of us, with your limitless contempt and your animal hatred. Your wave doesn’t want to sweep us along; it only wants to destroy us! So go on—destroy us! What are you waiting for now? Your people are out there, outside the walls! Call in the guard of the Holy Brotherhood! (Changing tone) You hesitate? Have you suddenly understood? Yes! If they light fires for us, there’ll be one for you beside us! But then, you’re not afraid of pain, or smoke, or flames! So go on—do your duty! Here is a Jew who has insulted Spain, and a Jewess who has entered a covenant with the Devil! What else are you waiting for, gentile?

(Under the onslaught of Rachel’s words, Alonso backs away in confusion toward the door; then he turns sharply, intending to run out.)

RACHEL        Wait! You’ve forgotten your word! The word of a Spaniard and a grandee! And there’s no power in the world that can make him go back on it. You promised to save him, and marry me. Do you wish to sully the name of Collero?

(At Rachel’s call, Alonso stops in midstride and turns his unseeing eyes toward her.)

RACHEL        You can choose one of two paths: disgracing your honor or betraying the Church. Choose! But whichever you choose, you are doomed. (Points to door with sudden movement) Fly to your doom!

ALONSO        (Rushing away) Guard! (Stumbles and falls on the steps) Guard! (Running out of crypt.)

(Through the wide-open door the rippling melody of the penitential psalm is heard.)

RACHEL        (Calling after Alonso) Run! Run, my darling! Certain as fate that you are! Run to end our parting! Alonso! . . . My love! . . . My husband!

(Chant of monks. Alonso’s retreating steps and his fading, despairing cries.)

ABRAHAM       (Crouching all this time beside the buttress, now reaches out and embraces his daughter’s knees; despairingly) You’ve destroyed us, Rachel!

RACHEL        (Standing in same position as at the beginning of the act—with her eyes fixed on door; her voice is calm and even) I’VE SAVED US, Father!

Curtain

(The psalm continues to sound. Its rippling melody changes—trumpets are heard, and the sounds of a march then change into raucous singing in chorus. The separate elements begin to interlace, changing faster and faster, overlapping, becoming deafening, now sounding only like a hideous cacophony, from which a high-pitched whistle, like that of a jet plane, suddenly rises; for a moment it pierces the ears, growing louder, unbearable; then SILENCE. House lights come on.)


“Szkoła dobroczyńców” © Jerzy Lutowski. Translation © 2016 by Kevin Windle. All rights reserved.

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

Translating for Theater

Paul Russell Garrett reflects on breaking into theater translation, mistrust between theater makers and theater translators, and “collective dramaturgy.”
 

Recently I found myself in a quandary when asked to identify myself as either a translator or a theater maker. Under normal circumstances, I would consider myself a translator, but surrounded as I was by actors, directors, and producers, about to participate in an “actory” workshop involving movement and rhythm among other things, I made a conscious, perhaps deliberate choice to call myself a theater maker.

At times I forget how fortunate I have been as a translator, but when I hear from colleagues working from French, German, and Spanish, for example, of how they struggle to make a living, to break into the world of translated literature, I am reminded of how difficult a career in translation is. The impetus for my career can be traced back to a number of years ago, when I made the wise decision (though everyone told me I was mad at the time) to pursue Scandinavian studies at University College London. The program had a wide remit, providing me with the linguistic, cultural, and research skills that now enable me to translate from Danish and Norwegian, and to a lesser extent Swedish. I was fortunate enough to complete my studies and break into translation at a time when the question of when Nordic noir would reach its peak had still gone unanswered. (The fallout from that crime spree has created a space for other genres of translated fiction to be published in the English-speaking world.) My first translation of fiction happened to be a play and, on many levels, fortune was again involved, including the fact that my wife is an actor, and one who has cofounded a theater company at that. Through my collaborations with her company, [Foreign Affairs] has staged a handful of my translations in London over the past few years. The most important aspect of this collaboration, however, is that I have had the privilege of working side-by-side with an ensemble of actors, directors, and producers, also enabling me to establish a number of contacts in the theater world that many outside this environment would struggle with. In both respects, I continually remind myself of how fortunate I am, and this has ignited a desire to share my experiences in forging such relationships, resulting in a translation program entitled [Foreign Affairs] Translates! I’ll do my best to keep this from sounding like a blatant plug for the company, but in these nascent stages of the program, and during an event we ran at the British Library for International Translation Day 2016, people keep reminding me of the fact that what we are undertaking is a unique opportunity for translators with a passion for theater.

On the surface, the aim of the program is to equip translators with the tools that will allow them to translate for the stage, examining topics specific to this craft. (Are there noticeable differences from literary, commercial, or academic translation?) We have invited our translators to consider topics such as speakability, tone and register, and the importance of maintaining integrity to the original, all vital to any translation. We are offering our translators a master class on how to (or attempt to) eke out a living from translating theater. However, something that has only recently become clear is that we are also providing our translators with an opportunity to work closely with a theater company in a way that is apparently quite rare. In our experience, there appear to be considerable barriers between the worlds of theater and translation. And we would like to break them down. The two worlds are often wary of one another, skeptical of their unfamiliar or mysterious practices. We want to change that, by seeing them work side by side, by seeing translators develop into dramatists—theater practitioners possessing an understanding of how a theater company lives and breathes, dissolving the mystery between the two fields. We want them to see that actors are not mindless, arrogant, fantastical creatures; they are sensitive, thoughtful, and ingenious. Just as translators are not (all) academics, bookworms, or mere bureaucrats; they are creative, confident, and aspiring individuals.

Our latest workshop saw a group of translators being asked to participate in movement, rhythm, and text-based sessions with a group of actors and other theater practitioners. Outwardly the translators were the least confident of the group, with something resembling panic appearing in the eyes of some when instructed to move around the theater space to the sound of music, to close their eyes as they were guided in a blind free dance. When asked to repeat a complex rhythm exercise, which included making a range of noises with the mouth, stamping the feet, and clapping the cheeks, hands, chests, and thighs at an increasingly frenetic pace, we (I include myself in this group) were often the clumsiest, the least capable in the room. But the translators certainly were enthusiastic, embracing what could potentially be a new tool in their repertoire, and I saw the entire group trying to imagine ways of incorporating these exercises into their translation practice, a potential means of visualizing, creating, finding words, and capturing the subtle rhythms of a text.

It was equally interesting to see the response of a group of actors when asked to join our translators’ workshop, asked to read the latest drafts of the translations being worked on for our showcase, and asked to offer their insight. William Gregory, one of our translation mentors, dubbed this process “collective dramaturgy.” Following the readings, I was prepared to hear of the problems, the errors, the incongruities, but I only heard positive comments—about the creativity of the texts, the wonderful peculiarities and playfulness present in the translations.

You might wonder at the point of my ramblings, my shock and surprise at seeing theater practitioners and translators working side by side. The fact is that it works, that it is effective, that it brings out the best of both worlds, and that there should be nothing unusual about this process. Instead I believe this kind of collaboration should be the norm; of all translators, theater translators should not be locked away in a room translating for days on end without seeing another living soul (although this is inevitably part of a translator’s daily routine), but I believe they should be invited to participate, to investigate, to collaborate with theaters, working alongside theater practitioners and actors. How do we go about achieving this? As program director for the [Foreign Affairs] theater translation initiative, I know that what we are doing is merely one small step in the right direction. This year we have taken on three translators, working from Swedish, Serbo-Croat, and Hungarian, offering them a unique opportunity to make the most of this relationship. It would be amazing to see more theater companies joining us in this endeavor, introducing translators to their company, not as mere contractors performing a required task, but as theater practitioners, working with, creating, and breathing life into theater.

I recall a conversation with one of Denmark’s most prolific modern playwrights, Jakob Weis, where he mentioned that when writing his plays, he has often already decided which actors will perform the various roles, and fortunately he has the clout to make that happen. In this vein, I would like to see translators—the people who know the text better than anyone, except perhaps the author—become an essential part of the production process, to see the translator’s role envisaged from the moment a director or producer decides to stage a play in translation. Perhaps the translator may not have the kind of sway that will see them selecting their own actors, but certainly bringing actors in to work with translators during the preliminary stages of a production will allow translators to hear, develop, and organize the voices in their head during the translation process. Two things are required for this to happen: translators need to be able to access theater companies and theater companies need to know how to find translators. A theater producer, one who has produced a number of translated plays, recently admitted to having no idea how to find a translator for their play. In recent years, translators have been much better at promoting themselves, at insisting on recognition for their work, and at cultivating translator networks to further the cause of translators. It would be great to see a joint collaboration between theater translators and theater companies working with translation, establishing a network that allows theater companies and translators to connect, perhaps even one that tries to develop the craft of translators and theater companies, organizing events, workshops, readings, and collaborations. Were this to happen, having translators, actors, directors, and producers working side by side would not be a terrifying and unusual experience, it would simply be a normal everyday working relationship, resulting in quality productions of translated theater that are faithful to the original writing and culture, but that also embrace their new culture, and allow audiences to be exposed to something simultaneously foreign and familiar.
 

Afterword: As a translator based in the UK and following the ongoing political and cultural ramifications surrounding the B-word, I feel that I must make another conscious choice in emphasizing the “foreign” in [Foreign Affairs]. I cannot stress enough the importance of even closer collaboration with theater practitioners in Europe and beyond, of breaking out of our comfort zones and embracing practices, languages, and cultures that may seem very distant from our own. Translating, for the stage in particular, is not merely moving words from one language to the other, it is also vital to translate culture, to carry it across, where possible, and if not, to find ways of making it relevant in its new language, on its new stage, to supply it with context and an understanding of the culture that it originated in. In theory, breaking down barriers between languages and cultures should be no more awkward than putting a group of actors and translators in the same room—it may be difficult at first, but the more we grow familiar with one another, the more the mystery between us is broken down, the more normalized the practice becomes. For me, translating theater is inherently different from translating a novel. In a novel, I might enjoy the story, the characters, the plot, but in a play that is being performed to a live audience, I believe there is an opportunity to do something else, something more powerful, to carry across ideas that are different from our own, not to educate or dictate, but to expand our horizons, to embrace the “differentness” that it is to be human. Now is the time to embrace this, now is the time to stand up and make this message heard!

 

© 2016 by Paul Russell Garrett. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation
from the December 2016 issue: The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

The Strangeness of the Theater Translator

William Gregory argues for a greater role for theater translators in theater-making and looks at theater translation’s curious position straddling the fields of drama, creative writing, and modern languages.
 

I began translating plays in 2002. I was a jobbing actor, euphemistically “resting,” and looking for a way to stay creative and to make use of my languages degree. So I went to the London Instituto Cervantes (the Spanish cultural center), found their library, headed for its tiny theater section, and plucked a title out from the shelf. It was Primavera (Springtime) by Julio Escalada, a Spanish actor, playwright and, today, professor of playwriting at the RESAD, Spain’s royal academy of dramatic art. I liked the feel of the play—a restless farce of interwoven love triangles—and I translated it. Then, since I had a translation, I figured I may as well do something with it, so I contacted Julio and sought his permission to produce the play at the Finborough Theater, an off-West-End above-a-pub venue famed then and now for its commitment to new work.

And produce it I did (with a little help), over a sweltering August weekend when the temperatures in London hit the uncharacteristically high 30s Celsius. It was a joyous, creative time in and of itself, but fortunately for me, it coincided with the Royal Court Theater’s international department just having received a pile of new plays from Cuba—first drafts from the first of many new writing workshops they have since run in that country. They needed a translator, I was in the right place at the right time, and a year or so later my translation of El Concierto (The Concert) by Ulises Rodríguez Febles—in which an old rocker abducts a statue of John Lennon and sets out on an ill-advised campaign to reform the banned Beatles tribute act of his youth—was staged as a rehearsed reading at the Royal Court, published, and even broadcast as a radio drama by the BBC.

Thirteen years later and I’ve had some wonderful breaks on both sides of the Atlantic: my relationship with the Royal Court persists, with my translation of Guillermo Calderón’s astonishing new work, B (yes, just B), opening there in September and, next March, Villa, also by Calderón, opening with the Play Company in Manhattan. I’ve formed academic links in the UK and the US, and I have also made steps into the literary translation world, not least writing here for one of the literary translation community’s most respected journals. I even—and this is a highlight—shook the hand of Pedro Almodóvar after translating Todo sobre mi madre (All about My Mother) for a stage adaptation at London’s Old Vic. (I wasn’t particularly coherent, as I recall.)

Over a hundred plays translated, and it’s been a great journey, but as I look back I am struck by how unusual the journey of the theater translator is. Or rather, I have come to the view that theater translation, unlike any other field of translation that I can think of, is the least well-defined, most misunderstood, and, dare I say, marginal of translation specializations. In three realms—the theater community, the academic community, and the literary translation community—we theater translators are a minority—liked, certainly, but not understood, and always needing to assert ourselves, to redefine ourselves, as we try to ply our craft in spaces in which we are always the mysterious “other.” And as long as we are that other (insofar as that otherness can affect our ability to fully carry out our work) there is a risk that the writers whom we translate may not benefit fully from our translations as well as they might and, furthermore, that a vast wealth of playwriting talent from around the world may go untapped and undiscovered.

Take the theater world (or rather, the Anglophone theater—the experience in theater cultures of other languages is different, as I have learned from colleagues from other countries). A mere two to three percent of theater produced in the United Kingdom is a translation or adaptation of a play from a language other than English. (As pointed out by Josefina Zubáková of Palaký University at Kent University’s recent “Translating Theatre” Conference, this is in contrast to, say, the Czech Republic, where translations make up well over half of the national theater output, with the result that the role of the translator in Czech theater culture is much better established.) What this means is that the translator, perhaps unlike any other person involved in making a play, does not have a clearly defined role in the theater-making process. When a translated play is a once-in-a-blue-moon project for a theater company, the translator becomes an added person whose function is rarely considered in advance. All plays need a writer, actors, a director, a designer, a stage manager, lighting design, and more, and these roles are largely understood by everyone involved, by virtue of familiarity if nothing else. But the translator is an interloper into the world of playmaking. As a result, he/she is all too often neglected, misunderstood, or, at worst, mistrusted.

The cruelest assumption made by some other theater makers is that a translator knows nothing about theater. This assumption is best expressed in the practice of commissioning so-called “literal translations,” whereby a translator translates a play only for this translation to be given to an often-monolingual playwright to be reworked into a text deemed suitable for the stage. This method is well established and has been much discussed and decried in translation circles, critiqued especially for its alleged focus on the market under the pretext of “speakability.” (For more on this, see Eva Espasa’s article “Performability in Translation” in Moving Target, ed. Carole-Anne Upton, St Jerome Publishing, 2000.) But pretext or no, the assumption remains: that translators are first and foremost technicians, amateurs of theater whose role in the theater-making process should be, and can only be, limited.

I choose not to accept “literal” translation gigs (apart from the Almodóvar, which was worth it for the handshake), but the attitude that gives rise to the literal translation method can persist even in arenas where I am the only translator and it is my translation that is to be performed. I’ve been accused of using “translatorese” when a translation choice I have made is not quite successful; told not to worry about any moments where my translation works less well because “the actors and the director will sort it out”; told that the combination of one actor’s actorly instinct and the fact that he had a Spanish neighbor were a formula powerful enough to trump my, by then, several years of experience and to give him the right to rewrite my work. It is only as the years have gone by and my confidence has grown that I have felt able to assert my role in the creative process and to defend my right, not to have my translations uncorrected or unchanged, but rather to take an active role in making these edits within the same collaborative context that all other theater-makers enjoy, in defense not only of my own work, but also of the playwright’s. It is telling, too, how often the attitude toward me has changed when colleagues have learned that I am a trained actor. Suddenly, I am one of them. Not such an outsider after all.

But maybe if they had asked in the first place? If they had thought about it in advance? Not only might the translator be spared some damage to the ego (and I admit I have one), but the project might have benefited in so many ways. Because translators are not just technicians. We are creative artists, highly sensitive to linguistic nuance, and no less sensitive to this when tacking a text intended for the stage. Furthermore, we are a wealth of information and experience. Trained actor or no, the translator in the theater context is also an interpreter. We stand not only between two texts but between two cultures. We can help not only with the words but with the dramaturgical life of the play. When a Chinese or Czech play is being staged in the UK, who is best placed to spot the differences between the source and target cultures? Who can see them both at the same time and see when further explanation is needed? In all likelihood, the one person who has spent the most time living with both cultures simultaneously. In all likelihood, the translator. So, theaters, bring us onside. Get us involved. We don’t bite.

So much for the realm of theater. I mentioned that theater translation is the “other” in all of its realms and the next to consider is academia. Sometimes mistrusted by the theater community, the university sector is nevertheless a space where theater translation has been progressively gaining traction as a discipline. I stumbled upon this space somewhere along the road as a practicing theater translator making it up as I went along: I found a couple of books on theater translation, all of them published by academic presses; I attended a couple of theater translation conferences, and through a chain of events, I was invited by London’s City University to give a lecture on the subject of theater translation as part of their extensive translation studies program.

In recent years, I have collaborated with University College London’s Theater Translation Forum, and with Out of the Wings, a project at King’s College London comprising a database of Ibero-American theater in translation and a collective of theater-makers focusing on Hispanic and Lusophone theater, its translation, and its production and distribution in the form of staged readings. Theater translation is the subject of the above-mentioned research at the University of Kent, and in the US, specialist theater translation projects include The Mercurian, and Estreno Plays (edited out of PACE University).

Within this realm there is great expertise and enthusiasm, but real challenges persist. Firstly, theater translation seems to have struggled to establish itself as a discipline, not least because it has no single field in which to sit exclusively. With one foot in translation studies or modern languages, and another in drama and theater arts or creative writing, it is rarely embraced wholesale within either. Within modern languages, translation itself, let alone the translation of theater, has struggled to achieve acceptance as legitimate research, while in drama and theater studies (never mind in vocational drama schools), theater translation would be all but ignored were it not for the persistent efforts of a handful of passionate specialists. The result can be an isolating experience. Giving the keynote paper at the abovementioned Translating Theater Conference, Sirkku Aaltonen of Vaasa University described, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, her delight at finally meeting other academics with an interest in theater translation: “I thought I was the only one (!)”

The second and, for me, more pressing problem, however, is the failure of the academic sector to reach out to the theater world. This is a perhaps provocative choice of words to describe a phenomenon that could be, and has been, just as easily laid at the door of theater producers and literary managers who do not engage with the theater translation work of the university community for fear of being faced with stuffy, overly intellectual, untheatrical approaches. But having shared and felt the initial catharsis of those academic forums where we have lamented the absence of theater makers in the academic spaces where we discuss the translation of plays, I have come to the conclusion that a change in attitude from our theater-making colleagues must be actively encouraged, not just awaited, and that as translators we of all people must see that the way to do this is by learning the target culture’s language. In the UK at least, one historic barrier to enticing theater producers into academic theater translation events has been the simple fact that they more often than not take place within university campuses. Colleagues from outside the academic sector stay away simply because they do not believe that an event in such a setting can genuinely be a theatrical one. This belief may not be justified, but there is a simple solution: move these events into theater spaces (and into the theater timetable: nine a.m. won’t cut it!). If the academic rigor of an event rests on its content (not just the presentation of plays but also seminars, papers and roundtables), the theatrical worth of that same event will often be judged, like it or not, based on where it takes place.

The other challenge to this is the perception from the theater community that translations produced within the academic context are themselves “dry” and untheatrical, written in dusty libraries rather than vibrant rehearsal rooms. It is true that a translation carried out for research or academic publication purposes may have a different quality than one intended for production. If this is intentional, then the translator must accept that his/her translation cannot be used for both purposes; if it is not, then translators themselves need to get better at translating for the theater. For this to happen, there must be a safe space for translators to train. (Not all translators happen to also have studied acting.) There are courses aplenty for other kinds of translation, be it commercial, literary, audiovisual, legal, or otherwise, but theater translation courses in the Anglosphere—even short courses—are virtually nonexistent. How can we improve if there is no place to hone our skills?

And so, to the third and last “realm” in which theater translation takes place and where it is no less a much-beloved but misunderstood cousin: literary translation. I first stumbled into this scene thanks to a translation colleague, who translates novels but is, like me, an actor by training. Some years ago she introduced me to the Emerging Translators Network (ETN), and thence I met a community of passionate, generous, collegial literary translators, all pushing to promote international literature through events, conferences, journals like this one, organizations like PEN and the Free Word Centre, and of course dealing with publishers large and small.

We all have translation and modern languages in common, which is enough to sustain an entertaining conversation over a communal dinner or a few pints, and I am grateful indeed for having met this company of like-minded peers. Translation can be a solitary career and it is great to have networks like this where we can support each other’s work. But having translated only one novel (Vanessa Montfort’s Mitología de Nueva York [Myths of New York]), I am, as a theater translator, in a minority in this realm, too. As a discipline, is the translation of theater a literary pursuit or performing arts? 

Of course it is both, and this volume of Words without Borders is proof, if proof were needed, that the international literature and translation communities are keen to embrace theater as part of the family. Fellow journals such as Asymptote are no less open to the inclusion of drama in their pages. And for two years running, the Free Word Centre has included theater translation in its lineup for International Translation Day at the British Library. And yet, there is still untapped potential: the potential to take these translations off the page and to release their unique power.

The literary translation calendar is buzzing with events throughout the year on both sides of the Atlantic. Book launches, readings, writers in conversation, symposia and panels on freedom of expression, multilingualism, specific languages and communities. There is space, surely, for translated theater to takes its place within this calendar. For a sector already skilled at organizing events that host an audience, pulling together a play-reading is not a great leap; indeed, there is a precedent for such events, albeit a limited one, in the online archives of English PEN, in the context of promoting freedom of speech and the resistance of censorship. With technology as it is now, these live events can easily be shared globally, in the moment or for posterity on sites like this one.

And there is power in this. Theater texts reach their full potential only when voiced and embodied. When this happens, the effects can be visceral. English PEN remarks that theater has a unique and sometimes provocative power: “What is it about theater that brings out protestors? People don’t protest outside bookstores,” says one PEN resource aimed at students. Furthermore, there is the potential for a greater audience, attracting theater aficionados into the space of the literary translator.

It is great to see that three of the texts presented in this volume will be taken a step further and presented by a cast of actors. I would be delighted to see more of this, and for translated theater to take its place in the realm of activism, perhaps with sharing of readings under a theme: LGBT plays from around the world, theater addressing racism and xenophobia, new writing from a given country or continent. Who better to source and present these texts, and to harness their power, than a global community with an a priori passion for cultural exchange and a fascination in the transfer of art from one language to another? There is so much out there, just waiting to be uncovered. And if this seems a step too far, fear not: just ask a theater translator to lend a hand.

So much for my theory of the three realms and the otherness of the theater translator. Now for the manifesto.

Theaters, embrace your translators! Start thinking early on about how you can use us, what added value we might offer; keep an open mind about what additional skills and experiences we have. And most of all, allow us the space to be theater practitioners in our own right, no less imperfect than anyone else making a play, but with just as much right to learn, to have a say in our own process, and to collaborate and opine.

Universities, keep reaching out! If engagement with the theater community is a priority, then work even harder to make events that our theater-making colleagues will be inclined to attend. Take work into theater spaces, learn the language of the theater market, and be self-critical and honest when looking for the reasons behind what can be a frustrating absence in our midst.

And to the literary translation world, take it further! It’s wonderful for a theater translator to find a home in a community of translators from other disciplines; it would be even more so for the translations created in this context to have a space to be spoken, embodied, and staged, releasing their potential not just as individual texts but also as a vehicle for the creation of new audiences. 

There are initiatives out there. From within academia, Out of the Wings is planning its second week of readings for 2017 and intends to take these into a theater space. From the international literature, translation, and activism world, PEN America’s World Voices International Play Festival has been showcasing international playwriting annually for several years. And in the theater realm, [Foreign Affairs], the London-based international theater company, ran its first-ever theater translation program in 2016 (more on this from Paul Russell Garrett in this issue), while the Royal Court Theater, long a champion of the translator in theater and a rejecter of the “literal translation” method, continues to involve the translator in its new-play development processes in an ever-evolving way. In the US, a new website dedicated to theatre in translation, TinT, has just been launched, and in times of international uncertainty there seems to be a growing interest in the theater community on both sides of the Atlantic to seek out voices from languages other than our own.

Indeed, it was at the Royal Court where I was once put in the position I have argued for here, only perhaps to regret it. In rehearsals for a play reading, with a few short hours to go before the performance, a query arose about a particularly tricky piece of text. I was asked for a solution. I pondered out loud, wavering as the various options drifted through my mind. But the pressure was on.

“You’re the translator,” snapped the director, “make a decision!” 

So (note to self), be careful what you wish for. If you want to be center stage, be prepared to be put under the spotlight.

 

© 2016 by William Gregory. All rights reserved.

December 2016
The World on Stage: Micro-Plays in Translation

December 2016

from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

“The Midwife” by Katja Kettu

Reviewed by Gordon Slater

The Midwife by Katja Kettu, published by Amazon Crossing and translated deftly from the Finnish by David Hackston, is Kettu’s English debut. The novel received widespread acclaim in Finland and was turned into a feature film of the same name in 2015. Born in 1978, Kettu is an award-winning author, filmmaker, and columnist, and she has published several novels and a collection of short stories. Hackston is a graduate of University College London and a frequent translator of Swedish and Finnish literature.

Set during the final years of the Second World War in Northern Finland, The Midwife follows a torrid and tragic affair between a Finnish nurse, Helena, and her lover, an SS officer and photographer named Johannes Angelhurst. With a complex plot, shifting narrators, and a nonlinear timeline, Kettu builds a careful world to explore a personal story amid the political drama of international conflict, balancing delicate and powerful eroticism with brutal and casual human suffering.  

Helena is an orphan and was raised as an outsider––a product of the despised politics of a communist father and the sins of a prostitute mother––and lacks a complete sense of her own beauty and power in comparison with her peers. Referred to as “Weird-Eye” by her adoptive family and other Finns because of a lazy eye that marks her as imperfect, it is widely assumed that she is barren. Johannes is the son of a German WWI veteran, Fritz Angelhurst. The war turned Fritz into a pacifist and in the feverish years of the 1930s, a young Johannes saw his father’s resistance to Nazi war rhetoric as weak. Fritz’s pacifism and his skeptical view of the promises of nationalism only fuel Johannes’s war hunger, leading the young man to join the SS in pursuit of the glory of Nazi ideals. He becomes an officer and, lacking the technical skill to become a pilot, is recruited as a photographer to document the German advance into Eastern Europe. Helena, in turn, is trained as a midwife, with a combination of modern medicine and ancient, near-magical folkloric tradition. Her art allows Helena a unique social role, affording freedom and access that few could enjoy during a time of war. At one point, Helena observes:

I had knowledge, and with that came the freedom to come and go as I pleased.

In Helena’s and Johannes’s world, where thousands of German, Finnish, and Russian soldiers spread along the front, extramarital affairs flourished and pregnancy became a symbol of both the social problems of the war and the mundane, intimate realities of human interaction. The offspring of affairs between German soldiers and Finnish women embodied the complexity of the two nations’ relationship––from 1939 to 1944 Finland was at war with Soviet Russia and allied with Nazi Germany; in 1944, Finland signed a truce with Allied powers and turned to fight against Germany over territory in northern Finland, in what was to become known as the Lapland War.

At the outset of the novel, Helena meets and falls in love with Johannes when he photographs a birth she is assisting, and determines to follow him to the Russian POW Camp, Titovka, where he has been assigned. On the northern edge of Finland, where the land meets ice, Helena and Johannes connect, though their love is defined in part by what they do not know of each other. Describing the far north, Helena explains:

Out here at the edge of the world, it sometimes seems that nobody is who they claim to be, that everyone is lying and folks believe their lies.

Johannes, in particular, struggles to know even himself. As an SS officer in Ukraine, he participates in the infamous massacre at Babi Yar, one of the early atrocities in what would become systemized extermination of European Jews and other “undesirables.” As a photographer, Johannes bears witness to the killing, documenting it for posterity. During the murder at Babi Yar, Johannes is hit in the head by a stray bullet and, though he survives, he cannot remember anything specific about his involvement in the genocide. Further, Johannes is increasingly dependent on amphetamines through the novel, “medicine” he takes to quell nightmares, depression, and to give his work at the camp a sense of the purpose he sought when joining the Nazi cause.

Kettu positions Johannes as a photographer partly to address the horror of bearing witness to cruelty, as distinct from directly experiencing or inflicting suffering. Taking photographs separates Johannes from the materiality of the death he witnesses, allowing him to retreat behind a medium with rules and order. Helena’s father, a spy working for both sides, writes in a letter explaining his duplicity that “war has its own laws.” For Johannes, the reality of genocide cannot mirror the majesty of his hope in the Nazi identity, so he denies it, accepting his amnesia and ignoring the nightmares that plague him. When he is assigned to dig a pit at the POW camp, Johannes seems to believe that it is truly to be a swimming pool and not a mass grave. In his relationship with and desire for Helena, though, Johannes is stripped of some of the protection amnesia and photographic distance offered. His identity split between the need to maintain a careful order so as to not lose his faint grasp on sanity and the disorder of the raw, deep draw of his love for Helena, he says: 

The lens was my protective wall, my peephole into the outside world. I don’t want to build such walls between us. I have no desire to photograph you. I want to enter your state, your spirit, for the wind to creep beneath our skin and for us to be one.

The traumatized SS officer and the outcast Finnish nurse find their love at the very edge of civilization, in a cabin in a remote Fjord they discover after crashing their car. The place is desolate and gives them room to discover each other and to unearth both powerful desire and love. Johannes is surprised at both Helena and his own feelings for her: “Wild-Eye is a fierce woman. She’s frightening because she’s not afraid of me . . .” In the midst of the larger machinations of the conflict, Helena and Johannes’s love is deeply personal, defying the morality of peace or the rigid, brutal order of war. In their tiny cabin by the ocean, they find each other––fragile and rejected––and the connection endures.

In a letter to his daughter, Helena’s father writes:

More often than not that’s precisely what folks want, to glide through the following day and beyond, far across the horizon, far into the distance where the sky creaks on its hinges.

The safety and isolation of this fantasy speaks to Johannes and Helena’s brief, imperfect affair. Kettu jumps back and forth in time, shuffling the narrative into fragments the reader collects piece by piece, slowly revealing a complexly woven plot. The result is a juxtaposition of brutal and tender moments, sometimes without the stability of context, evoking the rapidly shifting, stark paradoxes of a world at war, of people living among death. The love affair is an escape from the brutality of rape, murder, and genocide that the novel depicts, and Kettu uses this dichotomy to question the possibilities of narrative resolution, of hope and satisfaction, amidst rupture and violence. The novel is honest in its display of both pain and love, though, and Kettu seems most fascinated by the personal gaps that emerge in the large, canonized history of World War II. 

Andrei Platonov

Jerzy Lutowski

Dimitri Tavadze

Aurora Lauzardo

William Gregory

Jesse Irwin

Sarah Maitland

Roberto Athayde

Kevin Windle

Santiago Molero

Miguel Alcantud

from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

“Frantumaglia” by Elena Ferrante

Reviewed by Carla Baricz

Originally published by Edizioni E/O in Italian in 2003 and then progressively augmented with new material in subsequent editions, Elena Ferrante’s Frantumaglia features short notes and meditations by Ferrante, carefully selected correspondence between Ferrante and her publishers, as well as a variety of interviews with both Italian journalists and members of the international press. As Sandra Ozzola––one of the publishers of the edition––informs readers, this carefully culled selection of documents was made available in order to illuminate “the internal history” of Ferrante’s “motivations, of the struggle to give them shape, and how they changed over time.” The book is aptly titled. Together, the brief meditations, interviews, and letters make up a jumble of frantumaglia: scattered “bits and pieces whose origin is difficult to pinpoint,” a “vortex of debris, a whirlwind of thoughts-words,” “splinters” of the mind that offer tantalizing insights into Ferrante’s imagination, interests, and views. 

This fragmentary collection was originally envisioned as a companion book that would give readers some sense of Ferrante’s thoughts about the nature of her work, drawing together documents that could “without too many veils, and by making use of various fragments, notes, explanations, even contradictions, accompany the works of fiction” in some useful way. What is now Part I of the collection––letters, notes, and interviews relating to Ferrante’s work up to and including The Days of Abandonment (Edizioni E/O, 2002)––was later supplemented by a second edition, which included the material which “update[d] the book through The Lost Daughter” [Edizioni E/O, 2006]. Subsequently, Ozzolla and her partner Sandro Ferri released a third edition occasioned by the “reprint [of] Frantumaglia in Italy [. . .] enhanced with a collection of the interviews that Elena has done since the publication of the four installments [2011-2014] of My Brilliant Friend or the Neapolitan Quartet, as it’s called in English.” Ann Goldstein’s English translation is based on this third edition.

Presumably in Italy, collections of interviews, and/or letters and meditations like Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, are not only commonplace but the norm, as they are in France, Spain, Germany, and indeed in most of Europe. The published cahier, the book of conversazioni, the collection of pubblicistica—these are well known forms in which writers collect their meditations and the documents that they have allowed to gather dust in desk drawers. Writers often also use such encompassing genres in order to gather together interviews that otherwise would be lost or inaccessible, to meditate on their craft with its other practitioners, or to engage in polemics. However, Ferrante is not most writers, and this family of related genres that seem to enhance––or at least to enlarge––most writers’ lists of publications does her a disservice and seems to diminish her own. This is not because Ferrante does not understand the formal characteristics of this related group of genres, but because such genres, in their most basic form, depend on the concept of the author as a figure of auctoritas, as a figure who as auctor, as “producer / progenitor” of the work, has authority over it. Such collections are intended for readers already familiar with the writer’s oeuvre, who at the same time wish to know more about the writer herself. They turn to such collections with the implicit belief that the writer’s comments or pronouncements on her works are relevant to one’s understanding of them. These genres are the stuff of which biographies and literary criticism often are made because they are so thoroughly grounded in the idea that knowledge of the author’s life and his or her views matter: that the author can illuminate the work. 

Ferrante and her publishers are keenly aware of this fact. After all, the work is titled Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey. The volume advertises itself as detailing Ferrante’s inner journey from Troubling Love to the Neapolitan Quartet. It, too, seems grounded in the idea of the author as auctoritas. The title and table of contents imply that this author’s life and thoughts are important to an understanding of the works she has produced. And yet, despite having agreed to the proposed form of the collection, Ferrante gives readers very little concrete information about that journey. She maintains, as she has all along, that “I don’t think one can know more about a work by having information about the reading habits and the tastes of the one who wrote it.” She insists that “I don’t think that the author ever has anything decisive to add to his work” and affirms that the author is “present” in her work, and that is all the presence one can and should expect. She denounces the “media attention” that has “accustomed readers to the idea that the producer of the work counts more than the work [,] as if to say: I will read you because I like you, I have faith in you, you are my small god.” 

Unfortunately, this denunciation clashes with the very premise of the book in which it is found. One publishes the cahier, the conversazioni, the pubblicistica precisely because one has faith in the writer who has also published the book of poems that one loves, the novel one admires, or the play one saw performed. One buys such works for the same reason. Indeed, one is interested in the frantumaglia, “the jumble of fragments inside” or “the aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self,” because one is curious about the author of the novels, the plays, the poems. The implication here is that the author can and should be known outside of her works. Ferrante does not agree, but her belief that the author is superfluous to the text and can only be known in and through that text is at odds with the form of the book. 

This is not to say that the volume is completely lacking in biographical detail, and as much as Ferrante seems to disagree with the generic form, she acts as though she agrees with its premises. It is these fractured fragments of life, as few and far between as they are, that make up the best material in the collection. Ferrante dazzles when she narrates the world in which she grew up and in which she now lives. She is brilliant on her experience of the tensions between social classes in contemporary Italy, on Elisa Morante’s novels, which she loves, on Caravaggio, on books as miraculous entities that we receive unexpectedly, like the gifts of the Befana, the crone of Italian folklore who delivers presents to children on the eve of the Epiphany. She is brilliant in her discussion of the relationship between the city and the writer, her city and her writing, which she uses to breathe new life into the old metaphor of writing as weaving. She meditates on Walter Benjamin’s “city-labyrinth” and his mysterious Ariadne, who “preserves the art of getting lost” by controlling the thread that unwinds through the vast and threatening urban landscape, on her mother’s sewing machine and the swirls of colored thread with which her mother “weaves her spell,” transforming cloth into garments that will “become one with the body” of a Neapolitan woman, and on Dido, Virgil’s doomed Carthaginian queen, who in losing Aeneas’s love loses the “thread”––or the “art”––that would allow her to find her way through the “urban labyrinth” that her polis of “love” has become. She is brilliant on the question of why she is a feminist, on cultural stereotypes, on how important it is for her to write alone in a little corner. In other words, Ferrante is brilliant when she writes as if for a cahier. We learn about who she is as a writer, as an intellectual, and as a woman living in Italy at the beginning of the twenty-first century, by watching her mind at work, by reading her thoughts on culture, on literature, on Italy and its political and social ills. We learn about who she is by hearing about the winter afternoons she spent with the Aeneid as a young girl, or by thinking about Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris alongside her, or by reliving with her the memory of a first reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Unfortunately, one must search for these snippets as though diving for pearls, both because Ferrante seems constantly at odds with her publisher’s expectations for the volume and because a substantial portion of the book is made up of interviews. When the interviewer is an engaging interlocutor, like Nicola Lagioia—who is himself a writer and who was Ferrante’s co-competitor for Italy’s highest literary honor, the Strega Prize—the questions are both engaging and broad enough to allow Ferrante the space to meditate on the topics that fascinate her. When Ferrante is engaged, she engages us. However, the acuity and perspicacity of the interviewers varies. A number of the interviews are disappointing not because Ferrante is not a thoughtful interlocutor or because the translator Ann Goldstein does not manage to convey Ferrante’s answers into supple English prose, but because the questions are repetitive and tired. More often than not, they center on Ferrante’s identity, even though Ferrante has made it clear that she has nothing more to say on the subject.

Frantumaglia is a difficult book to judge because its form and its publishers’ intentions seem at odds with Ferrante’s own intentions. The volume raises more questions than it answers: How is one meant to judge the publisher’s decision to print this work if in it Ferrante adamantly condemns “the editorial marketplace [that] is [. . .] preoccupied with finding out if the author can be used as an engaging character and thus assist the journey of his work through the marketplace?” Is this not what this “journey” collection does? Has the irony escaped Ferrante? Has it not? Does Ferrante provide such limited (and possibly false) biographical information, which simply reinforces the cultural and literary heritage in which her novels are steeped, in order to underscore the point that all one needs to know about an author can be found in her works? Might it be the case that every single one of those compelling autobiographical moments has its origins in––even derives from––a moment she describes in one of her novels? Is she constructing an auctor simply to teach her readers a lesson? Is this what Ferrante means by calling the book an “afterword?” We may never know, and the recent controversy caused by Claudio Gatti’s supposed revelation of the author’s identity only makes such questions more difficult to answer. Perhaps we should simply take pleasure in reading Goldstein’s elegant English prose and acknowledge the one idea that seems both indisputably true and central to everything that Ferrante writes: deep down we are all made up of “heterogeneous fragments that, thanks to impressions of unity––elegant figures, beautiful form––stay together despite their arbitrary and contradictory nature.”

Read an excerpt from Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love

Read a review of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter

Victor Heringer

November 2016

from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

I often ask myself and others: why has so little Thai literature been translated? We are a country of around sixty-seven million people, and Thai is the twenty-fifth most spoken native language in the world; the numbers should suggest a better outcome. Have we been written off abroad as a good-time country of pad Thai, Phuket, and, troublingly, prostitution, a land where, as Thais like to say, we have fish in the water and rice in the fields, and therefore our people are viewed as not having suffered enough for deep meditation? Then I thought: instead of merely contemplating the question, why not start chipping away at it? When Words without Borders suggested a Thai issue, I was delighted, shaking in my boots as I pondered which authors and pieces to pick among the many I would love to showcase.

The writers back home offered backup. I pounded the pavement and made cold calls to reach authors, many of whom have become friends, and they generously shared their reading recommendations. Especially because Thai literature has been so rarely translated, theirs, I sense, is a Thailand that shows its vulnerable side, not the Thailand that has its best foot forward like in the guidebooks. In these pages, you will find expressions of the disquiet of living in contemporary Thailand, a Southeast Asian nation where the rate of modernization seems only to accelerate.

Thailand is an axe-shaped country with the “blade” flanked by Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The “handle” separates the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand and touches Malaysia at its southernmost tip. The nation very recently lost the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (also known as King Rama IX), the ninth king of the Chakri Dynasty, which moved the country’s capital to Bangkok in 1782. Contemporary Thailand has known nothing but King Bhumibol as its head, and during his seventy years on the throne he was an imposing ballast for the country. Yet, the kingdom has not been without political turbulence: since its transformation from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, it has seen a dozen coups (plus a number of attempted ones) and is currently under military rule, this time since 2014.

Thai writers have tended to be a socially concerned and politically engaged bunch. As revered editor Suchart Sawasdsri discusses in his interview, Thai literature has had a long tradition of delivering social critique and promoting activism, going all the way back to the beginning of Thai prose writing about 140 years ago. Kulap Saipradit, the distinguished early novelist said to have coined the Thai word for “novel” in the 1920s, was the prototypical writer: a fiction author, journalist, and intellectual in one. Throughout much of the latter half of the twentieth century, the so-called “literature for life” movement, Thailand’s version of social realism, and its offshoots dominated the scene. Its influence has proved enduring, even as realist styles have given way to more modernist narratives and even as the leftist ideology of its heyday in the 1970s has been retuned over time.

With the long hand of the literature for life movement, contemporary Thai literature has often captured social problems in terms of the binary between the urban and the rural, the divide between the capitalist life in the metropolis of Bangkok, so dominant and modern compared to the rest of the country, and the traditional life, often imagined as idyllic, in the provinces. The contrast, handled at times obliquely in the depiction of the everyday reality of Thai life, raises a host of issues that are growing pains of an evolving society, ones that are felt especially acutely in a developing nation: class, equality, tradition, democracy, and abuse of power.

The writers in this issue have shown nuanced takes on this defining dichotomy. For example, Chart Korbjitti, who is as much a household name as any living Thai author, is described by Chulalongkorn University literature professor Suradech Chotiudompant as a writer of tales that show the cracks in old way of life associated with the countryside.

Sri Daoruang, herself a real-life literature-for-life heroine—once a factory worker, she famously has only a fourth-grade education—has been a steadfast female voice in Thai literature since she began writing alongside the social realist men in the seventies. As Susan Fulop Kepner writes in her introduction to Lioness in Bloom: Modern Thai Fiction about Women, Sri Daoruang does not shy away from tackling bold subjects and presenting “ugly” characters as she contemplates the woman’s place in society. Susan translated Sri Daoruang’s “Tanoo” for this issue. 

Duanwad Pimwana, who combines a social realist bent with magic realism, is another female beacon and one of only six women to have won the Thai section of the S.E.A. Write Award in its thirty-seven-year history. Her writing captures the spirit of small-town Thailand with its make-do attitude, at once melancholy and defiant. “Monopoly” is the first chapter of her S.E.A. Write-winning novel, Changsamran, which is excerpted here.

The gutsy Phu Kradat, who is hailed as the new voice of the northeastern region of Isan and described by Sawasdsri as “the new ‘for life,’” chooses to write in his native dialect, however opaque it might be to the general Thai readership. His two poems included in this issue encapsulate one of the key concerns in his writing: to challenge the idea that it is the manifest destiny of the Isan people to become migrant workers.

Urban life, too, features in the issue. Prabda Yoon is the unapologetic city boy who rose to fame, giving voice to a new generation of Bangkokians while making his mark on Thai literature by popularizing postmodern narrative techniques. Before him, another chronicler of Bangkok life, Win Lyovarin, was also experimenting with narrative forms, most notably via the use of graphics.

In all of this, Uthis Haemamool has been capturing the mood of current times with his sprawling novels that challenge the concepts of facts and history. In his story “Light Splash Sound,” translated by Peter Montalbano (who also translated the author’s S.E.A. Write Award-winning novel The Brotherhood of Kaeng Khoi), Uthis again destabilizes accepted values that have long been passed down without being questioned.

As a Thai native, working on this issue of Words without Borders has felt deeply personal, like introducing friends to a new crowd. I realize that I have necessarily painted with a broad brush and framed the picture a little too tightly in this introduction, but it is a start. I hope that the works presented here will begin a longer conversation about writing from Thailand. I myself will be watching what is to come from our authors now that the King’s death has plunged our country into a new era.

 

© 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Monopoly

Duanwad Pimwana’s battling couple abandon their boy to the neighborhood.


Duanwad Pimwana reads “Monopoly” in Thai.

Kampol Changsamran, a boy of five, was hanging around in front of Mrs. Tongjan’s tenement houses. His father had told him to wait: “You stay here. I’m taking your brother to Grandma’s. I’ll be back to get you in a bit.” Hearing these last three words, Kampol didn’t dare to wander far, worried his father wouldn’t spot him upon his return, so he paced back and forth, keeping a watch on the entrance to the community.

Something had gone down at his house a few days ago. His parents got into a nasty fight, and everyone knew it from all the yelling. His mother hurled the fan, breaking its neck. His father flung the kettle over her head, launching it outside the house. When night fell, his mother rolled up in a pickup truck, had it parked in front of the house, and loaded it with belongings until the house was bare. She left on a motorbike, riding ahead as the pickup truck crawled behind her. His father watched, arms akimbo, head slightly nodding. Kampol’s brother, two months shy of a year old, was screaming inside the house

Kampol waited for his father in front of their unit, which they had already surrendered to the landlady. He stood there sulking, two bags of his clothing lying next to him on the ground. At midday the grown-ups next door called him over, scooped him some rice, and fed him with questions nonstop. 

The row houses of the tenement formed a little square, with a shady spot to sit under a poinciana tree, and the vantage point was prime for observing all kinds of things. Importantly, a general store was situated diagonally behind, and its customers routinely stopped by to exchange a few words with the people gathered under the poinciana.

Kampol was grilled with questions about his parents. He recounted the incident over and over again. Some people walked over to him; some waved him over. That afternoon someone gave him money to buy a treat at the store, and he was called over to the poinciana by six or seven adults as he walked by.

“Where’d your papa go, Boy?” Kampol didn’t have a nickname. Everyone called him “Boy,” as his father did.

“He took my brother to Grandma’s,” he answered as before.

“What about you? Why didn’t he take you?”

“He’s coming to get me soon, to go stay with him at the factory,” he replied, as he had when others had asked him the same question.

And where’d your mama go? What did they fight about, d’you know? Did your mama say who she was going to stay with? How often did they fight? Is your brother breastfed? Why didn’t you go with your mama? You poor thing, with parents like these. His father had nothing to do with this. His mother had an affair. That’s karma—his father had abandoned two or three wives.

Kampol held his snack woodenly, eyes glazed over as he stood listening to this person here and that person there. He was fed up, he hung his head. He missed his father, and he was dreaming of their new home, all the while exhausted and sleepy. In truth, Kampol didn’t know much—he just told them what he saw. The more he answered questions, the more he came to know about his parents in the process. He was growing irritated and indignant when some of the adults said his father might have abandoned him here and taken his brother to go live somewhere else. Some of them said he ought to go live with his mother. “With two kids, you have to split the burden. Since his father took the younger one, he probably meant to leave the older one for the mother.” Kampol was hurt, but he didn’t believe them. He started to resent the grown-ups. He stopped paying attention to them and instead craned his neck to look at the head of the path, refusing to break from his vigilance.

The group under the poinciana began to disperse after they had had more than their fill of the discussion. But one woman reignited it. She had gone to buy fish sauce and then stopped by.

“I feel bad, seeing him like this, so at lunchtime I called him to come over and eat.” She shot the kid a look of compassion, her remark prickling everybody. The woman was called Aoi. She was the wife of a motorbike cabbie.

“Yeah . . . I saw him sitting there staring at his bags, so I gave him some money to get a snack. Look there, he hasn’t eaten it all yet.” The speaker was On, the wife of a department-store security guard.

Then everyone fell silent. Nobody had ever thought of doing this sort of thing before. The wave of pity had created a certain wind that stirred a number of people.

Dum the tire-patcher spoke up in turn: “Yeah, I feel really sorry for him.” Then he called out, “Boy, you can stay at my place tonight if your papa still isn’t back.” And then he turned to the person next to him and said, “He’s just a little kid—there’s plenty of room to sleep.”

The boy declined without a word, his eyes still stuck on Dum. He wasn’t going to spend the night at anybody’s because soon his father was going to come for him. One woman got up and went to grab the child’s hand. “C’mon, Boy, come eat dinner first. Your papa isn’t going to show up so soon.” In a daze, Kampol was tugged along by the woman. He wasn’t hungry and didn’t want to go anywhere with anyone. He worried that his father wouldn’t see him when he arrived. As the others watched them go, the word among the crowd was that Tongbai’s behavior was in poor taste. “She’s showing off,” was what they said. 

Yet by five o’clock in the evening, Tongbai was still in the kitchen. The rice in the pot still wasn’t cooked. Kampol, who was sitting there in a funk by his pile of bags, was led into the house of another kindly neighbor, who stuck in front of his face a plate of rice topped with a fragrant omelet. When the neighbor wasn’t paying attention, Boy took his plate outside, back to the spot where he had left his bags. He kept an eye on the path where he would be able see his father return. Tears were welling up and his lips began to pout. A moment later, Tongbai poked her head out to call him. When she saw the plate in the child’s hand, she came to inspect up close.

“Where’d you get the food?”

“Aunt Keow.”

Tongbai went back into her house and slammed the door.

After work let out, the road into the community started to fill with people and vehicles. Children were coming back from school, and workers were making their way home. Half an hour later, Kampol had managed to take only two bites of food. His eyes moist, he sniffled and whimpered. As people passed by, he would reply that his father hadn’t come for him yet. The more he repeated this, the harder he cried. All sorts of people came over to console him. “Your Grandma’s is far away. He’ll probably be back really late.” “If he doesn’t have a ride back, he’ll probably have to stay the night.” “Don’t cry. If your dad’s not back, tonight you can stay at my place.” “Hey, I already told you that you can stay with me this evening.”

The sky was growing darker. Kampol was brought to the store, and treats were put before him so he would stop crying. His bags were placed next to him. He continued to sob. Sympathetic folks stood around forming a crowd in the front of the store, as if this was a problem they had to help resolve. Most of them sounded off on the cause of what had put the child in this predicament. His mother shouldn’t have had an affair. The father shouldn’t have laid hands on her. The mother shouldn’t have run off just to save her own skin. What reason did his father have to take the baby brother alone? The child was bleary-eyed. His sniffling turned into hiccups and he fell asleep like that, still hiccuping, in somebody’s arms. Dum carried the kid’s two bags to his place. When he returned, the child was gone. A woman of a certain age named Rampeuy, the one who had comforted the boy until he fell asleep, had carried him to her place. With more than ten pairs of eyes looking on, she proudly offered to look after the child’s sleeping arrangements.

Late that night, Kampol began screeching, jolting all kinds of people awake. The boy started up from his mattress and felt his way in the dark. When people in the house got up to switch the lights on, the child made a dash for the door, flung it wide open, and ran out. He cried out for his father, his voice echoing down the street. The neighbors turned their lights on and opened their windows. Some cracked their doors open and stuck their faces out to see what was going on. The boy was running down the street, heading for the entrance to the community. Two adults went after him, grabbed him by the arms, and sat him down. They consoled him for a long while and then headed on home. In the calm of the night, the neighbors could make out a whimpering cry.

Early in the morning, Kampol left the house where he had spent the night. He staggered over to the store and looked around for his bags. He stood there quietly until the shop owner turned and saw him.

“Is my papa here yet, Hia Chong?” Kampol asked.

“I haven’t seen him,” Chong, with his arms akimbo, looked at the boy.

“My bags are gone. Yesterday they were right here,” the child pointed to the spot.

“Someone’s probably holding on to them for you. They’ll probably bring them back in a bit. Just sit there and wait.”

An instant later, Dum carried the two bags over to the store, put them down next to the boy, bought a pack of cigarettes, and went home. A succession of other people came to do their shopping, and as usual, they asked Kampol, “Your papa’s not back?” The child gave no answer, but the grown-ups didn’t pester him to say any more. They had started to get used to the Kampol situation, and it was losing its novelty. But that was not the case among the kids, some of whom were his classmates. As it was Saturday and there was no class, his friends brought him gossip from school. Kampol had a dance partner he had rehearsed with for weeks. When the day of the school fair arrived, the day before, Kampol hadn’t gone to school.

“She was all the way at the front. But when she found out you weren’t coming, she wouldn’t dance. She wanted to get off the stage. Her parents were clinging to the front of the stage and they were telling her, ‘Dance, sweetie, dance. You can just dance alone. I want to see you dance.’ So then she danced. When it got to the part where you had to lock arms and twirl, she just stood there looking around all confused and then she started bawling. And she was wearing a red skirt, too, and high heels. Her mama had to go and carry her, and on top of that she dropped her shoes. So then she full-on shrieked. It was hilarious. Tons of people were looking. Everyone was like, ‘You poor thing!’”

And there were games for the little kids, with prizes of toys and treats, and there was free ice cream. The bigger kids did comedy skits on stage, and the teachers put on a play. Our own Mr. Sunya played a kindergartener with pigtails, his friend laughed himself into stitches as he recounted the story. Without realizing, Kampol had forgotten about his father. Picturing the scene made him laugh along with his classmate. This friend of his was called Prasit. Kampol called him by his nickname, Oan.

Prasit ran on home when he heard his mother calling him from a distance. But he was back in a flash, with a plate of food in hand. With a single spoon, they took turns taking bites. They thought it was fun and tasty that way. When the food ran out, they went back for seconds. The two had a heart-to-heart about Kampol’s father as they sat watching TV in the general store.

At eleven o’clock the crew under the poinciana tree yelled to Kampol: His father was back. The child leaped out onto the street, screamed his father’s name, whimpering, and ran toward him as if they were in a big movie scene. All eyes were on them, but the picture was not perfect because of an extra—Prasit was chasing behind.

His father reeked. The son reeked, too. They wore the same clothes as when they had parted. Father and son rushed headlong toward each other.

“Have you eaten anything?” His father asked.

“He ate,” Prasit answered for him. “We ate together this morning.”

“What about yesterday? Did you get to eat?”

Kampol nodded.

“Who fed you, huh?”             

“For lunch, Aunt Aoi called me in to eat. For dinner, Aunt Tongbai was going to have me eat at hers but the rice wasn’t done so Aunt Keow handed me food.”

“Good. Where’d you sleep last night?”

Kampol made a thinking face. “At Aunt Peuy’s.”

“Good, that’s good. That’s what I figured. Now come here, over here.”

The father and son evaded people’s glances as they disappeared around the curve of the wall of the adjoining property. Oan stubbornly followed them, but the pair didn’t pay him any mind.

“Listen: I still can’t find a place. At night I have to sleep in the front of the car. You’ve got to wait here another day or two. Then I’ll come take you to our new home.”

Kampol, face sour, shook his head. “I’m coming with you. I’ll sleep in the front of the car.”

“You can’t come. You’re better off here—there are people who take pity on you. You have a place to eat and sleep. It’s just two more days. Do you understand me?”

Kampol didn’t understand. He could only cry and cling tightly to his father. But his friend understood. His eyes lit up as he imagined the fun they could get up to.

“Sleep over at my place,” Prasit told him. “Have him stay with me, uncle.”

Kampol’s father saw Prasit only now. “What’s your name? Whose kid are you?”

“I’m Oan, Mawn’s son.”

“Mawn, the seamstress? Good, Oan, let your friend stay over for a couple of nights, all right? When it’s time to eat, get your friend, too. And let the other neighbors know that I’m leaving Boy here for a couple of days, and ask them to help look after him, you understand?”

Excited and proud, Oan enthusiastically accepted his charge.

“Boy, your papa’s going through a rough time. You’ve got to help me out. If you’re going to be a crybaby, then we’re in a real mess. I’m going to drive the day and the night shifts and ask the boss if I can stay in a boarding room at the factory. It’s just two days. Monday evening, I’ll come get you. Stay here with your friend, all right? Have fun. I’m going. Don’t cry. Aren’t you embarrassed in front of your friend? OK, I’m off.”

Kampol’s father came—and left—as if it were a dream. The neighbors hadn’t yet had a good look at him. When they saw the child walking back alone, the group under the poinciana all waved him over. They crowded around and pummeled questions at him. Kampol barely answered, but Prasit elaborated in full.

So it was clear and understood by all: Kampol was no longer Kampol; he had become everybody’s burden.

“It’s no big deal. It’s only two days. Dum, you have plenty of room, don’t you?”

Dum was caught off guard, briefly dumbstruck, but eventually managed to say, “Two days’s no problem. But what if his father bails? What if he takes advantage of the situation and ditches him? Then what are we going to do? I can’t take that on. Find someone else who’s willing. Who was it yesterday who let him spend the night?”

“It’s been no time, and you’re already saying this,” Rampeuy said. “His father asked everyone to pitch in, not for one person to take on all the responsibility alone. I helped out last night. Who’s going to volunteer for tonight?”

“But Dum has a point. What if his father bails?”

“Let it come to that first.”

“What’s wrong with thinking ahead?”

“Yeah, you all keep thinking. I’ve got work to do. I’m going.”

“See? Everyone’s already hightailing it. Look at all your sorry little faces. Who’s going to have a big enough heart to give him a place to eat and sleep?”

Prasit observed the scene, completely baffled. He tried to get a word in as well.

“Fine, lunch today at mine. Dinner's fine, too, if no one’s going to feed him,” Tongbai said.

“Huh!—‘if no one’s going to feed him,’” someone fumed, “It’s just a plate of food, there’s no need to throw a cheap shot at other people.”

“Yeah, if you’re going to say that, why don’t you take on the burden yourself?”

“It’s none of my damn business. If it were my relatives, that’d be another thing. Whoever wants to show off can go ahead.”

“What did you say? Who’s showing off?”

“You all are.”

“Whoa there . . .”

It was approaching noon as they fought. Kampol and Prasit stood on the sideline, riveted. The performers outnumbered the audience, and there was an explosion of yelling and insults but one couldn’t make out the words. A jumble of blows ensued with no one making an attempt to untangle the fight, which went on unrelentingly for a good while, because everyone took one side or the other. Chong, the store proprietor, couldn’t bear watching any longer. He ran over to whisper something to Kampol and Prasit and then ran back to the store.

“The police are here!” the kids screamed. “Police! Police!”

It worked pretty well. Several people backed off and dove in to pull their crew away. Worn out as they were, they still had the energy to stand there cursing at each other awhile before they scattered, everyone back to their own home.

Kampol and Prasit reported to Chong why those people were fighting. Chong tried to listen with his full attention but still had a hard time piecing the plot together. All he understood was, they argued over the matter of Kampol, something along the lines of their fighting over who would get to look after the boy.

“But Boy already said he’s sleeping over at mine. His dad, too, told him to stay with me. I told them but they wouldn’t listen. They just kept arguing. Someone said, ‘You want to show off?’ Someone else said, ‘Who are you calling a show-off?’ And then, boom, the fists.”

The two boys carried Kampol’s bags over to Prasit’s house. When they poked in, they saw Prasit’s mother asleep, folded over the sewing machine. Across the room, a wardrobe stood blocking the view of his parents’ bed. A dark blue curtain separated the bed and the cushion on which their son slept, which was laid on the ground. Their food cupboard had its back along one side of the cushion. The kids put the bags down next to Prasit’s bedding and went into the kitchen to look for something to eat. They found two plates of rice and some leftovers from breakfast. Once full, they jumped on the cushion and went over who was dueling with whom and with what move. Then they played Monopoly until they fell asleep.

Mawn woke up in a panic at three in the afternoon. She was sitting down to resume working but ended up stumbling into the kitchen. She didn’t notice the two kids on the cushion. The kitchen had nothing left—the rice pot was empty and the food cupboard was cleaned out. She stood there dazed for a moment and then lit the gas stove, poured some water in the kettle, and placed it over the flame. Only when she stepped away from the kitchen did she catch sight of her son and another child spread out asleep. She glanced at them for a mere second and then turned away; she was in a bind over something and didn’t have time to pay anything else any mind. She headed over to the general store to buy a pack of instant noodles and hurried back to deal with lunch—all in the span of fifteen minutes. Then she took up her seat at the sewing machine again, her foot pumping, hands pressing, lips pursed, brows furrowed, and eyes focused as the machine whirred along.

Before five o’clock that afternoon, Mawn arranged the clothes into separate bags and hustled out of the house. Her husband had another sewing machine that was set up in front of the bank in the market. They patched and fixed all kinds of garments. Mawn took a portion of the jobs that people dropped off with her husband, worked on them at home, and brought them back at the agreed pickup time. She was so frantic that her hands were shaking, and yet it was too late. Two customers had shown up early for their clothes. Prasit’s father had asked them to wait a few moments, but the customers couldn’t stay. They made new appointments for the following day. Two others hadn’t turned up yet.

Mawn sighed and sat down, deflated. “And we’re out of money,” she said.

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Two more people are supposed to pick up today. They’ll probably be here in a bit.”

The couple slowly packed up. They carried the sewing machine to leave it with the stir-fry-and-curry joint next to the bank and returned to wait for the customers.

“It’s almost six,” Mawn said.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s wait a little more.”

“Give me fifty now. I’ll go get food.”

“Where am I supposed to get that? Go home and get the rice ready. I’ll pick up the other food and follow along in a bit.”

When Mawn got home, she saw that they were out of rice, too. She went outside and sat in front of the house, sighing.

Prasit dashed over. “Mama, can I have money for sweets?” He had told Kampol he would treat him to some.

“Go shower right now,” she scolded. “And make sure you get the grime off the sides of your ears. Go!”

Prasit and Kampol showered together. They played to their hearts’ content before they emerged from the bathroom. They smeared their faces white with baby powder and then went into the kitchen and looked in the rice pot. Seeing no rice, they turned to open the food cupboard—nothing. The used bowls and plates were still soaking in the tub out back. Oan ran to the front of the house.

“Mama, we have to make rice.”

“Come here,” his mother called him. “Go to Hia Chong’s shop. Tell him your mama wants to buy a bag of rice.”

Prasit nodded, but then it occurred to his mother that they had nothing to eat the rice with either. 

“Wait, Oan, come back here first. Ask Hia Chong for two packs of Mama noodles, too. Let’s eat instant noodles for this evening.”

“Can we get a pack for my friend?”

As soon as his mother nodded, the two ran full speed to Chong’s shop.

At the store, Dum was negotiating with Chong, but unsuccessfully. Chong only shook his head no, leaving Dum to grumble, as he went to attend to other customers. One person asked to get fish sauce and eggs on credit. When he saw that Chong allowed it, Dum threw even more of a tantrum. He made a lot of noise, all the while slurring his words and getting tongue-tied, and he stumbled and swayed as he tried to walk.

“C’mon, one last bottle,” Dum begged and followed Chong, who was going to grab something for a customer.

“Enough, Dum. I can’t give you another one,” Chong said.

“One more, c’mon.”

“Today’s already two bottles. I said enough is enough. You still owe two hundred from before, plus over a hundred today . . . . Wait, what are you doing? You can’t grab it yourself. Give it back. If you’re going to be like this, I’m going to quit playing nice.”

“C’mon, just this one. Other people can still put things on their tabs.”

“Hi kids, what would you two like?”

“My mama sent me for a bag of rice and three packs of Mama, on her tab.”

Chong smiled drably, shaking his head. He was fed up, but he obliged and turned to fetch the stuff for them. Rice he had, but Mama noodles were out.

“Tell your mother this is the last time. She’s got to settle the old tab before I’ll let her add more.”

“Look at that . . . Even kids you let buy on credit. I just want one more bottle.”

Chong perused the list of accounts in his register and let out several sighs. This morning he was still in a good mood. Given the unpaid balances, he had made a resolution that he wouldn’t give out any liquor, beer, or cigarettes on credit for the day—he would allow only the necessities. He got his wish all right: it seemed every wallet in the whole housing community was thin. It was true he moved a fair amount of inventory, but the sum of money that came into the store was meager. Still, he kept up his resolution: he let every customer buy everything on credit, except liquor, beer, and cigarettes. Alas, he eventually succumbed to Dum’s stubbornness.

Dum had stationed himself in front of the store for upward of an hour. He was fuming and distressed over how during the confusion of the brawl when you couldn’t tell who was who, someone tugged on the hair on his head and tore out a handful. In the middle of the crown of his head, which used to have a smattering of hair still attached, there was now only reddish scalp. He pleaded his case to get some liquor on credit by displaying his sore head to Chong, to show him how he probably wouldn’t be able to sleep that night if he didn’t have any alcohol to soothe his spirit. Chong gave in, handed him a bottle, and told him to go home. Less than an hour later, Dum was back again. He ranted for a while before Chong caved and let him have another bottle.

With his resolution broken twice over, Chong was in no mood to smile or kid around with anyone. When he spotted Dum’s face for the third time, he started to count in his head, waiting for the right moment to throw him out of the store. But when his eyes fell on Dum’s raw head, he contained himself. All around, everyone had it pretty rough today.

As for Tongbai, she went home still steaming and refused to cook or clean, on account of the scuffle with the others. When her husband got home, they had another round of quarrels. The husband announced that he wouldn’t give her any money, while the wife declared that she wouldn’t feed him. In the end, the husband ran over to buy a pack of Mama, and a minute later the wife followed to get some Mama on credit as well. Tongbai and her husband weren’t the only ones. The same drama set off at least two other familial spats, which could be heard all the way to the store.

“He’s out of Mama,” Prasit told his mother.

Mawn sighed once more. “Go back again. Get ten baht’s worth of eggs.”

“Hia Chong said before you can get anything more on credit, the old tab’s got to be paid off.”

Mawn slipped into the house without listening to the end. After she made rice, she came back out and sat, chin on palm, as before. The sky was losing its light. All her hope depended on her husband. After some time, another solution dawned on her. She went inside to rummage through the bag of clothes on the table. There was a pair of pants from a customer who lived in the vicinity. She could change the zipper in a heartbeat. Oan went into the kitchen, came out and told his mother that there was nothing to eat, only rice.

“Yeah, hold on. Don’t go anywhere. In a bit, go deliver these pants for me.”

It really was only in a bit—fifteen minutes and she was done. Visibly relieved, she put the pants in a bag.

“Take this to Aunt Tongbai. Tell her twenty baht. On the way back, get ten baht of eggs.”

The kids ran out and came back a short while later. “Aunt Tongbai and her husband are fighting. She told him, ‘Give me twenty for the zipper. That other time you got your pants patched, I paid for it.’ Her husband said, ‘Here’s my shin—you want it?’ So Aunt Tongbai said, ‘You two go back for now. I’ll go pay your mama in a bit.’”

Mawn didn’t say anything. She could only switch propping up her chin between hands, left to right.

Prasit began to worry that they wouldn’t have anything for his friend to eat. The two sat down, limp, next to Mawn.

“Hey, there’s only rice,” Oan told his friend. “My mama wanted to put eggs on her tab but Hia Chong said the old debt’s got to be paid off first.”

“If my papa were here, we could buy on credit no problem because my papa’s already paid off everything he owes,” Kampol said.

“I don’t owe anything, but I’m scared to go,” Oan said.                 

“I don’t owe anything either. Should we try?” Kampol rallied his friend. “We can tell Hia Chong that my papa’s going to pay on Monday.”

“Let’s give it a go. But you talk.”

The two got up and sheepishly made their way to the store. Mawn watched them go and her gaze hung inertly in their direction. Her husband, it was clear, was no longer any hope. By now he had probably put his stomach in the care of one friend or another.

It was only seven-thirty but Chong was getting ready to close up shop. After Dum walked by, booze in hand, he felt worn out and lost his will to keep the store open. He wanted this battered day to end swiftly so a new one could start over.

The last customers popped up before he locked the gate. Two pairs of gleaming eyes were on him.

Drooping, Chong went to grab four eggs and slipped the bag through the grille.

The children sprinted off, giggling, and the sound of them slowly faded.
 

From Changsamran, or Sunny Boy. © Duanwad Pimwana. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Life’s Lexicon: Everyman’s Bangkok Edition

Win Lyovarin​’s exasperated working man offers a mordant vocabulary lesson for urbanites.

Alarm Clock: a tool invented by humans for self-enslavement.

The sound of metal striking metal five times rushes out of a little alley through the darkness toward my ear at a speed of 1100 feet per second, as loud as the false crowing of the rooster-shaped alarm clock that jerks me from the land of dreams, dreams ruthlessly broken into bits and scraps and scattered about—with the sky outside still sunk in shadow. Crazy rooster! Your pushy crowing, just like the real thing, sounds off even before the cries of the actual chickens at the slaughterhouse down the street!


Headache Medicine: A synthetic chemical substance used to cure headaches, toothaches, menstrual cramps, and various other sorts of conditions. Painkillers have been around for a long time, more than a hundred years. The science of finding the right pain medicine, though, is not nearly as difficult as finding the right selling points for these medicines in advertisements . . .

Leftover bits of dreams still clinging to the inside of my skull, about work, about the kids, about all the money I owe . . . Stop! Don’t even start thinking about that now! I’m talking to myself in the mirror. Look, the clock’s just striking five, still a full fourteen hours, or as much as 50,400 seconds, that you have to face it. With difficulty I shake off the drowsiness. I’ve gotten up at five a.m. every Monday through Saturday for years now and haven’t gotten the least bit used to it yet. Before this started I used to get up at six, then that changed to five-thirty, and finally five a.m.. Having a little headache, I cram a couple of headache medicine tablets into my mouth, flush them down with some water, wait a sec, then my right hand grabs the remote control and points it at the radio . . .


Radio: A box that can make sounds. In dictatorships it’s used as a tool for propaganda alternating with entertainment; in freedom-loving capitalist countries it’s used for entertainment alternating with propaganda:

“Good Morrrrrning all you fans out there! You’re tuned in to ‘A Morning In Bang kaawwwk’ Wednesday Octoberrrrrr 12th!

(I’ve heard that this young Thai DJ named Dang hasn’t been out of the country his whole life long . . .)

“Coming up on two minutes past five a.m. all bright and early in the morning today,

‘Tem-purr-a-churr starttting’ at eighteen degrees ‘Celciusssssssss!’

(But his pronunciation of English has only the slightest trace of a Thai accent . . .)

“And . . . ‘Sheeeiiiiit!!’

Along with the rain that just keeps drizzling down, down, down, you early risers are probably getting ready for work—I’ll be hanging out keeping you company till eight a.m. This program is sponsored by Saesarin, the top working woman’s tampon! Saesarin, mopping up every sopping nook and cranny!”


Bangkok: (There are no words that can define this one)

If Bangkok were a book, it would be a thick one, filled with ten million characters, with stories of all sorts of confused flavors mixed up in it, like the Thai movies they stopped making twenty years ago.

If Bangkok were a woman, she’d probably be the honky-tonk kind, pleasuring herself with the cheap sides of Western culture. She’d be the kind to paint her mouth and pretty up her face thick and sloppy with synthetic cosmetics, trying to hide the disrepair.

If Bangkok were a drink, it ought to be mixed like this: 10% natural sweetener, 40% synthetic sweetener, 30% lead, 20% dirty sediment.


Robot: A person who leads a repetitive life: you’ll see this a lot around the capital city.

I’d like to introduce you to our first robot: me.

-Sawang Rongsawat, forty-two, member of the Bangkok middle class (something like the Vaisya caste in India).

-Education: bachelor’s degree (it wasn’t too hard to get that—the guy who hires himself out ferrying folks with a motorcycle on the street where I live also has a bachelor’s degree).

-Occupation: assistant manager for an export company. Twenty years on the job.

-Has a wife and kids.

-Is a man whose life basically repeats itself every day, same as for many millions of other robots in Bangkok.


Bathing: One of the ten healthy commandments, which we all should do two times a day if we get up early enough, if we have enough bathrooms in the house, if the other residents don’t run the water pump too long and use up the water, if . . .

“Finished with the shower?” my wife’s voice cuts through the plastic doorframe. (We like plastic a lot because it lasts a long time, never rots.) Her voice carries a lot of weight, sounds like a creditor pressing a debtor.

“I haven’t been in here two minutes yet,” I answer, wanting to add, “I’m not even done taking a dump!” but shutting my mouth in time. I don’t want her to catch me being crude, which I am.

“So hurry it up a little, OK? When it rains in the morning like this, the traffic jams are a sight to see.”


Wife: Director of the true-life movie “People of Bangkok.”

I’d like to introduce you to my wife: Urai, female (has definitely got to be female, because I’m not gay), thirty-two (age and waist measurement), a skilled and intelligent office girl (in the morning she takes less time looking at her compact mirror than women generally do), soft-spoken (if she wants help from you) and sharp (if you come out of the bathroom three minutes too late in the morning), lovable mother of her children, and a wife who . . .

“Everybody ready? Toy [our son, our oldest], you can go get your book bag now, and bring your lunch box off the table, too. Ui [our daughter, the second child], don’t go bothering little Lek [our youngest], she’s still sleeping . . . As for you [now she’s addressing me]: you can go start the car.”


Car: A means of conveyance, a necessity of the fifth order for middle-class people, equipment for carrying many millions of robots into Bangkok for work and school.

Bangkok of the 90s era, where folks have to get up at five a.m. to go to work, with oh so many cars (except when streets are empty, because the numbers change every day) and new models pour out at the rate of several hundred a day (makes me think of a mother pig’s fecund offspring creating offspring), the price jumping from a few tens of thousand baht to a few thousands of ten-thousand baht.

“Hurry up, now, it’ll be six a.m. pretty quick now, we’ll get stuck in traffic!” (voice of The Director).


Traffic Jam: A free gift that comes with the purchase of every car.

Bangkok, in the era when cars are driven on its streets and highways, is quickly becoming as slow as a salt boat plying the Chao Phraya. It has a population of around ten million. It has a city map more tangled than three fifteen-baht plates of noodles tossed together. A mass transit train system is still just a plan, and having a telephone in every house is still a long-standing dream . . .

“See? We leave just five minutes late and traffic is at a dead stop, here, all the way out at Ram Inthra. We won’t get to Silom until . . . Oh! Quick! Get past that car right there—pass it!”


Passing: A type of artistry in driving a car; it helps save a lot of time (for the one doing it) on the road. All you snooker players may take note of the fact that driving a car in Bangkok is quite a bit like playing snooker: balls are smashing into each other all the time.

Per the command of my wife, I sweep the car in to hit the “ball,” entering an empty space where there’s not as much as three feet between those two cars, in terror and within a hair of being reduced to the condition of crushed squid.

“He’s gonna start screaming at me,” I said.

“Forget it! If you don’t keep switching lanes and passing, you’ll never get there!”

This thought was itself passed by the words “Ai Hia (You damned lizard)!!!” heard clearly from the car behind us—with an intensity that couldn’t have been less than ninety decibels.


Lizard: The most pitiable animal in the world.

“What was the guy in that car shouting? I couldn’t catch it.”

“I didn’t hear it too clearly myself,” I cut in. “I’m hungry all of a sudden. Do we have anything to eat? But please don’t tell me breakfast this morning is a sandwich.”

“It’s a sandwich.”


Breakfast: First meal of the day, usually eaten in the morning. The custom now is to eat it in a car on the way to school or work, as that’s one way of saving time.

My right foot hit the gas, then the brake, my right hand gripped the steering wheel, my left hand was holding the sandwich. My right molars chewed breakfast.

“It’s a little bland,” I suggested.

“What’s bland?”

“This sandwich.”

“Just swallow it down, don’t complain. This is a car, not home,” my wife answered back. So I shut my mouth. Really, now, I don’t know why I was complaining, when ever so many Bangkok people are going through life this way.

I’ve thought about selling the house and moving into the heart of the city to cut back the time spent on the road, but what I could get for it would only pay for a hundred-square-foot condo (underscore foot), so things like eating, sleeping, playing, would have to be done in the same room.

“Toy, here’s your school. Watch out crossing the street!”

School: A place for training and instruction in knowledge and morality where they overwhelm you with tuition fees. A good school is one where the parents merrily rush off to change the legal registration of their child so as to be in the right district.

(farewell dialogue between many a mother and child in front of the school every morning)

“---------------------------------------------------”

“---------------------------------------------------”

“---------------------------------------------------”

“---------------------------------------------------”

“---------------------------------------------------”

I’ve timed these good-byes in front of the school. They take about fifteen seconds per mother-child combination. If each car is twelve feet long, and there are just ten cars in front waiting for school, figure the rule of three by the number of schools in Bangkok, about sixteen hundred, multiply and you get a line about forty miles long.

“On your lunch break do you think you could please run out and buy a fountain pen for my mom? She needs it to practice her handwriting. I’m sure you can get one someplace around your office.”

“Today I’m supposed to have lunch with Buen. I’ll stop off and pick one up this evening on my way to get you, OK?”

“OK, see you later, bye!”


Workplace: A place where you have to show your face Monday through Friday so as to fill your body up with stress (many scientists believe that stress is good for the body).

Back when I was a kid I used to envy Bangkok people. In those days the favorite slogan of the government was “Money is work, work is money: a formula for happiness.” And, sure, that may well have been a formula for happiness in the days when the denizens of our capital city could get up at eight, eat breakfast, go for a walk till the rice dropped its seeds, and still have plenty of time to stroll to work.


Stress: A feeling that hits you the second you set foot in the office.

“Mr. Somsak called you yesterday evening, left a note for you to call back. Mr. Sathit informed us that there’s a problem with the order we sent out—he was making a really big stink about it. At three p.m. you have a meeting at the factory. Widila is out sick today, her kid has the measles. Somchai’s coming in a half day late, because he has to go to a funeral, somebody died of cancer—oh! The air conditioning in your office just went out, I’ve already called maintenance, they’ll fix it tomorrow, today we just have to live with the heat . . . ”


Lunch: Relief bell—round one.

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine: Wibuen. He was born five days after me—but he’s five times richer than me. What kind of work does he do? Whatever makes for rich, from selling insurance and speculating on real estate to trading stocks, whatever that wheeling-dealing mind of his can come up with. I’ve often thought he must have a dollar sign branded into his brain.

“‘Long tye no see . . .’” he jars me with a Western tongue, “How’s work?”

“Like always, boring as usual. Can you ask me something else, Buen? About anything but work.”

“How are the kids?”

“Better you should ask me about work.”


Kids: Children, people who are so young they can’t help themselves, but who already use money. If you have one, he or she is really lovable. Two are fun. Three or four, it’s a real struggle. Five kids, well . . . is that nuts, or what? In these times, who’d have five?

“I heard you have another kid, is that right?”

If this question were a weapon, I’d be full of holes. I really hear this a lot, ever since my wife gave birth a couple of months ago.

“Yo.”

“So, old buddy, how’d that happen?”

“It just happened.”

“Ha! You dog! Why weren’t two kids enough?”

“It was an accident,” I answer.


Accident: Something that happens because you didn’t watch out (pay attention to the condom, the manufacturer’s guarantee).

“So you don’t use protection anymore?”

“Sure I do, but my rubber sprang a leak.”

“Bud-dha!” he chortled, in a voice I’d like to kick.


Condom: A type of birth-control equipment. A good condom has to have the letters “Aw Yaw” on it and has to have passed a test on an electronic machine. Some kinds are coated with the chemical nonoxynol to kill the sperm, providing double protection.

“So sue the company that made it!”

“Don’t make me tireder than I already am—taking care of twins wears me out in a bad way.”

“Ha! You’ve got twins??!”

“Yeah.”


Multiple Birth: More than one certificate originating from a union of sperm with egg. This is liable to happen among poor people and those who don’t want to have children.

“Twins are nice, huh? Cute and lovable.” He was trying to comfort me.

“Actually, it’s triplets,” I answered curtly, ruing the climax that caused all that.

“O Buddha,” he rumbled for the third time.

“So now I have, all together, five children in a house of a thousand square feet. Anybody can see we’re crowded. I wonder if I can make an insurance claim just for living there.”


Insurance: A kind of gambling, based on the risk of danger. This is a business which still has plenty of room for growth. I’ve noticed that the big insurance companies also have big buildings for themselves.

“Does your insurance policy mention anything about an incidence of triplets?”

“No, but this incidence is the result of an accident . . . .”

“There you go. Don’t waste your time, it’s easier to ask for money from God.”

“I think so.”

“Did they raise your salary this year?”


Salary: Reward for waking up at five a.m., eating breakfast in the car, and . . . (go back and read it again).

“A little bit.”

“When you have this many kids, don’t they give you a tax break?”


Cost of Living Tax Break: The most generous endowment for workers (that I’ve run into or seen, anyhow) in the governmental system.

“Sure, but their tax relief doesn’t even cover the monthly cost of powdered milk for the babies.”

“So milk really costs that much?”

“You haven’t had kids, you have no idea.”


Powdered Milk: A food that gives children the necessary nutrients, like protein, calcium, carbohydrates, etc.; it’s extracted from cow’s milk and the parents’ monthly salaries.

Have you ever looked at the display shelves for powdered milk at the supermarket? There are no fewer than thirty brands of the stuff (some kinds are supposed to make you really strong). A kilogram of it lasts only a week. Used to nourish all the offspring, from our own to the dog’s.

“All of a sudden you’ve got three more kids, that’s tough. Your mortgage paid off yet?”


Mortgage: A system of buying a house which teaches how being a debtor confers status. The higher your payments to the bank, the higher the credit rating you get.

Bangkok has stopped being a place where you can buy an eight hundred-square-foot house anywhere in the suburbs for a million baht. Commerce depends on this system.

“The house will be paid off in another three years. I have another eight months of car payments to go. Now the wife wants to put a microwave on the card.”

“So are you making enough or not?”


Responsibility: Something intangible that can be measured as if tangible by the number of white hairs on one’s head.

“I can manage. A month’s pay minus house payment, car payment, the kids’ tuition, gas for the car, and there’s still maybe enough for booze and cigarettes.”

“But you look kind of stressed.”

“Yeah.”

“So why don’t you take a vacation, go to Pattaya or Rayong?”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“How come?”

“BOR-ing.”

“Why boring?”


Ocean: A huge reservoir of salt water: its customary use is as a place to take vacations. Here you are not likely to escape the long arm of what is called “prosperity” (see “prosperity,” below).

Why boring? I picture the ocean—think about driving two or three hours just to get out of Bangkok, then to encounter a beachside disco bar. The people that go “to relax” are often a group of sensitive people who can’t get along without music. They’ll carry a boom box down to the beach, turn it up, and let it throb. This makes me think of a poetic phrase I saw some time ago: “Surrounded by nature, but out of touch with nature.” For people my age, not young anymore, who experienced Pattaya and Rayong while they were still unspoiled, it feels as though those places are being violated by a dirty hand, oppressed by the uncouth bellowing of music painful to the eardrums, raped by a litter of plastic bags and the garbage of science.


Prosperity: A thing that happens as a result of the nation’s development. It may be seen in pictures of concrete highways, in skyscrapers, lead, and plastic garbage, so that, generally, prosperity could be considered the ratio of that stuff to the part of the country that is colored green.

Wibuen looked at me pityingly.

“Don’t carry the world on your shoulders or put other people’s problems into your head. That’s it, enough stress, now . . . oh, just a second, there’s somebody calling my cell phone, let me take it for a minute.”


Cell Phone: A telephone without a cord, shaped like a dildo. You can’t get rid of it, it’s clearly become a necessity, a new “must-have” item for every family, along with the credit card, pop, fast food, and the compact disc.

“You interested in a cell phone?” Ai Lek showed me one the other day that he’s selling. “Really cheap, I think you should pick another one up for your wife.”

“Not me,” I shook my head.

“It’s only a little more than ten grand, series 900, price like the good old days, we’re one of the NICs, it’s not cool not to have a cell phone.


NICs: (Western acronym: “Newly Industrializing Countries”) The new pride of the Thai people. The form of prosperity which has come in to take the basic place of agriculture.

“I don’t want it. Not because I don’t see how it can be useful, but I’m just sick of a high-tech vibrator like this becoming the thing everybody’s just got to have, when it’s not something you really need. Please don’t be upset now, Buen . . . Ha! I go shopping, got to carry the cell phone; go to a movie, got to carry the cell phone; break bread, got to carry the cell phone; have sex, I’ve got to carry the cell phone. It would drive me totally nuts! What kind of business is it to strangle people like that?”

“Don’t wer! Don’t wer! Not everybody with a cell phone has to be like that!”

“Then why do I see so much of it?”


Wer: (Western word) Short for the word “over.” It’s part of the evolution of the Thai language, bringing conversational dialogue up-to-date with the coming age.

“Feel like playing the market?” Mr. Wibuen changes the subject—he probably is getting tired of my carping at him. If it had been somebody besides Buen, I probably would have gotten kicked already. “I have a bunch of good offerings.”

“These offerings—are they stocks, or girls?”

“Oh, me! O Fate! Ha, ha! Stocks, hey, stocks! Guaranteed profit!”

“I don’t know how to play the market.”

“It’s not hard to play if you’ve got the right system. The day before the index goes high, I sell half of what I’ve got. I pick up a hundred thou, no problem.”


Stock Market: Hotbed of profit-guessing, a lot like casino hi-ball, but there appears to be more technique involved: it’s good for people with a lot of money and a wide field of vision. You shouldn’t borrow money to play unless you want to die of a heart attack before your time.

I stuffed a cigarette in my mouth. “Me, with this salt-and-pepper hair of mine? You won’t catch me playing the market: I do, and for sure my whole head will turn white.” I drew in deeply on the cigarette. Mr. Wibuen fixed his eyes on me with the expression of a teacher who’s caught one of his students copying test answers off a classmate.

“You still haven’t stopped smoking?”


Cigarettes: scraps of paper rolled around tobacco leaves; they contribute to the happiness of some (those who smoke them), along with the irritation of others (those who don’t). There are a number of price levels, from brands produced domestically to the ones our great and good friend America goes to the trouble of sending us (Please, America, don’t stop!) to smoke.

“I’ve stopped unsuccessfully eight times already,” I answered.

“Have you gone to see the doctor yet?”

“I go every month. As soon as we’re done with lunch, I’m going to see the doctor.”

“So you’re going now? Save your money: lunch is on me this time—I’ll put it on my card.”


Credit Card: (half-Thai, half-Western word) a necessity of the sixth order, right next to having a car. How much of a necessity? You may forget to put on your pants before you go out of the house, but you’re not liable to leave without the card.

“When you use a card you have to pay three percent more, sir,” said the waiter respectfully.

“Oi! Why is that?”

“I don’t know, sir. It’s just the rule, sir.”

“So, then, how come they call it a credit card? You aren’t giving credit here.”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“So what DO you know?” Mr. Wibuen started getting angry.

“I know that’s the rule, sir.”


Doctor: The judge of when you should stop drinking booze, leaving you no right of appeal.

I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Awijakhok, forty-one, friend and the regular doctor for my whole family, rich (but I’m not jealous, because in his occupation he doesn’t get to see beautiful things). We’re not very close, but close enough that I can kick him (if the numbers on the bill are too high).

“It looks as though you, sir, have been going downhill,” commented Dr. Awijakhok. (He’s the one friend of mine who doesn’t use the familiar form of address with me.)

“If I hadn’t been going downhill, I probably wouldn’t be coming in to see the doctor.”

“How do you feel?”

“Terrible. I have to take headache medicine starting early in the day.”

“So you’re going to bed late?”

“No. I think it’s stress.”

“Are you still drinking liquor?”

“You really shouldn’t ask.”


Liquor: a remedy that can bring stress way down and change a person’s disposition. There are a lot of degrees of strength to choose from, according to the amount of money in your pocket. There are a lot of varieties, from whisky (a sharp-tasting drink made from rice), brandy (fragrant, smooth, and comforting, insistent on the tip of the tongue like the kiss of a beloved maiden), vodka (fermented to a high, hot taste), gin (liquor with an herbal flavor, bristling yet sweet), rum (an intoxicating drink with a presumptuous lilt, of a varied and exceptional composition), liqui (a tonic which is gently aged, soothing and pampering, like the hand of a lover), champagne (an inebriant distilled from grapes, whose wiles conceal its true spirit), Rx (ambrosia with an urgent Asiatic charm), wine (distilled from fruit, gentle and gracious as a teenage girl), all the way up to those spirits originating from the scions of the Thai fields, which words cannot describe . . .

“Now, Mr. Sawang. If you still aren’t going to agree to quit drinking, you are being incredibly stupid, heading for ruin in a despicable and slovenly way.” Doctor intoned his words as if speaking to someone at the gate of exile. “The sugar level in your blood has risen above normal: you’re about to get diabetes. And your blood pressure is high . . . .”


Blood Pressure: Bad behavior of blood in the body. It causes the national cost of hospital care to skyrocket.

“Doctor?”

“Yes?”

“I’d really like to kick you. Wow . . . You like telling other people to quit drinking, but you yourself . . . .”

“For that you’ll have to quit drinking. You don’t, and you won’t have the strength to kick me!”

“Listen, I’m really stressed.”

“If you’re stressed, find another way of dealing with it besides booze.”

“So what would that be?”

“Well, try pop! Play some easy-listening music. Or go sing some karaoke before going home.”

“I’m never in the mood.”


Pop: (Western word) An important new way of reviving the spirit, an item of popular culture (see entries for cell phone, credit card, and compact disc).


Karaoke: (Japanese word) One more form of aggression from Japan, in addition to Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi, Isuzu, Honda, Diatsu, Subaru, Aiwa, Nakamishi, Sanyo, Hitachi, Fuji . . . .

“What the heck! Listening to music isn’t like sex, that you have to be in the mood!”

“These days, I can’t get it up for anything, even sex.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s been two weeks now the lovebird hasn’t cooed.”

Doctor smiled. “That’s from stress, too?”

“Probably.”


Lovebird: Index that points you to having sex in a hurry, measured by the kind of cooing it does.

“That’s a big problem. There’s only one way to cure it, and that is to practice relaxing, don’t think too much, listen to soft music.”

“I listen to music every night at home already.”

“No matter! Make some kind of change in the atmosphere. You have to do that if you stay at home every day and night.”

“I’m not a yuppie! I don’t have that kind of time.”

“So why do you have to be a yuppie to enjoy pop?”


Yuppie: (Western word) A class of free people who love themselves so much that they scoop up money to buy themselves happiness. The yuppie ethic is “Little old me is so valuable that I should be getting only good things.” (Whoa!)

“Doctor knows that every evening I have to pick up my wife, pick up my boy, and go back home.”

“Listen up! Quit drinking and smoking, get some exercise, and it’ll get better by itself,” the doctor, tired of all this, quickly summarized.


Quitting Time: The relief bell at the end of round fifteen. You notice that it’s only about a half-hour till you can leave work.

4:20 p.m.—the office girls start lining up to use the bathroom.
4:35—they take out their makeup
4:45—they’ve finished putting on their faces
4:55—their purses are ready to go
5 p.m.— . . .

“Bye!”

“Bye! See you tomorrow!”

“Where do you think you’re hurrying off to? It’s raining big-time outside.”


Falling Rain: Innumerable drops of water that come down from the clouds, a gift for agriculture, but likely to fall amid the grumbles of the capital-city folk.

In the Bangkok of the latter nineties you can’t collect rainwater for drinking. Nobody feels like enjoying the falling rain, because it means traffic jams and getting home later than usual.

“Ha! It can’t wait till the middle of the night to fall, naturally comes at five p.m., when traffic’s at its absolute nastiest,” I curse, though this observation would have been useless even had it simultaneously fallen from the lips of two million, eight hundred seventy-six thousand, five hundred Bangkokians.

“I have a terrible feeling I won’t get home till nine this evening.”

“There you go. And I have to pick up my wife and son.”

The car crawled ahead like a squashed worm. The sky was still dumping water down, madly pounding the car windows. The windshield wipers flopped up and down with the rhythm of an exhausted old man. The sound of the raindrops endlessly pounding on the roof got me thinking about myself as a kid, out in the fields playing naked in the rain. Strange that with traffic stopped in the middle of the rain like this I should be feeling so completely free—free of work, free of family obligations.

I turned the wipers off for a bit and watched the rain pour in torrents down the windows on all sides. When I was a boy and Bangkok was a pure young maiden, my greatest happiness was in the rainy season, lying under a soft blanket, listening to raindrops endlessly slamming on a tin roof punctuated by the song of bullfrogs humming in the paddies. Raindrops, drawn down by the dragging pull of the world to plop percussively on sheets of corrugated metal, make a more beautiful sound than any music anywhere in the world, because this is a natural orchestra: ordinary frogs, toads, and those bullfrogs as musicians, the gusting wind as conductor—if Beethoven or Mozart had heard the sound of falling rain mingled in with the bullfrogs, the world would probably have received yet another musical piece of the highest order. It probably would have been called “The Bullfrog Symphony.”

“That’s right . . . keep listening to music, you’ll get there before you know it. This Saturday Ladda is getting married. Do you want to go?”

“No,” I answered without thinking.

“Why not? She’s a close friend of mine, too. And there’s another thing—there’ll be eight hundred in each envelope. We don’t go, we lose money!”

“I think weddings are a bore.”


Wedding: Definition for a man—the day that all life’s freedom comes to an end; definition for a woman—the day her tenure as warden begins.

I picture myself wearing the dragging suit of death, which must weigh nearly two hundred pounds, braving the city’s traffic jams on the way to the hotel, writing a message of blessing in the book with the gold-striped cover: “May you have happiness as a couple till the sky crumbles down upon the earth,” something of this sort. Going in to sit at our assigned table, listening to the emcee invite the relatives of the couple and/or their bosses to come forward like servant girls to tearfully recount the admirable qualities of the happy pair. Eating dinner, having pictures taken of the two of them at each table. Shouting cheers, pasting on smiles for the videocam, so that they can show it to guests at their house, patiently smiling for the entire wedding.

I remember the last time I went to a friend’s wedding hunt-for-money party. I later heard that time they made a profit of two-hundred thousand after expenses—they’d invited everybody they’d ever run into . . .

“Mommy, why did you come so late to pick me up?” My thoughts came to a screeching halt as we pulled up in front of the school.

“Traffic was terrible, sweetie.”

“You say that every day.”

“Did you have fun today at school?”

“I did. We had a play rehearsal. This Saturday the school’s putting on a play. I have to buy a costume, too, Mom. Two hundred, OK, Mom?”

I thought about schools drafting kids not ten years old to put on makeup and put on lipstick like grown-ups, and spend . . .

“Oh! The teacher said that if our parents can’t come, that’s OK, they’re making a video, Mom, we can get one for five hundred.”


Evening Meal: Meal that’s cool already, like the evening itself, if you wait till you get home to eat it.

“Mommy, I’m hungry!”

“Just a second, we’ll stop and eat at the trade center there.”


Trade Center: (a name decided on by the owners of the stores selling stuff there) A new system of free enterprise which makes a bunch of little stores suddenly become a “trade center.”

“We’re eating here again . . . ? Like every day. I’m tired of this place.”

“Don’t be a pill, Toy. We don’t have time. By the time we get back home it’ll be dark, and you’ll still have to do homework. Look, we’ve got coupons . . . go get what you’d like to eat.”


Coupon: (Western word) Paper money in the form of commercial swap notes, in common use today in big restaurants and trade centers everywhere.

“And tell them not to put in any MSG.”


MSG: An excellent powder that it’s customary to put in food because it improves the taste. It’s in the same category as food coloring and borax. There’s a wide consensus among nutritionists that this is the most useless substance the human race has come up with this century.

“Is MSG dangerous, Dad?”

“Not really. But your body can’t use it for anything.”

“So why does the restaurant put it in?”

I resisted the urge to smile, but wasn’t able to answer the question. Everybody hands it around to dump on their food, to the point where I’m led to feel sorry for people in olden times, who had to force themselves for so long to swallow their food without putting this excellent powder on it, way back to the time when we were still monkeys.

“Dad, when we’re done eating can we please rent a video? I want to watch a cartoon when we get home.”


Videotape: (Western word) A motion picture that’s been recorded onto a coiled magnetic tape, a form of entertainment that substitutes for a movie theater. Most of them are called “ghost videos,” made against foreign copyright laws. (Sometimes you may see the sale and purchase of these pictures does harm to diplomatic efforts toward some countries, and everything is . . . like it was before.)

“What title do you want to rent?”

Dragonball. It’s one of my Japanese cartoons.”


Japanese cartoon: A practice method that makes children love reading and drawing pictures, distributed in the form of pocketbooks and videotapes; the translation industry for these is the biggest in the country.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when my son showed me a picture he’d drawn in art class at school. He’d gotten an A on it. The subject was “The Life of a Thai Farmer,” and it was a picture of a farmer carrying the Thai flag, standing in front of verdant green fields. His face really looked a whole lot like Nobita. That has to count as a successful merging of cultures. If Hemingway, Steinbeck, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky had published their works in the form of cartoons (Japanese cartoons, that is), by now the whole world would know the old man of the sea, Lenny and George, the Karamazov brothers, even better than they know Nobita or Doremon . . . .


Compact Disc: (Western word) The latest development in sound quality for the human ear, 450 baht per development.

I picked out a CD from the small number I have, and put it in the “minicomponent” player, which, together with whatever you put in it, takes up a space about four by eight inches. A medium-sized market for audio devices has been built by the Japanese—three times a day, after meals, advertisements for the things raise the dead—to the point where CD players like this one glut the market. I let myself be affected by this and bought one like everybody else. I like to listen to music in the late evening before I go to sleep (it makes me have good dreams). For the price of a CD I could get twelve packs of American cigarettes, or five bottles of Mekong Whisky, or two-and-a-half boxes of powdered milk.


Dreams: Stories you see when you’re sleeping. The subconscious spirit at work. You can divide them into two types: A good one is where you dream you fall down to hell, then you wake up and find you’re in Bangkok. A bad one is where you dream you ascend to heaven, then you wake up and find you’re in Bangkok.

“Last night I had a weird dream. I dreamed that Bangkok had become a utopian city. There wasn’t a single car. The water in the canals was clear and pure. There was no black exhaust smoke. The plants were a verdant green . . . ” I told the dream to my wife.

“Crazy! A fantasy! You get over here to bed. Tomorrow you’ve got to get up early again,” she responded.

I turned off the light by the bed and closed my eyes, letting my confused thoughts run off like muddy water, the murky dregs sinking down to the sullen riverbed of my mind. Not long, and I’ll be off in the land of dreams . . .

Tomorrow isn’t Sunday yet . . . .  


Alarm Clock: a tool invented by humans for self-enslavement.

The sound of metal striking metal five times rushes out of a little alley through the darkness toward my ear at a speed of eleven-thousand feet per second . . . .
 

© Win Lyovarin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Peter Montalbano. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Untitled: #13 and #14

Phu Kradat gives voice to the people of rural Isan. 

Mon thru Fri, Sat and Sun, no holds barred
flea markets run from morning to morning
open up their thing
hustling bustles on Crown Property
peddling motley commodities cheap
consumer stuff
foodstuff
dried stuff
fresh stuff
live stuff
dead stuff
tangibles
intangibles
Wow, countless all whatevers to buy, sell, exchange!
come in at your convenience,
just shuffle on in
they shuffle on in

hesitating
I hug my possibles bag
grope for change stuck in the bottom
grope for my own stuff
for enough to change out for
cheap goods scattered out wide as if
proud of their humanity

tho it’s too bad the possibles bag is empty
it’s all worthless. Priceless!
 

*

There’s none don’t want to go back home
Songkran okay New Year whenever day
day off day on just go on anyway
return the hope the plan of one and all
tangled in a diligence of drudgery
abiding foreign odors in a distant land
dawn to dusk and plunging into night to stand
that is, afford two feet to stand against the beating.
Lao lute melodies still sing in coursing blood
streams of poetry in flood just won’t run dry
tough robust youth flies crisp undimmed
Isaan honeysuckle scents float clear upon the wind.

There’s none truly want to leave afar O land of birth!
At birth the old home lodged in us its code:
still bound to fragrant earth, its greenery,
rice fields fling legs to grip the mountain wood
as far as can be seen you see it clean.
Restless whirls the world in dizzy busy turns
churns out kids grandkids great-grands great-greats and on
tho paddy chicken field and duck remain
none turned by time escape its change
but tangle up in loud melée
step hard and press feet freeze pluck fades
beginnings end then stands the heart alone
till all that’s left is chant for luck
complain then spit spit then wrap it up and toss it in
good good good there’s only good till overflow and sink
many sins extreme, look up and see . . . equal opportunity.

There’s none don’t want to be back home
no matter now or through long twists and turns
as screaming midnight thoughts plunge down to still
day on day off it shines and calls so clear
and none themselves desire to clog the roads
nor spilled pollutants cause another’s bitter misery
nor ever have aspired to hold back flooding tears
swollen sinews drenched in oozing sweat, to reach . . . whose home?

(in a whisper . . .
Please you of all should understand
be so good and wake from sleep
perhaps pluck out, make clear some things encrypted here)
 

© Phu Kradat. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Peter Montalban. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Interview with Suchart Sawasdsri

Veteran editor Suchart Sawasdsri made a name for himself as a literary talent spotter on whose desk the manuscripts of many of Thailand’s acclaimed contemporary writers have landed. Over his nearly fifty-year career as editor of various literary magazines as well as a journal of social and political commentary, he has come to be regarded as an encyclopedia of Thai literature. Most notably, from 1978 to 2010 (with a couple of hiatuses, dividing the magazine’s run into three eras), he edited the legendary short-story quarterly Chorkaraket (Screwpine Garland). For a budding writer to make it into the magazine, and in particular to win its prize, was considered the ultimate stamp of approval. Suchart has been part of the Thai literati since the sixties, the period that led up to two key events in modern Thai history known as the October 14, 1973 Event and October 6, 1976 Event (the first marking the student-led uprising that took down the military dictatorship and the second signifying the massacre of protestors after which the country returned to military rule), which still loom large over the imagination of Thai writers who are now the old guard. In those days, the artist as political activist was the paradigm for Thai writers, and that legacy still has some hold on Thai writing today. While Suchart himself has always leaned left, as an editor he always sought to give writers carte blanche. He has long been a proponent of “art for the sake of art” in a field where “art for the sake of life” has dominated. Now in his seventies, Suchart has been honored as a national artist of Thailand and remains active in the art and literary world (he is a writer in his own right, and also paints and makes experimental short films, some of which can be viewed here. In response to Thailand’s most recent military coup in 2014, Suchart revived Chorkaraket for a special issue.

We spent hours chatting about the development of Thai prose, its evolution through the years, and the close relationship between literature and politics in Thailand. Ever the demanding editor, Suchart is no shrinking violet when it comes to critiquing the literature to which he has dedicated his life.

The following is an edited and translated version of our conversation.

Mui Poopoksakul (MP): You had mentioned the one-hundredth anniversary of the Thai novel. Can you talk about the first one?

Suchart Sawasdsri (SS): In times past, Thai literature was poetry. It was fiction but written in verse. Prose narrative, with explanation and dialogue, started at the end of the reign of King Rama III, going into the reign of King Rama IV. Looking at primary documents, what I think we can call the first short stories came out in Darunowat magazine in 1874, about a hundred and forty years ago. That was when we saw writing in a form that partly showed influence from abroad, from the West. Later, what is said to be the first Thai novel was a novel that mimics—doesn’t quite mimic, but bears a resemblance to—a work called Kwam Payabat, which was Mae Won’s translation of Marie Corelli’s Vendetta. That was translated in 1900, so that’s about a hundred and twenty years old. The first Thai novel was something like a parody of that, but it had a Thai sense. It was called Kwam Mai Payabat (No Vendetta) by the author who wrote under the pen name Nai Samran, better known as Kru Liam or Liam Wintupramanakul. That was 1915 according to the documents, so that’s about a hundred years ago. It’s so young. But if you go back to the first short stories, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” (“The Conversation between Jit and Jai”) and “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” (“Four Men Fishing”), they actually had characteristics of critical realism. For example, “Nai Jit Nai Jai Sontana Gun” talked about Jit and Jai critiquing monks, critiquing people in the royal court, corruption. “Chai Ha Pla Tung See” wasn’t quite fantasy but I’d call it magic realism. It’s about four men with different personalities and different special abilities—one has ears that stick out, one has a pointy bottom, one has a lot of mucus in the nose, and one has three hands—and they go out fishing. It’s a local parable of our own. Prose in Thailand had a good beginning—it had elements of social critique. It had elements of magic.

MP: You recently came out with a large book recommending a hundred and twenty-one classic works of Western literature. I understand you’re not happy with the Western literature that has been influential in Thailand?

SS: Even though we received influence from abroad, what we were given, like foreign literature translated from English, was second-class literature—Marie Corelli, Sir Rider Haggard. We didn’t get the heart of Victorian literature. These things likely became the model of creation for Thai writers in the periods that followed. When the first book was translated in 1900, it was serialized and published in Lukwittaya magazine. It blew up. It was hugely popular. People who wanted to be modern had to read it. The translation of foreign prose narrative into Thai gained major acceptance, but when you look back, Marie Corelli, if you ask British people now, they don’t know her. [Our translation of foreign literature] has been haphazard. Something would make its way here because someone happened to like it. Translation is still that way now. There’s no system.

MP: The perception is that the main movement in contemporary Thai literature is “literature for life” or social realism. But literature for life has wound down now, hasn’t it?

SS: In the past, the term “for life” exerted a certain amount of inertia. It was a bit stuck on the ideological struggle—the capitalist must be taken down. This was a characteristic of the ideological struggle after the October 14 Event. But “literature for life” under the old meaning is gone. Under the old meaning, it meant that there were ideals, fighting for socialism, for a better society, principles-wise falling leftist. That was how it was forty years ago . . . From 1978, when I did the short-story issue of Lok Nungsue (Book World), which became the first issue of Chorkaraket, the term “for life” got used not as social realism—it might be capitalist realism. The substance of those works was still poverty and social problems, but the surroundings became that of the middle class. When you say “literature for life” you have to talk about the period of its development. You can’t say literature for life is all this way or that way. It has mutated. At the same time, work that leaned on art, symbolism, and experimentation ended up talking about social problems more, and maybe talked about them more deeply because they weren’t didactic but were rather more artistic in their storytelling. That’s what I want and what I was fighting for through Chorkaraket . . .

Thai literature had two pits. The first was the “for life” pit and the second was the melodrama pit. And each side saw the other as no good—“I’m better than you.” That was the circumstance after the October 14 Event. The women writers who published their work in magazines were seen by the “for life” crew as melodrama. But I think as long as they write with craft and artistry, even if their subject matter is family life or love, there’s nothing wrong with that . . . [Some writers who submitted to Chorkaraket] misunderstood—they saw that I looked “for life” and so they wrote stories about the suffering of the poor and things like that, which was OK, I wanted to read them. But at the same time, I wanted to read about the life of the upper class, how the nobles, the capitalists, the bankers, and stock investors live—I didn’t see a lot of that.

MP: Did you see the writing change over the three eras of Chorkaraket?

SS: Yes, it changed a fair amount. During the first era that I was doing Chorkaraket, what changed was that even though there was inertia, meaning the continuing influence of “literature for life” under the old meaning—workers and farmers—it became more lively: the workers had flesh and blood. It wasn’t stuffing Marxist-speak in the mouths of workers or farmers. Before, the thought was that substance took precedence over form: politics came before everything else. It was didactic. Left or right, they were all that way. The right is still that way, even more so. A lot of morals. The left was that way, too. When I started at Lok Nungsue, I wrote a foreward saying that a left that’s repetitive and static can be stale, too. The condition of people working in the arts has to be like flowing water. As soon as you’re stagnant, it might start to rot.

In the second era, the writing was more artistic. The storytelling contained more self-questioning, digging to get to the bottom of things. I gave people freedom to write in any style, with any content. Overall, I still didn’t have quite what I wanted. Mostly, the stories still had to do with the suffering of people of that time, the sense of alienation of people of that time, but the storytelling had complexity, and they hadn’t left behind social problems. In the third era, you could clearly see that the style was more experimental. I had called for experimentation by coming out with a short-story publication called Chorparichart (Garland of Tiger’s Claws), hoping for it to be experimental, but people ended up interpreting “experimental” as my wanting to read fantasies in the vein of science fiction, which wasn’t necessarily wrong, and I like to read science fiction, but at the same time I wanted to see a shift in the way of thinking, but it didn’t happen, so we did only two issues of what I called “experimental” literature. With the special coup issue, you see that people used symbolism to the point that when you read, you have to supply the meaning . . . If Chorkaraket were to go on in the quarterly format, there are promising new writers all the time, but there’s no consistent, defined movements.

MP: Do you see experimental fiction as having more traction now?

SS: People only talk about Prabda [Yoon] and Win [Lyovarin], but if you read Sri Daoruang’s stories, you’ll find experimentation. Or even stories I wrote before [some of] these people were even born—the Kwam Ngieb (Silence) collection, it has experimental qualities. Experimental short stories have existed in every period in a sense. During the era of the Suphapburut (Gentlemen) group (formed in 1929 by prominent writer and editor Kulap Saipradit and other leading writers of that time), there were people who wrote in that way. Using language—its form—is a kind of experiment. For example, Humorist [the pen name of Ob Chaivasu] of the Suphapburut group, I think he has influence on the way people like Prabda Yoon use language, the way they play with language . . . But I don’t want the new generation of writers to get hung up on the experimental. I say, I’ve already experimented. [He shows me his short story “Kwam Wangplao” (“Blank”), which is completely blank.] Only an editor can get this published! Who else is going to let that run? When you use language, you’re already experimenting with something. But if you talk about experimentation to the limit—it’s funny, it’s kind of self-mockery. As it turns out, what sold really well for a while, and they make them even now, are the blank books, notebooks really, that are completely white. They sell blankness. But mine didn’t sell at all!

MP: Can we say that the starting point of contemporary Thai literature was around forty years ago, when the October 14 and October 6 Events happened?

SS: You could say that, in the decade from [the Thai year] 2510 [1967]. Abroad in the 60s and 70s was the period of rebellions and protests, against the Vietnam War, against institutions. During that time, contemporary Thai literature shared some things with their overseas counterparts. People called it “literature of searching” in that period, but I think writers in every period search . . . The generation before that, those who held political ideals, they tended to demand that substance must come before form. The message had to be clear—fighting for farmers and workers—even if the form was rough—farmers talking in Marxist language and things like that. Being didactic was alright as long as your ideas were correct. But I didn’t agree with that . . .

Forty years ago, writers from the earlier generation followed formulas, like formulas with surprise endings, familiar formulas with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the decade from 1967, when I first started writing short stories, there were writers who were young men and women before the October 14 Event, and this group tried to present work that didn’t repeat what the earlier generation had put out. Broadly, the writing that appeared dealt with the search for something that was the meaning of life, so the characters didn’t have origins or destinations, the endings were ambiguous, there was nowhere to go, no surprise endings. It was a period of talking about one’s own stream of consciousness, or the showing of some symbolism of dreams, that sort of thing.

MP: You said that you wanted to see more variety. Can you talk more about that?

SS: [Writing in the last forty years] has variety in the sense that there are new generations of people who are interested in social problems, but not in a didactic way like before. Plus they are interested in a writing style that plays with language—before that, with a handful of exceptions, I think the language didn’t display a lot of showmanship. I think the new generations pay more attention to playing with the forms of language. But in terms of the substance, I want to demand more. Mostly, we should get beyond the pain of the middle class . . .

We have had democracy, nominally, since 1932, but has there been Thai literature, whether contemporary or older, that has presented courtroom dramas? No. It reflects Thai society. It shows that Thai society still leans on superstitions. Reasoning doesn’t get talked about much, even though there are a massive number of middle-class people who hold PhDs. That gets reflected in our literature. We don’t have literature in the detective genre where the main character wants to know who committed the wrong. Our literature, let’s say since 1932, doesn’t have any mainstream science fiction that has been developing, no detective-story writers identifiable as such, and no works that show the importance of the law, which is a foundation of a democratic society.

MP: What do you think Thai literature does well?

SS: If you want to look at the last forty or fifty years, I think Thai short stories have longer legs than novels and poetry. Thai novels are like stagnant, or even foul, water. Short stories make an attempt to get away from that. It’s because, for one, there’s a variety of people entering the short-story scene. There are constantly new people replacing the old ones. But novels, there aren’t enough of these works yet. I think in the last ten or twenty years, novels are picking up. I want to see them delve deeper. [In the past], most writers who were said to be novelists were serial writers. [Their books] are drawn out. They don’t have elements that form a unity because they just flow from week to week but then they get combined into a book. It might seem like we have a lot of novelists, but what they present is limited; the material they present mostly repeats old formulas—family matters, people in heated emotional fights—and they are mostly serial writers. There are more people who write whole books now but the serial writers still rule the market for novel readers. There might be a few that make it out of that through the SEA Write competition. . . . As for poetry, I think there’s not a lot of innovation in terms of form. Our poetry is outdated, maybe because it was already mature before, so it’s hard to break away. There is an increasing amount of free verse [but] it has existed for a long time. Previous generations wrote it, too.

MP: In terms of substance, do you think that the concerns of poets are generally similar to those of prose writers?

SS: What’s interesting is that poetry, be it free verse or fixed-form, has had an increasing amount of political connotation, perhaps because it can use words to veil.

MP: I feel like there are few contemporary, living women authors compared to male ones. Why do you think that is and do you think it’s changing?

SS: There are a fair number of female writers. I’ve been trying to find documentation on who the first woman to write prose narrative was, but I haven’t found it. As background, in earlier times, publications for women were done by men. Kulasatree (Ladies) magazine during the reign of Rama V was done by men, the noblemen. It was done by men but called “Ladies.” Later, male writers liked to use pen names such as “Sri” this and “Mae” that (which would indicate female names), even though they were all men. For example, Mae Anong and Sri Burapa, they were both men. So the advent of women writers was in the shadow of male writers. Male writers were the editors, they were the publishers. But it doesn’t mean there weren’t people who worked in this field who were women. There were. For example, in 1928 there was a publication called Siam Yupadee (Young Siamese Women)—this was before the magazine of Kulap Saipradit’s Suphapburut group [the magazine was also called SuphapburutGentlemen], which was 1929. I’ve seen the documents. They state that it was a publication for women by women. The push for equal rights for women started during the reign of Rama VI, and there were some [women writers] before the regime change [from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy in 1932], but our primary documents are not systematically maintained, so there’s no research to show the development of women writers clearly. But it had its path. Women writers didn’t start with Dokmai Sot. Before her, there were some, but they might have written under pen names so we don’t know who they were. I’ve been trying to put together an anthology on women writers but I can’t get my hands on the primary documents, so I haven’t been able to.

MP: What about women writers who are working now? When I ask people about female writers who write literature that’s not romance, people are able to give few names, don’t you think?

SS: Yes. In terms of the writers who came through Chorkaraket, as a percentage, out of ten there were three, maybe four. There were some but they were the minority. When you looked at their craft and style, their storytelling, their writing was no less rich than the men’s. Maybe we didn’t do Chorkaraket for long enough. They were starting to come but then our magazine folded. But there were some. I found a number of interesting ones, Duanwad [Pimwana] and others. Before the October 14 Event, there were some known ones, like Suwanee Sukhonta, Au. Chaivorasilp and others. You could talk just about Thai women writers, without the men. They have their place in the history of modern Thai literature. But there’s no clear study on what they mainly wrote about. As far as short stories, women writers have a certain amount of richness, more so than with novels, which have mostly been serialized works that concerned family life—women dominate this field. There are few men writing serialized work. Women writers in Kwanreun, Kulasatree [both women’s magazines], they were popular forty years ago, and they’re still writing.

MP: Do you see differences in the work of writers from different regions of Thailand?

SS: Regionality exists in Thai literature but it’s not pronounced. The central region dominates because of the use of standard Thai and its being taught in school. So the local dialect getting written as standard-Thai sentences, it doesn’t work or is difficult. People who have tried to do this, and where readers of standard Thai read it and can catch the local mood, are, for example, Lao Khamhom in Fah Bo Kan or Kampoon Boontawee in Luk Isan. Southern writers have tried to do this and northerners, too. They do it via standard Thai. There might be something in the way the language is styled. This has been discussed—if you’re going to use a local dialect and footnote the meaning, I think it’s no. You’re not reading an academic text. You have to make it smooth. You have to make the scent come out, make the tone of that language come out, the scent that this one’s southern, this one’s northern, and this one’s Isan. It’s the art of each region. When they send me stories, I see how they maintain local characteristics. The problems of people in each region aren’t the same but there is a shared characteristic: the sentiment of being taken over by city folks, the problem of the gap between the city and the rural.

MP: Can you compare the situation now to the October 14 era in terms of how writers are reacting to the political situation?

SS: There’s an atmosphere of a lack of unity, unlike forty years ago. Back then, artists and writers moved in solidarity mostly—they were against dictatorship, against a military government, they called for liberty and democracy. There might have been ideological disagreements, but they were just ideologies. Even though people held socialist ideals, some leaned more toward communism, others toward liberal democracy. That’s normal for an open society. At least as far as writers go, during the October 14 era, there was freedom. The latest coup has fractured artists into three groups. The first group takes a stand against the military coup. I’ve made it known that that’s my stance. Our stance is there must be an election, there must be democracy, liberty. We have to get back to a society where each person gets one vote. The second group sides with the coup. Since the [most recent] coup, there are artists and writers who don’t show their hand. I call them the “blenders.” A lot of writers are in this third group. They should show some sign in their position as artists. They should have a stance.

MP: For the writers who have shown a clear stance in support of democracy, it seems no one has written literature that comes right out and says it. Are they afraid? How’s the censorship situation?

SS: It’s self-censorship. With writer and artists and poets, the picture is not the same as forty years ago. I’m talking about people who are fifty and up, who are sixty and seventy, people my age. What’s interesting is young people, the people who are the future of our country, they’re the ones coming out and showing movement and showing signs, and they get bullied. So it’s turning out to be the people of the new generation. I have hope. Among writers, people have to censor themselves. When they want to write anything about the royalty, they have to praise, they can’t criticize. There isn’t total freedom. It’s become a political tool. They should be allowed to talk about it creatively. There are people who have to tried to form an initiative to repeal the section [the lèse majesté law] but many have been punished.

MP: How did your pen name Singh Sanamluang come about?

SS: Sanamluang just refers to Sanamluang [the public square near the Grand Palace in Bangkok], and back in those days, people used singh (a mythical lion) and sua (tiger) in their made-up names [to jazz them up with some fierceness]. It started when I was editor at Lok Nungsue, after the October 6 Event. I was thinking about how to make the magazine sell, since there were people who followed advice columns. Back then people liked to read “Dear Abby”-type columns for matters of the heart, so I answered literary questions, writers’ questions. I wanted to become close to readers by correspondence. When I was a student at Thammasat University, there were secondhand book stands along Klong Lod, in front of Sanamluang. What opened my reading world, my second university, were these secondhand bookshops. I read secondhand books—funeral books, foreign pocket books—from these shops. First, they formed a bridge to international literature for me, and second, they helped solidify my habit of reading. I had the habit of reading since I was a kid. I would steal money from my mother to buy books that I read for fun. My mother would hit me, not for reading but for stealing. She was illiterate. When I encountered these books, they broadened my reading world. I collected old books. They became useful when I worked on the magazines. Back then there was no Wikipedia, so these books were my knowledge base for answering questions like ‘Who’s this author?’ Sanamluang had to do with my reading life.

MP: I had read a little about “one-baht books” in another interview with you. What are these? Can you talk about their significance?

SS: These were publications by university students during the era of Thanom-Prapas, when it was still a military dictatorship or a quasi-dictatorship. Back then they didn’t let you put out publications with the same title repeatedly. If you wanted to publish under the same title, you had to ask for permission from the special-branch police and you had to register. So the one-baht books were published by changing the titles continuously. They used the names of flowers and other things. They might be put out with a group name, such as Prachan Siew (Crescent Moon) or the Num Nau Sao Suey (Young Lads and Beautiful Girls), but the names of the publications changed. These were the various groups that were interested in writing—short stories and poetry, etc.

MP: So they’re really literary journals?

SS: Yes, it was literature but they didn’t have fixed publication cycles, like weekly or monthly. It varied. Whoever was able to write and print them would go and hawk them in front of the universities [for one baht in the beginning]. Back then the one-baht books were an outlet for the expression of ideas, beginning with interest in literature and the arts. Later, the degree of it escalated, and they expressed demands and opinions against the war, against dictatorship. It was a phenomenon of the new generation of fifty years ago that banded together, and it eventually led to the student movement, the October 14 movement.

MP: How do you feel about the SEA Write Award?

SS: At least it helps encourage people to publish according to the cycle of the competition. Like this coming year is going to be poetry, so all kinds of people are writing poetry. It rotates [between poetry, short stories, and novels], which is strange because artistic writing should come in more than three categories. There should be nonfiction. We’ve been seeing a greater amount of nonfiction work in the last forty or fifty years. People have proposed it for the SEA Write but nothing has come of it. They should expand it to drama and things like that. There’s more people putting on stage plays now. But there are still just the three categories. There’s discussion whether the SEA Write is a promoting or hindering force . . . For example, Danarun Saengthong wrote the novel Ngaw See Kow (White Shadow) that was shortlisted. It was viewed as too crude, it had too much sex. With writing, with art, you have to be a step ahead. People who judge, too, they have to be ready in that way. Ours isn’t ready. The creators are ready, and the readers, too, but the transmitters—the institutions, the judging panels, the teachers—are not.

MP: Will you return to Chorkaraket again?

SS: Its spirit still lives on but I probably won’t work on it in the same way. Chorkaraket’s existence was good, but even without it, people who have what it takes to make it will still make it. I still see new people coming along, and it’s all new people who are ready to speak over the fear. It’s not people my age, not people within the institutions. I still have hope.
 

© 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Light Splash Sound

Uthis Haemamool’s amnesiac temple worker recognizes the false side of true belief. 

Before the Memory Shake-up

Before his memory was shaken up, if you were to look inside that brainpan of his for something special, something different from what was in other people’s brains, his only unique memories would be the personal ones: deep, intimate memories of people close to him, and of relatives, but distant and unreliable when it came to people in general. You’d say that back then, his brain memory was as common and ordinary as anyone else’s.

What made it special was its having been so shaken up—if you could put it that way—that he couldn’t store anything there. In fact nothing recorded in that brain stood much chance of being recalled: he completely lacked any desire to connect one thing with another. He merely saw, imagined, and had questions, like a curious little kid. But now he was grown up, no longer a child, and therefore came across as strange, odd, or simple, words that people use as a matter of course to describe that sort.

So it’s up to you to watch him. Do the remembering for him.

All right, his brain was the ordinary kind: invisible, hidden within a skull, you could see only the outer shape. But he himself was visible enough. Looked young. Rough skin, tinged reddish-brown. Wore a white T-shirt, really a discolored gray, with some lettering printed across the chest. Not one of those trademark Western labels—sometimes authentic, sometimes fake—that people wear. You couldn’t deny it was something like one of those, but for some reason people passing by would turn and flash a look back, just a quick look, and it would click that he must be from the provinces. He was certainly a bad fit, standing in a courtyard in front of a shopping mall and looking as if he had no interest in buying anything there.

It was all wrong, everything, from the place he was presenting himself to his apparel, oddball head to toe. And walking awkwardly across the yard, as he reached a group of people sitting in the middle absorbed in images on a giant screen, he had stopped abruptly when his body and theirs were assaulted by sound from the humongous video speakers. He watched those folks stare as if mesmerized by the excitement of images, light, and sound, then gradually stepped his way forward until directly in front of the mall entrance, almost all the way into it. A huge picture had been set up right in front, a bunch of people forming a loose line halfway around it. He alternated between watching the people and looking at the picture.

 

It was a while before the crowd started to break up, isolating him as he still stood staring at the picture. After having presented himself at the wrong place in the first place he had now moved in and was standing right in the mall entrance. The front door security guard was the first to notice, and told him to go stand somewhere further away where he wouldn’t be blocking the walkway. But he kept on stubbornly standing in that spot so long that people who’d been looking at the giant screen started turning around to check him out. The security guard thought he was being pigheaded, and a consensus quietly formed and grew among the people watching that this was indeed suspicious behavior. Sensing this, the security guard had words with him in an official capacity, like what was he was doing, he shouldn’t be stupidly standing there, right there, doing nothing. When, as one should, our boy returned the rent-a-cop’s gaze, the guard said, “don’t be a RE-tard.” Four or five people drew near and surrounded him. One said, “What’s your problem, staring so long at the picture?” Others agreed, they’d like him to explain this, they’d like to know what was going on in his brain, what possessed him to stare like that. The more he didn’t answer, the more their own questions rebounded at the group, making them feel provoked, challenged.

The incident, when it happened, occurred in a flash, taking no longer than two minutes in all: their resentment erupted in a fury! A muscular fellow standing behind him lashed out with a punch and the full force of it caught him on the base of the ear. After that, it was all chaos.

You saw these things. Observed them. But he was no longer aware of any of it.

 

A New Memory

He felt his eyes open. His whole body was soaked. Faintly, he heard birds calling from far off, arousing in him a joyful, lighthearted feeling. Under low light in the duskiness of a shanty he lay on a bamboo stretcher, surrounded by an assortment of plastic water bottles, cardboard boxes, and various other things. There was a middle-aged guy squatting there sorting out all this trash, apparently for recycling. When our boy moved over and sat up, the bamboo stretcher made a loud cracking sound. The old guy turned around to look at him, then went back to sorting trash.

Walking out of the shelter, his whole body felt weak and shaky. When the intensity of the sun’s rays hit him he blacked out for a second, and hunched down right where they were the very strongest. The old guy told him to get out of the sun, go sit in the shade under the trees. Little by little he dragged himself over into the shade. The old guy left off working and walked over to join him.

His host naturally had plenty of questions, but he couldn’t come up with an answer, because he couldn’t remember a thing. What kind of person was this?

“You a mute?” the old guy exclaimed, after receiving not a single word in response. And so the old guy told him what had happened, anyway what he knew of it.

How, when in the late morning he was walking to the back of the temple, at the steps leading down to a little dock, he sat down to relax with a smoke, looking at the muck that lay between the temple and the shopping mall, it was when the tide had gone out, it looked almost dry at a narrow stretch of muck, and here was this body washed up in the ditch by the steps. A brief look, and it was clear he was still breathing, so he’d brought him up. Searching all over he couldn’t find anything of substance, no wallet, ID card, nothing at all. Posing questions and getting no answer, the old guy had him figured for a mute. Seeing he had nothing to identify him, the old guy began to wonder whether he was Thai or not. But from his facial features, he probably was Thai, right? He nodded his head yes. The old guy was pleased to get at least some response.

Where had he come from, where was he going? That was the puzzle. He looked to be nobody: no wallet, no ID, right? And beyond that, he seemed empty of intention. The whole day he sat around the shelter, it appeared he didn’t know where to go. There was a period in the evening when he walked around to the back of the temple, to the little dock, glancing around at this bank, over at that bank. The old guy shared some food with him.

The old guy told him he was a temple caretaker, plunked down there specifically to care for the back area of the temple. All the work behind the temple, he was the guy who managed it. He arranged funerals, took care of everything in a smooth and orderly way. The plastic water bottles and stuff like that, this provided him with extra income. The temple committee had given him management rights over certain things. He called himself “Recycle Man.” There were three others with similar caretaking duties: one was responsible for the front of the temple, another was assigned to the western side, and another for the east. The Sangha administered the middle area themselves as a group. The old guy said, with a touch of humor, it was good he’d floated to the back of the temple and into the hands of Recycle Man: if he had turned up somewhere else he would have likely been a piece of garbage which would not have been recycled. Like what happened with his wife, who’d had only one life, used once and tossed, gone into the crematory chimney, atomized into dust and cinders. The old guy told how he had a son probably about his age, the kid worked as a security guard at a department store not far off, but they didn’t see each other often. “He has his own life, his own group.” The security firm took good care of his son, gave him an allowance, a room to sleep in, and various benefits to ensure he wasn’t in difficulty. His son was moving along in life ever so slowly, but at least with some security.

The old guy told him he could stay for another day or two, but had to live in an “eco” way, conserving a bit. Saying this, he broke out in a laugh.

 

The sound of prayer dimly entered his ears. He arose in the late morning of a new day. The old guy had left the shack to attend midday temple prayers, leaving him alone there. His memory of the day before was clear enough, so without any need to ask he just began bit by bit sorting out the recyclable trash that lay around, following the procedures he’d seen and understood from yesterday. Amid the peaceful quiet and shade was heard only the sound of bird chatter, chirps and warbles whispered down from the treetops. He found it pleasant, this clear, cool atmosphere.

Around noon the old guy came back with a bag of food. Seeing the steady buildup of work done without his having to lift a finger, he felt good about our boy’s behavior. As they ate lunch together he asked, can you write something down, like do you know who you are? He answered with a single phrase: “your son,” pointing a finger at himself, then at his host. That made the old guy go quiet.

In the afternoon the old guy suggested he sweep up the area back of the temple, so he did that. Wherever he found plastic he put it in a recycling bag and brought it back to the shack. The things he was doing gave him pleasure. Working alone among the bushes and shrubs, fresh greenery and shade, listening to the surrounding birdsong the whole day gave him a peaceful and happy feeling.

Three days and nights passed as he busied himself with these activities. He took these things to be his life, they became his memory. He was the old guy’s son: this is what he told anyone he met in the temple grounds who asked. He had neither been told nor forbidden to do it, but he knew. Knew, too, that he shouldn’t wander around into the other areas in the temple grounds. Keep to the area in back. That was safest.

 

Light Splash Sound

After three days, his regular morning walk was becoming familiar. He would read the varietal names posted at the base of trees and where orchids had been attached to their trunks and branches. There were all sorts of sounds to be heard along the cement walkway leading to the trash cans behind the temple. In the earliest morning it was prayer. At eight a.m. there was a song, and after that, the atmosphere filled out with the trilling and harmonizing of many different bird species. As his familiarity with these sounds increased, so did his curiosity about what he was actually hearing. On the afternoon of the third day, sweeping up at the back of the temple he heard an unusual birdcall from above. Curious what the bird might look like that made that sound, he turned to look up in the trees. But the sun was shining directly at him, so he couldn’t make out the source, only a blaze of stinging light in his eyes.

The following day his familiar domain took on depth and clarity. On one of the trees he was stunned to see a cluster of orchids trailing down, a garland of fresh beauty. Yesterday it had just been a clump of green, today it was in full flower! He drew closer, staring in awe, and reached out to touch it . . . only to discover it was actually a string of plastic orchids! This was a shock. He snatched the fake orchids off the living tree, and, seeing others similarly hung on all the trees at the back of the temple, pulled them all off. He put them in his bag to sort out with the recyclables later on.

Back at the shanty when he opened the bag, the old guy asked where the plastic orchids had come from. Learning the truth, he ordered him to put them all back as he’d found them. Why had he taken them down? So what if they were plastic, if they weren’t real? Visitors to the temple felt refreshed at the sight, they were looking at flowers, said the old guy.

But they were plastic, he answered.

But in form and color they were flowers, said the old guy, and insisted he go put them back. After all, he certainly couldn’t recycle them. Putting the artificial orchids here was the temple’s idea, they belonged to the temple.

It was afternoon on the next day before our boy had put the plastic orchids back in place as before. By that time news of their disappearance had spread everywhere and was known to the caretakers for the north, east, and west sections of the temple grounds. The orchids were gone from the back of the temple! It set up quite a clamor. When the other caretakers were done interrogating the old guy about this abduction they all told him sternly he should keep a closer eye on this person he had taken responsibility for, and not let something like this happen again. These worthies had seen the fellow and all felt he wasn’t quite playing with a full deck: care should be taken, or this rather odd person could very well cause problems in the future.

It wasn’t even dusk, it was still late afternoon that day as he was putting the orchids back that once again the strange new birdcall came whispering down from above. It appeared to come from a fork in the trunk of a persimmon tree. Eager to catch a glimpse, he drew close, and with every step, the birdsong was clearer and stronger. He peered up into the branches through which the afternoon sun shone. One more step and he saw it, the source of the unusual new sound. But it wasn’t a bird! It was a loudspeaker box.

He stood stock-still. The peaceful, clear, pleasant sounds he’d been listening to for days, this thing here was its source! This and only this was its physical being and visage! Seeing the speaker box, his eyes moved to the wires, and these he followed, walking out of the back area to the western section of the temple.

There he stood before a great bodhi tree, sashes of three colors tied around its trunk, with a shrine holding an image of the seven-headed naga protecting the serene Buddha beneath. A group of people were gathered around, lighting candles in preparation for worship. He wasn’t much interested in that. What interested him was up there at the top of the Bodhi tree, hidden by its leaves and mistletoe tangled about in its branches—it was like a tree with a mixed-up lineage. In back, at the top, were scattered a number of hidden speaker boxes. If you weren’t looking carefully you probably wouldn’t see them, especially since in front of the speakers was a spotlight which shone down at an angle into people’s eyes. That birdcall he’d been hearing was the sound of the light splashing down!

He stood for a long time looking up at the splashing light. He stood so long that the people gathered there for worship began to suspect he was a troublemaker. Standing still, going nowhere. Making it hard for other folks to move around. Till people started asking each other, who is this guy? Is he going to steal something? Or is he just some know-nothing clown standing there senselessly blocking worshipers? He lifted his finger up as if asking the people around to look to the top of the tree, where he was pointing, to see there were speaker boxes up there, was a spotlight up there! People started berating him, said he didn’t know up from down, pointing his finger up crazy on and on like that, pretty quick he’d get that finger cut right off!

The caretaker for the western part of the temple came over and made himself known, told him to skedaddle, get out of there. Said to go back behind the temple. Our boy tottered back, step by step, as though being pushed, but all the time he was staring at the top of the tree.

“You don’t make any sense,” the Keeper of the West said, “What do you want, you creep?”

“The birdcalls in the tree,” he answered. He wanted to know what type of birds those were.

“Oh, so now you’re a comedian, right?” said the caretaker, shoving him back another step. “Don’t come around here with your crazy act! Go on, get back!”

He cried out there were speakers up there, and a light, too.

A lady standing there asked, “So what if there are? Everybody knows that!”

But the sounds weren’t real, they were fake, he cried.

“Yeah, what’s that about?” said someone else. “You don’t like the bird sounds, or what?”

“Don’t argue with him or even say anything,” warned the Keeper of the West, then turned to him again with “Go, get out of here, now!”

So he walked back behind the temple without making any kind of fuss.

 

By nighttime the story had reached the old guy who cared for the area behind the temple. He told his young charge to just keep his mouth shut, say only things that should be said, doing otherwise would be dangerous both for him and for the old guy himself.

“But the birdsong is fake!”

“Sure, they all know that,” the old guy responded, “There aren’t any more birds in the city nowadays, so the temple has to create a temple-like atmosphere somehow.”

“But it isn’t just the birdsong,” he tried to explain, “It’s the prayers, the National Anthem, the call for donations, even the news.”

“What’s your problem with that?” asked the old guy. “That’s what loudspeakers do.”

“But they’re fake sounds.”

“You aren’t making any sense! You’re scratching where it doesn’t itch. How are they ‘fake sounds’? They improve the atmosphere around the temple, they have a lot of benefits for the temple. Seems like there’s a lot more helpful than harmful here. You’re asking things you shouldn’t have to ask. Where do they come from? Not important. But since we have them, they’re beneficial to everyone. Ask useful questions. Why ask about where those sounds are coming from?”

He couldn’t really understand the explanations the old guy was laying out, because he was looking for one cause, the reason behind them being there. But in the course of their conversation the old guy’s tone was clear: he should just shut his trap.

“They’re fake,” he muttered under his breath. Something made him say it, however softly.

 

Before the Memory Shake-up

Thinking about it he wasn’t actually sure which it was, the fake birdsong, or that everyone else thought it wasn’t important. But whichever of the two was stronger, it was an obsession, and that’s what had made him go back to the spot where he’d gone the day before. He stood immobile in the sun, face turned upward to the top of the bodhi tree. People started noticing, and gathered around, this was suspicious behavior. One of them came up and asked what it was he was looking at, just standing there like that. Come to look at the fake stuff, he answered. The questioner nodded his head, up, down, his jaw dropped, and then he walked back to join the group standing under the bodhi tree.

Not long thereafter the Keeper of the West appeared, and strode boldly over to him, with the group of both men and women under the bodhi tree tagging along right behind.

“You going to go peaceably, or do we have to throw you out?” came the gruff voice of the Area Keeper.

“Who is this creature, dares to say things we worship are fake?” asked a middle-aged woman.

He pointed up toward the top of the tree. The things he was saying were fake were up there, not down below.

A teenage kid reached up and with all his strength, struck down the hand that was pointing upward.

The old guy who was caretaker for the back of the temple appeared, and hurried over to join them.

The Keeper of the West said in a loud voice, “This weirdo is the old fart’s son.”

“Well, damn! Eats the temple’s food, then disses the Buddha! And you still take care of him?” said somebody.

“Ingrate!”

“He’s not my son,” sputtered the caretaker of the back area. “I don’t know who he is. He just showed up.”

Our boy turned around to look at the man of middle years under whose roof he had slept for four nights.

“Oh, right, so it’s just some outside person, so how is it the temple lets crackpots like this in?”

“Yeah, they let some who-knows-who like this just come in and show contempt for our faith, huh?”

“But they really, really are fake!” he cried, trying to slip free from their grasp and draw the whole group closer to the bodhi tree.

“Shut yer damn mouth! Ya don’t have no right to speak!” said the teenager, and punched him in the mouth.

A second hand, and a third, and a series of powerful blows soon followed, delivered amid bellows of rage. When the chaos had subsided, the Caretaker of the Western Area half-carried, half-dragged his body away.

 

The body was thrown back into the mucky ditch at the foot of the staircase. That was the first low tide of the day. When the current came in for a second round, his body would be washed over to the other bank. He was to be thrown over, then thrown back between those two banks with the ebb and flow of the tide, in the in-between of those nearly instantaneous phenomena, remember and forget.

You are looking at these things, seeing them, because that shakeup made him a special person who wondered about things no one else wondered about. Special because he lacked memory. All the many people who described the way he acted said, “The fool! Felt pain and didn’t know to remember it.”

He doesn’t know. Has no memory. There’s only momentary pain.
 

© Uthis Haemamool. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Peter Montalbano. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Ei Ploang

Prabda Yoon’s sage passes judgment from a park bench. 

I don’t have all that much to be proud of, but one memory that still makes me smile to this day is Ei Ploang calling me a good person.

I used to address him more politely as Khun Ploang; the audacious switch to Ei is only a recent development, and one I never would have had the nerve to make without the express permission of the man himself.

One morning in Lumpini Park, Ei Ploang handed me a scrap of paper. “You can call me ‘Ei’ from now on,” he said, “Here’s a letter of certification.”

 I opened the letter:

On the 17th of August 1999, I, Mr. Theppitak Rakakart (nickname Ploang), came, by destiny, to meet a young Thai man by the name of Praj Preungtham, a third-year university student. Mr. Praj and I hit it off from the aforementioned date and have since shared the pleasure of many conversations. Consequently, a close friendship has developed. Nearly a year has now elapsed; our friendship remains firm, and is forecast to flourish further in the future, a welcome surprise. Notwithstanding my seniority in age (a matter of a full five years) I hereby grant Mr. Praj Preungtham official permission to append the crude prefix “Ei” to either my first name or nickname, whenever the use of either such is necessary. I swear not to take offense at his addressing me in such a manner. Furthermore, if Mr. Praj does not consider me a close enough friend for us to be on “ei” terms, I shall terminate the friendship and shall wish upon him a restless death without the possibility of reincarnation. I certify on my honor that the words in this letter reflect my true intentions.

Signed,

Theppitak Rakakart (Ploang) 
Ei Ploang’s squiggly signature appeared under his neatly written name]

 

Back when Ei Ploang was still Khun Ploang to me, his entire body seemed to radiate an aura. He just had to sit there, and it would appear as if a universe revolved around him. It made you wary of approaching him; for fear a meteorite might strike you down. His eyes appeared to house molten volcanoes, or brewing storms, or whirling tsunamis, or high-voltage electricity exploding in a short circuit, or those damned downpours that dump their loads on you then proceed to dribble for the next couple of hours, or black holes ready to swallow up time, or evil spirits lying in wait for any soul that might wander into their reach.

I had to wait until he closed his eyes before I had the guts to go over and say hello.

“Are you sleeping?” I asked, gingerly lowering myself onto the same bench.

“Just resting my eyes.” Ei Ploang answered promptly and clearly, without bothering to actually open his eyes open and examine his questioner.

In those days I regularly woke up early to go jogging in Lumpini Park. School was out, and as my internship hadn’t started yet, I wanted to find a productive outlet for my nervous energy. Jogging in the park was a popular pastime, and apparently just as beneficial for your physical health as for your mental well-being. So I thought I’d give the trend a try myself and give the sportswear stuffed at the bottom of my wardrobe an airing in the light of day.

The first morning I stepped inside Lumpini Park, it isn’t strictly accurate to say that I went jogging. Let’s just call it a reconnoiter before the actual expedition. When I first arrived, I was stunned by the sheer numbers of the park’s exercising population, which far exceeded my expectation. I strolled around and, when I got tired, stopped to take in the birds and trees, the dogs and cats and ants, the way animal lovers do. Once I’d had my fill of the various flora and fauna, I resumed walking. That morning, I never even broke into a run.

As I became a frequent visitor to the park, my leg muscles started of their own accord to yearn for stimulation. Soon I was one of those runners, floating along to the beat of hundreds or thousands of human hearts, moving in tandem like ants in a colony. But we weren’t worker ants. We didn’t run in single file, intent on the survival of the majority. We didn’t carry food on our backs to distribute later. We ran for personal reasons, some for fitness, some for vanity, some to reduce stress, and some to ease loneliness.

Then we all went our separate ways.

I’d seen Ei Ploang several times before I decided to stick my nose in and strike up a conversation. Ei Ploang never ran; he never even got up to stretch. He just sat there scanning his surroundings with his mysterious eyes, as if looking for someone he knew. As far as I could tell, no such acquaintance ever presented him or herself. Or else, nobody ever dared claim acquaintance with him.

Some days he chose to sit by the pond, staring blankly at the ducks and geese and turtles and fish that surfaced every now and then in search of scraps of food. As far I could tell, none of these ducks, geese, turtles, or fish were his especial acquaintance, either. But Ei Ploang always showed up, as if he was sure that one day he would find what he was searching for.

Ei Ploang was, without doubt, a good-looking guy. His eyes were big and round. His reddish-brown skin was smooth in the morning sun. His dark brown hair was razored short on the sides all the way around, sort of like a crew cut. It was plain to see that he didn’t come to Lumpini Park to exercise. He usually wore a white shirt and khaki trousers. Some days he was even more smartly dressed, even going so far as to wear a tie.

When Ei Ploang opened his eyes, I was confronted with a pair of huge pupils staring at my face. They remained fixed on it for several seconds, to the point that I was afraid I would fall into their twin black holes and be devoured.

“Oh, it’s you. You come jogging here every day.”

“You’ve seen me?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“Several times.”

“I’ve noticed you myself. You often sit here, but you never go for a run.”

“That’s because I don’t come here to run.” When he finished his sentence, his gaze shifted to a new target. Mine followed his out of curiosity.

His new mark was a chubby woman jouncing along the path. A little girl with braids was trailing close behind her.

“See that auntie? If you look with your bare eyes, just a passing glance, she’d appear to be a good-hearted lady—fond of her niece, makes an effort to get up early so the two of them can spend some time together, instilling healthy habits, etc.”

Ei Ploang turned his face toward the sky as if to rest his eyes before he continued talking.

“But in fact, you’d be quite mistaken. She’s a mean one, all right. I feel bad for the kid, having to hang around someone so temperamental this early in the morning.”

“Do you know them?”

Ei Ploang shook his head and stared into my eyes once more.

“You’re a good person. I knew it from the first day I saw you. A little too lazy. A little too inclined to follow trends. You tend to do things halfway, you’re not as focused as you should be. But, overall, a pretty decent guy.”

I remained speechless for a long moment. Not because I was touched by his praise, but simply because I was mystified.

“Look at that middle-aged man.”

I snapped myself out of it and, following Ei Ploang’s cue, turned to look at the bald man running by. His face suggested one content with the quality of air in the park.

Ei Ploang was tight-lipped, so I tried to guess his mind.

“He looks happy, but he’s actually mean like that lady we just saw.” This was half statement, half question.

Ei Ploang cracked a smile, the corners of his mouth twitching up.

“It’s not always so tricky. Good can show itself in the face, too. You can still find it sometimes. That man’s as nice as his face would lead you to believe. He’s a lovely guy. Likes to help others. Loves peace.”

“You come here every morning expressly for this? To see who’s good and who’s bad?”

“It’s a convenient place for it; all I have to do is sit here, and all kinds of people pass by for me to look at. I don’t have to waste my energy traipsing around the streets.”

“Some days I don’t see you looking at anyone.”

“Hey, good and evil aren’t only present in humans. Sometimes I practice looking at other things. The difference is, the quantities of good and evil are never equal in humans, while other things have more of a balance. Good and evil don’t mean that much when they’re in balance. You don’t really need to look.”

Ei Ploang nudged a pebble with the toe of his shoe, and it rolled forward two or three times. “That pebble has good and evil, too. But it’s meaningless to speak of a pebble being either good or evil, because its good and evil are so perfectly balanced as to be inconsequential. It’s doing a fine job of functioning as a pebble. If you kick it, it rolls over. But if I kicked you, you wouldn’t just roll over.”

That morning, Ei Ploang’s special ability didn’t elicit much admiration from me. Instead, I thought what a weird guy he was; he must have some deep psychological issues. Wanting to sneak away from the bench, I pretended that I had to continue running. Ei Ploang responded with a smile and a nod. Before I was too far off, he tossed out a casual remark. “Don’t fear the good in yourself.”

I may have thought he was mad, but his ideas stuck in my head for the whole rest of the day. When I got home, I stood in front of the mirror and stared at myself for almost half an hour, to the point that I lost track of who was doing the staring. In the end, I thought it more likely that my reflection was looking at me.

Come to think of it, it’s laughable that I gave Ei Ploang any credence. In this day and age, we’re developed enough to understand that being a good or bad person doesn’t have meaning anymore. Even if you’re the most heinous person in history, there’ll be others who are cut from the same heinous cloth, allies who’ll go along with your beliefs and actions. In the eyes of people of the same ilk, good can still appear within evil. What’s the point of getting hung up about having to cede the moral high ground when there’s plenty of people to pal around with down below? Let those on the high ground gasp in the thin air. Let them get struck by lightning. What’s so great about that? Being close to the ground is so much safer.

Evil is usually accompanied by ingenuity and resourcefulness in saving yourself, a talent for constantly getting out of scrapes and for pulling the wool over people’s eyes. A bad person can make himself appear good, but a good person will never truly understand evil. Everybody knows that human society can’t maintain its structures on good alone. It’s plain to see that evil is the key component in governing the world. If everyone were good, there would be no politicians, and if this world were free of politicians, human society would lack organization, regulation, and ammunition, all crucial weapons for wiping out a mess in order to start over, for example, by pushing a button to erase all the previous wrongs and start wrongdoing all over again. Evil is the mother of opportunity. Good would never be that creative. Evil is art and entertainment; good is bland and boring.

Why should I care if I’m going to heaven or hell? Both places are founded upon beliefs that are fading over time. Evil teaches people to stop being hung up on superstitions. It teaches us to learn to live life fully here on this earth. Even if you’re condemned to boil in hell’s cauldron or drag your naked body up the adulterers’ thorny tree, you’d be sharing in those activities with your fellow sinners. It’s no different from going to camp. Everyone would rather meet the Guardian of Hell than God, because the Guardian of Hell is humanity’s true teacher, covertly indoctrinating us from the cradle. He stands close by us when we want, when we hurt, when we ache, when we love, when we lust, when we hate, when we obsess, when we’re hungry, when we’re greedy, when we’re angry, when we’re vengeful.

God only watches from afar. He never lends a helping hand.

So why did Ei Ploang’s words strike such a chord with me?

Why should I be proud of being a good person in his eyes?

I’ve been searching for the answer ever since.

Maybe good has a charm that evil doesn’t.

Because good isn’t something that I’m acquainted with.

After that, whenever I saw Ei Ploang sitting there judging people with his bare eyes, I couldn’t stop myself. I had to sit down and scan people along with him, and eventually I started going to Lumpini Park in my normal street clothes, expressly to sit and look at people with him. I’d completely forgotten about jogging.

Ei Ploang never taught me how to judge people, and I never pressed him to.

Once other business entered into my life, I didn’t go and sit with him as regularly as before. I went only on some Saturdays or Sundays when I had the time.

It was on one such Saturday morning that Ei Ploang gave me the slip of paper permitting me to call him “Ei.” I’d deliberately got up early that day, to go to Lumpini Park and see him. I’d never made plans to meet up with him anywhere else or at any other time. I didn’t even have his phone number, this friend of mine. He wasn’t a part of my everyday life. One reason for this was that I feared his judging those close to me. I didn’t want to hear that my mother was evil, my father was bad, or my friend was a low-down good-for-nothing. Even if I had decided for myself that everybody in my circle was a good person, I had to admit that I didn’t have Ei Ploang’s unique gift. He might know better and see more deeply. So, naturally, I was worried.

But Ei Ploang himself never asked about my life outside of the park. He said hi when he saw me. He said bye when I left. That was it.

Ei Ploang never got up from the bench before I did. He never took leave of me first. I’ve never once seen him set foot beyond the bounds of Lumpini Park. Perhaps he lives right in there. I’ve never asked him about his home. Each morning, we were hard-pressed as it was to keep up with the stream of people jogging or walking by. There wasn’t much time left to quiz each other on personal matters.

Even though Ei Ploang gave me permission to call him “Ei,” I didn’t have many occasions to exercise my special right. When we were face to face, there was no need for me to call him by name. When I was with other people, I rarely brought him up, because no one else knew him. Everyone I mentioned him to all thought he was my imaginary friend. No one paid much attention to his name. When I told people at home that I was off to Lumpini Park to see Ei Ploang, they just responded with an ah-ha or an okay, or they’d ask me pick up some food at the park. Nobody bothered to find out who Ei Ploang was.

After I’d finished reading Ei Ploang’s permission slip, right down to his signature, I sat down to study people with him as usual. He pointed out this one and that one for me to look at, in the usual way he had. Good here, evil there, all mingled together.

There were, of course, more bad people than good. In a group of a hundred, Ei Ploang saw fewer than twenty good ones.

“Hey, how the hell do you know I’m a good guy?” I finally asked him the question I’d been putting off for ages, afraid that he wouldn’t answer. I purposely added “the hell” as a nod to his new “Ei” status.

Ei Ploang didn’t smile as I’d expected he would. Nor did he turn to look at me, either.

“I thought you’d have asked a long time ago,” he said softly.

“I didn’t have the goddamned courage before. I was afraid you wouldn’t tell me.” I intentionally threw in the “goddamned” to match the “Ei” and the “hell” I’d just used.

Ei Ploang let out a huge sigh. Huh.

“Should I tell him?” Ei Ploang asked himself out loud.

I watched joggers and walkers of all ages pass in front of us, from our left and from our right, heading in opposite directions. In just a few seconds, there were more than I could count on two hands.

“You don’t have to tell me,” I said to Ei Ploang, without turning to look at him.

I put his permission slip into my shirt pocket.

Behind the piece of paper was the fabric of my shirt. Behind the fibers of the cloth was skin. Underneath the skin was a web of interconnected vessels. Within those little vessels was the liquid being pumped to sustain the body.

It’s only a hunch that these are manifestations of being.

My eyes couldn’t see to that level of detail.

I turned to look at my friend.

Ei Ploang was resting his eyes.

© Prabda Yoon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Tanoo

Sri Daoruang’s heartsick mother treasures her sickly son.

When a young child eats very little, and fails to gain weight over several months, its parents will search avidly for ways to correct the situation. Should the child then begin to eat well, to sleep well, to grow by day and by night, the parents will be happy, and their worries will fade away. But I am not like those parents . . .

It was very difficult for us to have a child. I went to the obstetrician only three weeks after I missed my period. My husband had been advised to take me to a doctor who was also a professor of obstetrics. He worked for a government hospital and had private office hours in the evening.

I did everything the doctor suggested. I took medicine for morning sickness and tonics to build me up, and every week when I went to see him, I got a hormone injection that he said would be good for the baby. The expense of these weekly visits was considerable, but we were glad to pay. I was grateful to feel safe and warm, week after week, under the doctor’s watchful eye.

During those months, friends who knew how difficult it had been for us to have a child were full of advice, especially about what I should eat, so that both the baby and I would be strong and healthy. My husband forbade me to do any strenuous activity. I had to present a good reason for walking up the stairs. We have no servant, and he took on all the household tasks.

My stomach grew very large. We dreamed, during those months, of a big, strong child, and I myself suspected that I might give birth to twins. A very large baby, or twins . . . Would it be a difficult birth? I would willingly endure it.

 

At last, our Tanoo was born. He weighed four pounds, and his heart was defective. His mouth was blue and his tiny fingernails were rounded and thick.

During his first few months of life, whenever I took him out, whispers followed us.

“Look at that baby . . . so pale, but—bluish—”

Or,

“Why is he that color?”

Or,

“They’ll never raise that one.”

Often, I had to stop and answer questions. People walking down the street would ask about Tanoo just as casually as they might ask, “What do you think of this weather?” or, “Have you had lunch yet?” Having asked their questions, they would go on, their duty done.

 

We live in a neighborhood on the edge of Bangkok that is much like a village. Our neighbors felt a different duty, which was to give advice, from the heart. They gave us the names of doctors, institutes, and hospitals that we should try. And remedies that we should try ourselves. Nor did their advice stop with medical remedies. They were also concerned about the details of Tanoo’s upbringing.

“You make that child play in dirt and sand. That will strengthen him.”

“Look at those flat feet. They look like the bottoms of the Lord Buddha’s feet on holy statues. You know what that means—the child has a great destiny. But, my dear, I can tell you why he doesn’t walk so good yet. He needs to walk on the grass when it’s still wet with dew. You put that child out on the grass before the dew is off, and he’ll get some strength in those legs. Dew makes the bones strong.”

“Condensed milk, that’s what he needs. It always works. I never saw it fail, you give a baby condensed milk, and that baby puts on weight.”

I could not believe in the remedies they suggested, but I understood that they meant well. Even when they looked at Tanoo as if he were a strange creature.

How old? What are you feeding that child?”

“My little boy is three months younger than him, and he’s twice that size . . .”

I tried to contain myself. Perhaps I will have to contain myself all of Tanoo’s life. Who knows? Perhaps for all of my own life, too. As for Tanoo’s papa, he has no patience whatsoever with people’s comments. He believes that their remarks, in addition to doing no good at all, don’t come from the heart. He believes that holding up “the problem areas of people’s lives” for scrutiny is a matter of insult, and that an insult deserves to be answered in kind.

We do not agree on this subject. However . . .

During the first year of Tanoo’s life, his doctor at the hospital gave us advice that has been difficult to follow. He said that it was important for us to raise Tanoo like any ordinary child, so that, if he did grow to adulthood, he would not have an inferiority complex. Then he told us that we should not allow Tanoo to tire out and that we must try to prevent his catching colds and other illnesses, because he is more apt to contract secondary infections than are other children.

Tanoo perspires so much while he sleeps that his pillow and mattress are always damp when he awakens in the morning. His hands and feet are always warm, and he doesn’t like to have covers over him when he sleeps. I wipe his tender skin with a soft cloth, and during the hot season I turn the fan on low to keep him dry when he sleeps. It is turned on during his midday nap, whatever the time of year. I buy the softest, lightest clothing I can for him, but even so, sometimes he refuses to sleep with a shirt on. When he gets a cold, he perspires more, and if I do not keep his head dry, blisters cover his forehead.

And yet, who does not know that Tanoo is the star of our hearts? We are exactly like other parents. He was the cutest little baby in the world, and now he is the cutest little boy. It is what I think, although I know what other people see, from a distance: a small, homely boy whose head is too large, whose ears stick out, and who is very thin.

From a distance that is what they see. They don’t notice the clear, sparkling, round eyes. The beautiful long eyelashes. The clean, white little teeth.              

 

Tanoo didn’t begin to walk until he was nearly three, but he could sing several songs before he could walk. He even remembered whole poems that his papa and I had read to him.

He has a fierce temper and is angered easily, but before long, he becomes my sweet boy again. Tanoo is like his papa in this respect. When he cries, we can almost always make him laugh, and he hugs us happily, the tears still wet on his face.

He loves to play with a necklace of tamarind seeds that the girl next door made and left at our house. He will sit very still with his legs crossed, running the tamarind seeds between his fingers and pretending to be a monk he saw saying prayers on television.

He also loves an Ace bandage I used when I sprained my ankle. He patiently wraps himself up in it, unwinds it, then wraps himself up in it again, until he has exhausted its possibilities. But of the real toys in the house, nothing is as precious to him as his train.

 

It is quite a trip from our house to the hospital. Usually, we take the train. Although the noise of its whistle is so terrifying that Tanoo covers his ears, grows paler than ever, and finally takes his hands off his ears and clings to me in terror, when we return home all he talks about is trains, trains, trains.

He will drag his train around the house on a string. Or make his own line of “cars”—a small chair, a piece of brick, a basket, a stick, a flower, all in a row. Then Mama and Papa must come and admire. “Chook-chuck-chook-chuck, boo-oon boo-oon! Mama, it’s my train. See, Papa? This is Train 555, the rocket-train.”

Mama and Papa must listen with interest and show that they are impressed.

Sometimes Tanoo will play by himself for a long time, or just sit watching leaves flutter in the breeze or clouds float by in the sky. This can last for hours. One afternoon we heard him call out to a little bird that sits on a branch outside the door crying “Jiaw! Jiaw!” He asked the bird, “Are you going to bring me kai jiaw?” and laughed heartily. (Jiaw is the sound a little bird makes, and kai jiaw means “omelet.” My clever Tanoo!)  Another time he called out to a grass snake, inviting it to come and share his candy with him.

On a sultry night, he called through his window, “Moon, are you hot up there?” And another night, when he could see only one star in the sky, he pointed at it and asked me, “Where have all his friends gone?”

“Ah, the moon is gone, too,” I said. “Maybe they have all gone off to buy a present for Tanoo.” He liked that.

When he’s sat playing by himself for a long time, or when I have been absorbed in my work for too long to suit him, he will suddenly appear beside me, and ask the questions that he asks several times every day.

“Mama. Do you think about Tanoo a lot?”

Each time, I feel the same cold little stab. When I answer, without looking up from my work, “Thinking of you, Tanoo,” he adds, “And loving?”

It is a game, a ritual that is important to Tanoo. If instead of saying, “Thinking of you, Tanoo,” I say, “Hmm, no thinking,” or, “no loving,” he throws himself into my lap and holds onto me tightly. He looks up with a beseeching, pitiable expression on his face, raises his eyebrows, draws them together in the middle, and makes a silly face.

“Think about Tanoo!” he commands. “Love Tanoo!”

Often he will decide that it is time for me to stop working, time to play with Tanoo. I know that he is lonely. There are no children of his age near us, and I am usually busy. Too often for Tanoo anyway. Sometimes I will leave my work and play with him.

But I have my irritable days, too, and I cannot always drop everything and play. Then he will whine, and fly at me, and perhaps, in exasperation, I will reach out as he hops by in his rage and tap him lightly on the behind with my hand.

“Ooh, you hurt me! Ooh, my poor bottom where you hit me! Kiss my bottom where you hit me. Oh, my poor bottom. Make it better, Mama.”

Or,

“Ooh, don’t hit me, Mama! I’m going to grab your hand, and I’m going to stop your hand from hitting me!”

All this for a tap on his behind. But, wise child that he is, he recently adopted a new tactic. When he sees that I am in a bad mood, and that his whining or irritating behavior is going to end badly for him soon, he will quickly turn to me and say, “Let me hug you, Mama, and make you feel better.”

 

The pediatric cardiology appointments at the hospital are on Wednesday and Friday. The children’s symptoms are varied, but most of them look weak. They don’t run around and play in the waiting room. Many of them are thin and pale and they walk in a tentative way.

Some of them seem to be sick all the time. Some have bad teeth. Some are mentally slow, too. The fathers and mothers look at each other, and exchange looks of deep understanding.

Some of the parents never sit with the group. They walk slowly back and forth before the windows, or wander off into the X-ray department waiting room, which has fewer people in it. From time to time they turn and look back and then hold the child in their arms a little closer, as if they were afraid that we are going to get up, come after them, and run away with it.

 

When Tanoo was not quite a year old, the doctor told us that he needed a special X-ray so that they could see the place where they would operate on him. When Tanoo’s papa asked whether it was a dangerous procedure, the doctor replied that he could not guarantee anything. But what did it matter? We knew that the chance must be taken.

“I wouldn’t worry too much, though,” the doctor said. “All we are going to do is to sedate him, inject dye into the veins, and take an X-ray. It is a very common procedure.”

 

They injected him with a sedative and I carried him into the room marked “Cardiac Catheterization.”

He hadn’t fallen asleep yet. Two little girls, about nine and ten, were also waiting, and they too had been given injections but were still awake. Finally, a nurse gave all three of them additional injections, and Tanoo was the first to fall asleep.

The nurse comforted me and said that Tanoo seemed like a very clever little boy. Then she said that it would be a good idea if I had another baby.

I had to fight back tears of anger. I wanted to tell her that I want no replacement for Tanoo, not even another child of my own. No one could take his place. But I said nothing, because of the two frightened, crying little girls whose bodies still fought sleep. I forced myself to smile and tried to give them a little courage. “Look,” I said, “Tanoo is just a little baby, and he isn’t frightened at all. Besides, if it were scary and dangerous to do this, do you think I would let him go in there?”

They sniffled quietly together. They had no parents or relatives to wait with them because they were from a village up-country. A visit from their parents would mean a journey of many days to Bangkok.

It was time to carry Tanoo into the operating room. It was cold in there and furnished with large machines. The people who would do the procedure entered. They moved stiffly because of the huge, thick plastic garments of red and green they wore over their clothes. They looked like actors in the Roman theater. Everything was huge: the people, their clothing, their machines, the table about which they lumbered as they prepared to work on the child who seemed so much tinier than he had moments before.

 

The catheterization was over, leaving a small wound in Tanoo’s groin. In one more week, they would operate to improve the blood flow between Tanoo’s heart and lungs. This would not be the “big” operation. That would come someday.

I was determined that Tanoo’s papa should carry him to the operating room, that he should be the one, this time, to hand him to the nurse. He refused. He would not hand him over, and he would not see his son go into the operating room.

I prayed for something to happen to my arms, so that even his small weight would be impossible for them to bear. My fear, which I could tell no one, seemed senseless even to me: if I gave Tanoo to them, when they gave him back to me would all of him still be there?

 

There we were again, waiting outside an operating room. Tanoo lay across my lap already unconscious from an injection of something obviously much stronger than the sedative they had given him before the catheterization. Somewhere, not very far away, I knew that his papa sat waiting. I could see him in my mind: he sits, he rises, he walks, then sits again. He waits.

I let my tears fall on Tanoo’s face. I held him tighter, kissed his cheek, his forehead, his milk-scented mouth. I whispered into his ear, “Tanoo, come back.”

The nurse came for us. At once, my arms and legs began to tremble. I rose and followed her. My mind was full of questions, but no sound would come out of my throat. At the door, she turned, and I reached out, and put my heart into her hands.

 

It isn’t very hot, or very cool tonight. It is rather late. The sound of the clock in the room is like a faint, even heartbeat. Tanoo is fast asleep. I sit and watch him in the quiet darkness, and I think of all that has happened during his life.

“Stay with me, Tanoo.”

It is something I say to my son when I sit in the darkness and watch him sleep. The little forehead and the hair are damp with sweat. The shirt, too. I make his nightshirts out of old, soft diapers. Every evening before the night air has become cool, I wipe the perspiration from his skin with a soft towel soaked in tepid water. The scar from that first operation extends from beneath his right nipple down under his arm and across to the middle of his back. It is clearly visible, even in the faint glow from the nightlight.

Carefully, I lie down beside him, trying not to wake him. I want to slip my arm under his pillow and hold him for just a few minutes before I go. He doesn’t like to be held while he sleeps, so I move cautiously, holding my breath. I hear his heart, which beats more quickly than mine, and louder. It beats more slowly now, when he is asleep. And it makes a sound my heart does not make, a sound I cannot stop myself from listening to. It is a whispering sound, “Foo-oo, foo-oo, foo-oo,” a whispering that continues all day and all night, between the beats.

I am about to rise and leave when he begins to talk in his sleep.

“Mama, where are you?” He grabs at the air.

“Here, son. I am right here.”

He often talks in his sleep, but I never get used to it. When I have calmed him, I lie down once again. I don’t leave. What would the psychologists say? I know. They are right. A mother who sleeps in her son’s bed, who will not endure his crying in the night, who thinks only of the pain in those bright, brown eyes, of the heart that will beat faster, faster when he is afraid . . . what kind of a man will such a mother make of her son? I don’t leave.

Sometimes when everyone is fast asleep, Tanoo will let out a piercing scream and call for Mama or for Papa. Or mumble about a bad dog that bites; or, argue over a toy with an imaginary friend. Or, worst of all, just sob into his pillow, saying, “Ooh, you are mad at Tanoo . . .”

 

During an ordinary day, in front of my husband, or the neighbors, I do not let my weakness and my fear be seen. The two of us, mother and child, we play together, talk, laugh, and bicker. My husband will shake his head and say, “What a pair.”

The two of them play an odd little game. Tanoo’s papa comforts himself with it.

“This is how it’s going to be, Tanoo,” he will say, creeping up on Tanoo in a slow, scary, thrilling way. “I’m going to push this button, and then you will have to stay with Papa until you are an old, old man . . . seventy-two . . . and four months . . . and two more days.” Or, “Ah, Tanoo,” lifting him up and settling him into his lap, “You must be a doctor, like your grandfather. Not a pauper of a writer like your papa. No, Tanoo, I will not allow it.” Tanoo will stare solemnly into his papa’s eyes and nod.

But often, my husband will become gloomy and warn me, as if I needed to be reminded, “Don’t love him so much.”

Usually I walk away when he starts with such talk, but sometimes I lose my temper.

“We have to live from day to day like everyone else. We can’t sit and worry about him all the time. We have to love him as much as we can and be as happy as we can be. Doesn’t that make more sense to you than this daily suffering?”

Tanoo’s papa holds me in his arms and says, “My dear, fathers are not as strong as mothers.”

But neither he nor anyone else knows how I am when I am alone. I cannot keep from thinking, You are my beloved child, Tanoo, and the doctors refuse to promise me your future.

 

If it happens.

How shall I live? Tanoo’s papa wonders the same thing. I look at him, I know.

The clothing I have made for Tanoo with my own hands, his favorite toys—the train, the dump truck, the laser gun, the astronaut. His favorite bedtime stories. How could I bear to look at them, or to touch them? Would I give them all away?

I cannot help thinking these thoughts. My mind grows confused, disordered, irrational. I go further and descend into the worst thoughts. Could I say, “Now is the time,” and take that little body to the monks at the temple to be cremated? No. I will take good care of him, and he will never leave me.

 

Time goes by. My Tanoo is three and a half now. But his weight has not gone up in seven months. I’m not the only one who’s distressed. The doctor seems angry. Since the first operation, the blueness has gone away, and his fingernails no longer have that thickened, rounded look. But his breathing is still not normal. There is still a leak in his heart. He still perspires, even in cool weather. He gets frequent colds and has a difficult time getting over them. The doctor says that the first operation was only to relieve the “blue baby” symptoms. The big operation, the one to repair the heart itself, cannot be undertaken until Tanoo weighs at least thirty pounds. Or until his symptoms become alarming and we are forced to take the chance.

We and the doctor agree that the best thing is to wait until Tanoo reaches the desired weight and to enjoy each other as much as we can until then. If possible, the doctor would like to perform the operation before Tanoo goes to school. He has prescribed a new medication, something to improve Tanoo’s appetite. Tanoo made a face when he tasted it. I tried it; it is sickeningly sweet. Nevertheless, it has become a part of his life, and he takes it without complaint. To my surprise, it works, but when we ran out of the first bottle before his next appointment, within two days he was picking at his food, leaving it on the plate.

Now the second bottle is half gone. If Tanoo continues to eat well and sleep well, and if his weight climbs toward thirty pounds, the doctor can begin to think about operating. But he won’t promise anything. Tanoo must take his chances. Doesn’t everyone who has an operation, young or old, take a chance? Does anyone extract that promise from the doctor? That’s what I think, anyway.

Life, for Tanoo, has all been a preparation for this battle.

 

Well, then. When a young child eats very little, and fails to gain weight over several months, its parents will search relentlessly for ways to remedy the situation. Should the child then begin to eat well, to sleep well, to grow by day and by night, the parents will be happy, and their worries will fade away. But I am not like those parents . . .

I am a mother who has no choices. I lift a spoonful of food to my child’s mouth and my hand trembles. Am I giving him strength and life, or am I hastening the arrival of the day when I lose him forever?

I do not know about fate. I do not believe in karma. But I have faith in the words that echo in my mind . . .

“This is how it’s going to be, Tanoo . . . I’m going to push this button, and then you will have to stay with Papa until you are an old, old man . . . seventy-two . . . and four months . . . ”

My eyes are blind with tears.

“ . . . and two more days.”


© Sri Daoruang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Susan F. Kepner. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

An Essay on Prayers

Chart Korbjitti’s monks in training haven’t a prayer.

I was a child of poor folks. My father therefore entrusted me to the temple, where I would be able to go to school as well.

Initially, I missed home dearly. But as I stayed on, I became acclimated and began to find it fun because I had a lot of playmates. I met a number of fellow temple boys, who probably came from poor families like mine. We were all friends and happily played together.

But there was one thing my friends and I did not like one bit: it was that we had to recite prayers. Everyone had to be able to chant like a monk. We all had to memorize prayers and be able to chant like monks. We had to commit each and every word of the prayers to memory. When we had one chant mastered, we had to move on to the next one, and then the next.

One venerable elder was in charge of overseeing the temple boys. Every shaving day, all the boys would be convened. The Venerable Elder was the one who quizzed each boy on the prayers assigned to him. Whoever failed would have to lie prostrate as the Elder flogged him with a bamboo cane.

Whenever shaving day came around, everybody got nervous. Each person would try to cram. Those who stumbled got lashed. Some even got thrashed until their flesh split. I have been caned myself as well, and I can still remember the taste of it. I recall how I would curse the Venerable Elder in my head as I was getting flogged.

I deeply pitied one friend, whom we called “Pong” or “Bulge” after the shape of his belly. He was mentally slow. No matter how many times he repeated the prayers, he could not quite retain them, so he got lashed on a regular basis. Even on the occasions when he had the prayers learned, when he went before the Venerable Elder, he would end up forgetting the lines and turn into a stutterer. The Elder would beat him, but he would not cry like some of the others.

The prayer recitation was hence something we all greatly despised. But we did not know what to do, because we feared the cane. Therefore, we had to try to learn the prayers by heart as to save our own skin.

After I finished seventh grade, I left the temple, as did my friends who also graduated. We each went separate ways. Most of the boys returned to help out on rice paddies or orchards back home.

Nowadays I have completely forgotten all those prayers. After my departure from the temple, I never repeated them again because I did not know what use they were to my everyday life. I suppose my fellow classmates from the temple have all forgotten the prayers that we used to recite by now, probably for the same reason I have.


© Chart Korbjitti. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 Mui Poopoksakul. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

The Magazine as Manifesto

Typographic Experiment and Visual Poetry in the Interwar Avant-Gardes of Central Europe

When we observe the response in Europe today to global unrest—as ever more restrictions are placed on travel within the European Union, and the citizens of the United Kingdom have voted to remove themselves from the EU entirely—it is perhaps hard to imagine the fluidity in the movement of bodies and ideas across the European continent that followed directly from the ire and violence of World War I. The artistic production of a group of leftist artists, poets, and editors in Central Europe in the interwar period, especially in the earliest years of the 1920s, reflects an optimism for a “new Europe” at far remove from our current moment.

Between the two world wars, artists in Europe enjoyed an unprecedented level of exchange, and often worked together across borders to create a non-national, universal response to the shattering absurdity of war. The networks of the avant-garde were established and intensified through travel and correspondence, as well as the distribution of the material products of an art that boldly envisioned a new Europe: namely, the magazines. In the magazines, we can see editors, artists, poets, architects, and theorists grappling with the devastation wrought of mechanized warfare, and seeking to wrestle new technologies to wholly different aims: it was a common theme across the leftist avant-gardes to find something utilitarian and revolutionary in art-making. What this meant was by no means stable across the region; however, there was a common interest in getting out of the gallery and adapting technological advances toward experimentation in graphic design, especially in Central Europe. The Ukrainian–born, Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg had proclaimed, “The new art is no longer art,” and this was a slogan picked up by avant-garde practitioners as a nonviolent call to arms.

Editors and artists working in various languages and cities became comrades in a united struggle for social revolution through the adaptation of the conventions of New Typography. Conceived as a method by which textual and graphic elements were meant to obtain equal stature so that information was conveyed not only through literal meaning, but also via visual cues, New Typography was to be a universal and international mode of art and knowledge production. The central goals of the unadorned, functionalist style were “clarity” and “visual communication,” oft repeated terms. The Berlin–based, Russian artist El Lissitzky laid this out explicitly in his famous ten-point treatise, “Topography of Typography,” which was printed in the magazine Merz, published by the Hannover-based Dadaist Kurt Schwitters: “economy of expression—optic, not phonetic.” Though the origin of New Typography is ostensibly German, its emphasis on conveying meaning visually was especially appealing in other Central European countries whose artists were active in a trans-European avant-garde practice, but whose magazines would be produced largely in languages not necessarily legible to those beyond their national-linguistic borders. By adopting and adapting the conventions of New Typography to design in contemporaneous Polish, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, and Hungarian magazines, editors made their aesthetic and even political affinities identifiable on first glance.

And yet, while the artists of Central Europe enjoyed much visibility and interest from peers across Europe in their own day, our Cold War canon has largely excluded their legacy from histories of the interwar period. Far better known are the early examples of visual poetry and typographic innovation coming from France and Italy. The French Symbolist Stephane Mallarmé, working in the second half of the nineteenth century, is often cited as the forefather of the typographic experiment in poetry and art that was to come. And it is well-known and oft repeated that with the explosion of Italian Futurism onto the scene in 1909, F. T. Marinetti and his Words in Freedom would ultimately set loose the letter on the printed page, to move about untethered from the standard, linear grid inherent to the printing press. And concurrent with Marinetti, the Italian–born, French–residing poet of the Polish aristocracy, Guillaume Apollinaire, was creating his “Calligrammes,” the most famous one being “Il pleut” (“It’s Raining”), printed in SIC in December 1916, in which letters drip down the page in streaks of rain. The artists of the interwar avant-garde were the direct recipients of this legacy, and they simultaneously looked to the innovations of their forebears, and situated their work as a rejection of all that had come before (a contradiction itself adapted from their predecessors). In one Czech magazine, for instance, Mallarmé’s “A Throw of the Dice,” is wedged between two more current commentaries on visual experiment in literature, Oskar Poskočil’s “new typographic tendencies” and Karel Teige’s “new typography” (both retaining the lowercase orthography popular in the period).

The four examples from the interwar magazines that have been translated here for Words without Borders evidence this legacy, but also exemplify the networks forged across the avant-gardes of Central Europe. These pieces illustrate a textual-visual conversation conducted in print in the 1920s that ought not to have been rendered silent since.

*

In the selection from the Polish magazine Blok included here, we have a manual of sorts for New Typography. Signed simply as “Eds.,” the work can be seen as an artist’s statement of the magazine’s editors, who are credited in this issue from July 1924 as Mieczysław Szczuka and Teresa Żarnowerówna. (Blok was not only a magazine, but a group, composed of Cubists, Constructivists, and Suprematists, which remained active from 1924 through 1926.) “Printing: On Layout” illustrates with strong visual dynamism the dos and don’ts of modern graphic design. It singles out for ridicule the old-fashioned, “museum-like” conventions employed in printed matter from the era before innovations in printing technology allowed for the wood engraving to be replaced by photogravure, for instance. Instead, the editors recommend, and simultaneously model, a layout that shows off their grasp of contemporary innovations in graphic design, which is intended to maximize clarity and hold the reader’s interest. Examples of good and bad design are rendered with letterforms combined in such a way that no meaning can be derived from them. These nonsense phrasings have been upgraded with a nod to our own modern, digital age by translator Paulina Duda, so that, for instance, wwwwyw in the original becomes www.com in her translation, an arrangement of letters that would indeed have meant nothing in 1924, but today carry their own universal meaning. And Wojtek Kwiecień-Janikowski, in his visual rendering of the piece, carefully adheres to the original authors’ stern instructions. He maintains the dynamism of the printed version in his digital layout, but again with a clever nod to our temporal remove from the original. For instance, a hand pointing with two fingers is used to illustrate an example number two, though such a dingbat would not have been readily accessible to the 1920s typographer to print from.

From the Brno-based Czech magazine, Pásmo, also published in 1924, we have a somewhat different approach to similar concerns of how new technologies (and also, in this case, social systems) can be applied to art production. Bedřich Václavek, a Czech editor, critic, and typographer, with an inclination toward both Dadaism and Communism, attempts to outline in a short treatise, “New Art,” the ways in which developments in engineering and socialized labor practices are integral models for contemporary art practice. The text, which only minimally plays with graphic innovation itself (in minor variation in font size, boxed text, and the bold lines that are the signature of New Typography), is set up as two columns of word fragments that describe the characteristics and problems of labor and collectivism on one side, and engineering and Constructivism on the other, in language that is simultaneously scientific and metaphysical. Václavek imagines a “new cosmogenic consciousness” in the modern person, and a form of Communism that maintains a “consciousness of human autonomy.” If these are not central tenants of Communism as we understand it today, they were well in line with its conception as propagated by Václavek and other members of the Czech avant-garde group Devětsil. Led by Karel Teige in Prague, Devětsil outlined the project of “Poetism,” a particular blend of the more functionalist and utilitarian aspects of Communism, alongside an embrace of Sunday picnics, cocktails, and sailboats (pastimes and products more often associated with bourgeois pleasures than Marxism). Poetism, in which Václavek’s two columns ultimately synthesize, was the “the art of living and enjoying” and thus “the crown of life;” these exact phrases also appear around the same time in Poetism’s first manifesto, written by Teige and published in the magazine Host. In homage to the materiality of the period in which these magazines were created, the translation of Václavek’s text is the only example in this feature that resists a more modern, digital design: it was in fact reproduced largely on a Czech Consul typewriter, manufactured in the same city in which Pásmo was published, Brno. While this would not have been a practical means in the 1920s for creating multiple copies of a magazine—text would instead have been set as type and printed on a press—our digital age allows for the single, typewritten original to be scanned and made widely visible online.

The selection included here from the Serbo-Croatian magazine Dada-Tank, a short lived publication coming out of Zagreb in 1922, is a salient example of how interwar exchange extended across borders in various directions and by a variety of means. Its editor, and the author of the visual poem translated here, Dragan Aleksić, had been studying in Prague since 1920, and hosted a series of Dada evenings there attended by members of both the Czech and Yugoslav avant-gardes. Aleksić’s awareness of and affinity toward Dada (which, in Serbo-Croatian, does not actually mean nothing, as one of its major representatives in Paris, the Romanian Tristan Tzara, liked to insist, but literally means “Yes Yes”) is reflected strongly in this poem. “ButtsLoaDs” is not a didactic exegesis on what New Typography should be, but rather a visual manifestation of its potential power and visual dynamism, with very little emphasis placed on the comprehensibility of the text itself. In its use of nonsense words and enigmatic phrases, and the inclusion of letterforms in multiple fonts and sizes moving in various directions, that conjure the chaos of the stock market, it also anticipates Szczuka and Żarnowerówna’s work, which would come two years later. And there is a sly poke at Italian Futurism: the exclamation “Rorari Torati!” is followed by the parentheses “(Fabrica de Milano),” recalling the “ta-tatatatatatata” and other onomatopoeic words in Marinetti’s Words in Freedom. There is also a direct reference to the Swiss poet Blaise Cendrars, whose poetry was aligned with Orphic Cubism and Apollinaire, and was another great influence on the graphic innovation and visual poetry of the Central European avant-garde. The absurdity of the original has been maintained playfully in a translation by Aleksandar Bošković and Jennifer Zoble, and in its digital rendering by Ian McLellan Davis.

And finally, we come around to a spectacular illustration of the potential for cinematic dynamism when the principles of New Typography are fully applied in László Moholy-Nagy’s visual poem (or, as he called it, “film sketch”), “Dynamic of a Metropolis.” Moholy-Nagy is perhaps the most famous practitioner of New Typography today, though he is more commonly described as a painter and photographer. When he joined the faculty at the Bauhaus in Germany in 1923, he taught typography alongside these other genres, and a year into his tenure there, he published “Dynamic of a Metropolis” in MA, a Hungarian-language magazine based then in Vienna and edited by Lajos Kassák. In its attempt to convey in two-dimensional print the three-dimensional dynamism of film, it is also an opportunity to observe Moholy-Nagy’s development from artist to technician. For MA, “Dynamic of a Metropolis” still exhibits evidence of the artist’s hand, in the linocuts Moholy-Nagy includes to convey the cinematic quality of the piece, meant to suggest film strips. The movement of the piece is further guided by graphic elements familiar to New Typography, such as pointing arrows and thick lines to divide and organize the text, as well as the combination of geometric shapes to suggest train signals. By the time the “film sketch” was reproduced again one year later, in 1925, now in book form and in German, as part of Painting Photography Film and put out by the Bauhaus itself, gone are all vestiges of the hand, with linocuts replaced by photographic reproductions. This is the version of “Dynamic of a Metropolis” best known today (it also appeared in Pásmo, though there with only the most minimal graphic elements added to the text), but a look at the earlier version printed in MA exemplifies how deliberately Moholy-Nagy and others were continuously working to incorporate new technology into typographic experimentation. Its appearance in English here, translated by Irina Denischenko and Bradley Gorski, marks the first time that the Hungarian version of “Dynamic” has been translated with its graphic layout and original linocuts intact.

*

The selection of visual poetry and graphic experiment included in this feature for Words without Borders is intended to introduce the English-language reader to a side of the interwar avant-garde that has otherwise been neglected. European artists fed off each others’ work with a willingness to share territories and break down national and linguistic distinctions in an active effort to realize a better postwar Europe. Little did they know, however, World War II was just around the corner. And these avant-gardists were somewhat limited in what they could envision for a supposedly radical new future. Female editors like Teresa Żarnowerówna were a rarity, published contributions by other women perhaps rarer still. And the increased audience share that New Typography was meant to achieve still largely confined its scope to reaching other Europeans. A broader survey of magazines from the period might consider how the new world order imagined by these largely white and male avant-gardists maps onto concurrent production in the rest of the world, as it emerged from a global war.

 

© 2016 by Meghan Forbes. All rights reserved.

from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Metropolis Dynamics

This marks the first time that the Hungarian version of “Metropolis Dynamics” has been translated with its graphic layout and original linocuts intact.

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© László Moholy-Nagy per arrangement with the Artists Rights Society. Translation © 2016 by Irina Denischenko and Bradley Gorski. All rights reserved. 

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

Printing: On Layout

Here, translator Duda has upgraded nonsense phrasings with a nod to our digital age, and designer Kwiecień-Janikowski maintains the dynamism of the printed version in his digital layout, but again with a clever nod to our temporal remove from the original.

 

Translation © 2016 by Paulina Duda. Design © 2016 by Wojtek Janikowski. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

New Art

Václavek attempts to outline the ways in which developments in engineering and socialized labor practices are integral models for contemporary art practice. 

Translation and design © 2016 by Meghan Forbes. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the November 2016 issue: Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing

ButtsLoaDs

A visual manifestation of New Typography’s potential power and visual dynamism, Aleksić’s use of nonsense words and enigmatic phrases, and the inclusion of letterforms in multiple fonts and sizes moving in various directions, conjure the chaos of the stock market.

Translation © 2016 by Jennifer Zoble and Aleksandar Bošković. Design © 2016 by Ian McLellan Davis. All rights reserved.

November 2016
Modernization and Its Discontents: Contemporary Thai Writing
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

“Land of Love and Ruins” by Oddný Eir

Reviewed by Gordon Slater

Oddný Eir’s third novel, the semiautobiographical, genre-bending Land of Love and Ruins––expertly translated from the Icelandic by Philip Roughton––opens with the narrator returning home to Reykjavik in the aftermath of a breakup and a midlife crisis, and amid the looming specter of the island’s various economic and environmental concerns. The thirty-something writer and environmental activist records her thoughts daily, and the novel takes the form of her journal. The purpose of her return home is to collect her grandmother’s memoirs, songs, and poetic verses, links to an Iceland the narrator feels is disappearing. Through her excavation of her grandmother’s past—as well as her romance with an ornithologist nicknamed Birdy, and her close bond with her younger brother, Owlie, an archeologist—the narrator gains both perspective and purpose––“I am able to untie the blindfold,” she declares––and come alive to the possibilities of both confrontation and change. Throughout, Eir explores a deep ecology of love, family, nation, history, and nature.

Is it possible to build a home for oneself while leaving room for others? Can this merge with our desire for a social structure aligned with nature? The narrator’s experience of language as a tool of connection, as a method of understanding and shaping the world in personal terms against established social, political, and economic forces would suggest so. To make a home in language––this idea of Heidegger’s––to live self-sufficiently through its expression, means actively wielding language to redefine the self and social structures. Seen through this lens, language occupies a religious space, offering salvation and unity not through belief but through the thoughtful practice of communication, in meaningful engagement, and by listening and sharing experiences. The narrator describes writing as taking on a physical quality in her world. While reading, she notes:

I’d underlined the following sentence, in pencil: Language is the house of Being.

It is important for Eir’s narrator to see language, her writing, as a tangible force. In her conception of language as a home, as a space of connection and safety, and as a tool to reassess her relation to the natural world, Eir writes toward the possibility of Iceland’s renewal. Deeply embedded in this matrix is Eir’s resistance to patriarchal, masculine forms of dominance. This traditional model––where a home is built against a nature perceived as destructive and threatening––is also socially impermeable, isolating individuals within their houses, within the state, so as to avoid perceived threats from outside. Eir’s narrator reacts:

I really want to find a kind of feminine solution within the whirlpool of our male-centered culture.

Eir is bold in acknowledging the dramatic scope of change necessary and many of her solutions involve a restructuring of society at its foundations. Comparing literature and democratic participation to plants, Eir sees not only the necessity of promoting voices at the edges of normative society, but argues for a new biodiversity of voices, perspectives, and topics. In her feminist reimagining, it is necessary to distinguish the meaningful, beautiful connection that people feel to their land, their country, their history, and a nationalism that is by nature hierarchical, dominative, and exclusionary:

I tried to save the life of nature from the claws of nationalism . . . So I came up with new alternatives, taking only ten years to find the right terms: móðurjarðarást or móðurjarðarumhyggja, that is, love or care for mother earth. I find them a bit beautiful—though maybe not very manageable. Maybe it’ll take another ten years to find better terms?

Eir argues that instead of linking our relationship to the land we live on to nationalism––which is an ultimately violent, exclusionary force––we need to build our sense of home in a language and ideology of connection, in nurturing and caring rhetoric. This shift requires a rearrangement of how society at large manages private and public space. Her rejection of a social order where value is extracted rather than added, where land is viewed only as resource to be consumed rather than one to be respected and sustained, comes through even in her relationship to love, its honesty and reciprocal dependence, which she sees as a vital and continually renewing process. Eir’s narrator asks us:

What do we call chieftains when there aren’t any more slaves?

The personal, direct, confessional tone of the book captures a mind at work, both mundane and intimate, and digs into a wide range of philosophical, literary, political, and environmental criticism. Central to the novel’s political exploration of humanity’s relationship to nature are portraits of personal connections between individuals. The experience of love, the connections that people share, is accompanied by the weight of the personal, emotional, and physical scars that are uncovered in the process. Eir appears continually aware of the reality of human connection, its power and its potential for destruction, and how trust can expose and exploit weakness. Her notion of continual renewal as a necessity, emerging from the image of the cyclical qualities of the sea, defines her narrator’s vision of a symbiotic love connection. The safety of a private space linked to, rather than asserted upon, nature allows room for self-creation and fruitful connection. In seeking to create this home, Eir’s narrator confronts the necessity of larger social change.

Pinaree Sanpitak

Thai

Masthead

My Work

October 2016

from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Singapore was a multilingual island long before the concept was formally enshrined in its constitution in 1963. A short story by literary pioneer Makadoom Saiboo published in 1888 noted that to succeed on the island, one had to be fluent in Malay, Javanese, Bugis, Boyanese, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannadam, Telugu, Marathi, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch, Turkish, French, Spanish, Italian, and English. Seventy-seven years later, with Singapore’s independence, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, and English became the official languages of the fledgling nation, reflecting the ethnic composition of the island’s main residents and its history as a British colony.

Lacking in natural resources but blessed with a pragmatic and efficient government, Singapore embarked on an aggressive open-economy development policy. Now in power for over half a century, the government has been perpetually reinventing the island and its people to ensure that Singapore remains the preferred destination for foreign investors and tourists. This has made Singapore one of the most affluent and developed countries in the world but the success has come at a high social cost, not least in terms of the loss of its cultural and built heritage.

This issue features a selection of Singapore works originally written in Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. The authors of the four pieces of fiction were children or teenagers when Singapore gained independence and will remember the Singapore that existed before the period of rapid development and social transformation. In their works one can discern a common theme of change and loss, something often observed in Singapore’s post-independence literature. These pieces paint a picture of a Singapore that has ceased to be, but in doing so illuminate the state of the country today. The issue also includes translations of a Chinese play by the late Kuo Pao Kun and a Malay essay by the late Masuri S. N. Both men were doyens who left indelible marks on the wider cultural scene in Singapore. They were already accomplished artists when Singapore attained self-government, and their pieces provide the context of the processes at work that shaped Singapore and its literary scene in the early years of nationhood. Finally, the issue includes the translations of two poems by the esteemed Tamil poet KTM Iqbal, who reminds us that regardless of how much or how fast things change, there will always be certain things that are universal and timeless.

With globalization, many nations are now grappling with the forces of immigration, urbanization, industrialization, and modernization. Singapore’s size, location, and history have given it a head start in dealing with these developments and their consequences. Its literature reflects these experiences, and we hope that the works will find resonance with readers around the world.
 

© 2016 by Dan Feng Tan. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

There Was a Bridge in Tekka

Latha’s elderly woman mourns her lifelong friend and the lost Indian immigrant community of their childhood.

Tekka is the colloquial name of an old Singapore precinct located around the area where Serangoon Road becomes Selegie Road after intersecting Sungei Road and Rochor Canal Road. Although the name comes from the Chinese dialect of Hokkien and means "the foot of the bamboos," the area has always been associated with the island's Indian community due to its proximity to Little India. The area holds special significance for many older Singaporeans because it used to be home to one of the most vibrant wet markets on the island and the former Kandang Kerbau Women’s and Children’s Hospital, where many of the island’s residents were delivered.

My breathing becomes more labored as I walk past the Selegie Road traffic light. I chalk that up to the years finally catching up with me. Even gentle slopes are a challenge for me now. I didn’t feel anything at first but it strikes me after several steps that something is different. I stop and look around, leaning on my walking stick, and then it dawns on me. The bridge is gone. The river is gone.

The area had undergone many changes over the years but Rochor River had always been left untouched. And now it’s no more. The river has been rolled up and tossed away leaving no clue as to how it was moved or where it might have been moved to. No one can tell that a river had once flowed there. In its place is a patch of grass. They have replaced a river with just grass. Well, it’s not as if they will grow jasmine in Tekka. Even if they do, will our people allow the plants to flower and thrive? They have added sand and leveled the ground. The road has been widened. It is as if the river has never existed. Looking at the landscape, one will think that it has always been like this. People are walking around casually, as if they have always been treading this level soil. No one seems to notice that there’s anything out of the ordinary. Not a single person pauses to stand there to look, to ponder. You get used to these things, I guess. Given time, everyone gets used to them. The mind tends to forget what things were like in the past.

The last time I was here, they had just started digging the road to construct an underground train line. Now, without even looking around, my body and my breath tell me that the bridge and the water are no more. The wind that circles around me brings the news that the water has been paved over and everything has been covered up.

Previously, one entered Rochor Canal Bridge by crossing the Bukit Timah traffic light after it turned green. Along the middle of the bridge were square stone tiles, laid next to each other with gaps in between. As one walked over those tiles, one had to be mindful of these gaps or risk having the heel of one’s shoe caught in the opening. That had happened to me once but fortunately I did not fall.

One climbed the slight incline onto the level surface along the middle of the bridge and then down again at the end of the bridge. By the time one completed the crossing, the traffic light at Serangoon Road would just have turned from green to red. One would have no choice but to wait for the next green light. I would always stare at the water flowing along the canal as I waited. There was a time when making one’s way across the bridge felt like traveling from one country to another country. Sometimes, the green light would change to red and back again to green while I stood there just staring at the water. At high tide, or if it had just rained, the river would be full. Actually, it was just a big drain for storm water runoff but in those days, we called it a river.

I remember that the water level was high that night. The current flowed as though it were a real river. Even though it was still dark, one could make out the swirls of little white ripples as the wind blew. Dawn had not yet arrived but one could make out the shimmering currents moving along quickly in all their glory. It had rained heavily for a week before the skies had finally cleared up. There was just enough chill in the air for your bones to feel it.

My Akka had not asked me to come along. I had trailed her without her knowledge. I had spotted her just as she left the house. I was never one who could fall asleep when my head touches the pillow and I wake up at the slightest sound. That night, I heard a noise but saw that everyone else was fast asleep. When I went out to investigate, I could sense that someone had just left the house. I walked out a bit more and saw Akka. I wondered where she could be going this time of night and followed her, until she stopped at the river. I froze. I had no idea what she was going to do. I thought of calling out to her but no sound emerged. I stood there behind her, out of sight.

The first thing she did was to toss the shirt she had draped over her right arm into the river. Then she took out a pair of pants from a bag and threw that in. A pair of slippers went next. After that, she unbuckled the shoulder holster with the gun and threw that into the river too. She flung them the same way one would throw prayer items used for last rites into the ocean. Lastly, she removed the cap from her head and tossed that into the water. It was only then that I realized that she had a cap on. As soon as she disposed of everything, she turned abruptly to leave. She didn’t even pause to give these items a final farewell or take in their loss. It was as if they were nothing more than rubbish to her.

It was then that she saw me. I met her gaze straight on.

It was dark, but I could see her blank face clearly beneath the streetlamps. Her eyes were expressionless and gave nothing away. Mine must have been just the opposite. I struggled to ask what I so desperately needed to know. How could she so easily discard these things that had once been part of her?

Do you expect me to get into trouble with the British? Do you have any idea how many people have been detained for resisting them? There’s a trial going on now in India. If we are captured, they’ll take us to India too. Do you want to rot in an Indian prison? Such a sacrifice would at least have been worth it had they treated us better in Netaji’s army.  

I had never seen that anger in Akka before, but it subsided as quickly as it came. By the way, I heard that your husband recently bought another cow. So now he works with four cows, if we include you, she said.

She knew just what to do to get me to laugh. And just like that, all my pent-up sadness vanished like darkness leaving at the break of dawn.

Akka must have been eighteen when I was sixteen. She was already married by then. There used to be a small newspaper shop along Race Course Road. Even though the shop sold magazines and other daily items along with newspapers, everyone always referred to it as the newspaper shop. That was where Akka’s husband worked. There was a Tamil association next door where many people gathered during the evenings. Akka’s husband taught English and mathematics at the association after work. He possessed a Higher Secondary Certificate and read widely, learning a great deal about many subjects in the process. He was the one who read the newspapers out loud to the illiterate to keep them up-to-date on current affairs. He would listen to the English radio station and translate the broadcasts into Tamil for the benefit of those who knew no other language. Singapore was under Japanese occupation and no foreign books or newspapers could be imported. Delivery of letters from overseas was also suspended. However, Akka’s husband could always get his news somehow. The audience for his evening news updates grew. Because the association had a license to teach the Japanese language, there were never any problems with the occupying authorities.

One evening, Akka’s husband reported that Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose would be addressing a crowd at the Padang the next day. The Indian nationalist had arrived in Singapore two days earlier and was recruiting an army to rid India of British rule. The evening audience at the association was enthralled as Akka’s husband repeated the words of the great man. Should India gain independence, we can all return to India. We need not toil here. There would be jobs for everyone. We would be able to live freely in our own land.

Akka and I were not present. Akka’s husband never brought her to his place of work. We heard about it from the boy next door, who had been in the audience.

The following day, Akka and I went on our own to listen to Chandra Bose speak. The Padang was packed with bodies. Netaji spoke with fiery passion. The crowd hung on his every word, riveted. His address was like a divine discourse, causing every fiber of our being to resonate with a desire for action. It was at the Padang that day that he promised, “Give us your blood, and in return, I will give you your freedom!” At the end of his speech, cries of Jai Hind rose from the people, becoming one voice. I was shouting, too. I had no idea what India was like, but that did not matter. Aren’t we all Tamils? As soon as Netaji spoke of the need to prepare for war, many people came forth to pledge or donate cash or jewelry to the cause. My Akka contributed her bangles and her earrings. I gave up just my earrings, for they were the only item of value that I had on me that day. No one thought twice about giving up their most valued possessions.

When we arrived home, Akka’s husband was silent but furious. We couldn’t tell whether he was angry because we had attended Netaji’s speech or because we gave away our valuables for the cause. Akka kept quiet, too, and went about her daily routine. We always knew when Akka’s husband was angry because their home grew completely silent. We all lived in a shophouse at Race Course Road. The shophouse was long and narrow with adjoining rooms, each housing an entire family. Not so much as a peep could be heard by the families in the neighboring rooms. There was one kitchen at the rear where everyone cooked. The people who lived in the shophouse mostly worked as day laborers. Before they came home from their work each day, Akka would finish cooking and bring dinner back to the room for her and her husband.

Akka had returned to the room that day with the rice and salted fish curry she cooked, but she ate her share alone since her husband had refused to acknowledge her at all. But salted fish curry was his favorite dish and the smell must have been hard to resist. He quietly wolfed down the food and left. Akka never asked him anything. We lived in the room opposite theirs, eight of us in a single room.

I left our room to go to the toilet at the rear, but it was occupied. I came back to find out from Akka what happened. She effortlessly sidestepped my question, casually asking what I thought of the embroidery she was working on, as if there was nothing out of the ordinary. It was July 5. The year was 1943.

Within a week, Chandra Bose announced that he was going to start a women’s army. The day he made the announcement, they started recruiting soldiers. Akka, myself, Kaali, and Pavunu all went. Sathiyavathi joined us as well. Akka was fluent in several languages, including English, Malay, Hokkien, Bengali, and Japanese. However, Akka only spoke to the recruiters in Tamil that day. They turned us down at first, when they heard our names and realized our caste, relenting only when we gave the name of our family friend, Uncle Veerappa. The name Veerappa Thevar still carried enough weight to challenge an age-old prejudice, at least in Singapore. 

On his way home that day, Akka’s husband was stopped several times by people who wanted to congratulate him. Everyone was filled with praise for his wife’s actions. No one knew what was on his mind. As soon as he arrived home, he took the radio and flung it to the ground, where it broke into several pieces. It had taken him a long time to save up to buy that radio, the source of the news that he would translate so that others could know what was going on in the world. It was one of his most treasured possessions. But blinded by fury, he had destroyed it with his own hands before proceeding to slap and kick his wife. Akka did not make a single sound throughout the beating. After that, she went about her chores as though nothing had happened, cooking and then serving dinner.

As for me, I was afraid but excited. I started imagining what it would be like to carry a gun and fight in a battle. I thought about how wonderful it would be to see India free from foreign rule. If the British lost, who would rule Singapore? The island would belong to the Japanese. We would all have to learn and speak their language. It would be hard surviving under their rule. There would be neither jobs nor food. But we would have an India of our own to return to.

Father refused to sign the consent form even though he was a staunch Indian patriot. Father had never been to India before. His father had come from India as convict labor and Father used to brag to everyone that it was his father who had paved the streets of the island. After my grandfather was freed, he married my grandmother, who had also been brought by the British to Singapore as a convict. Father had long desired to visit India to see the relatives he had never met. He also had deep respect for Chandra Bose and attended all of his speeches in Singapore. Father was a well-built man, a manual laborer who worked tirelessly. He never joined the army but volunteered his services in the kitchen because Chandra Bose’s cook was a friend of his. He would spend entire days volunteering there. Yet he refused to sign the piece of paper that would allow me to join the Indian National Army. But I knew what I wanted. I managed to get Mother’s thumbprint on the form since she had never learned how to sign her name. Mother was very different from Father. A highly intelligent woman, she always believed that girls ought to have an education and be independent. It was Mother who fought with Father so I could go to Balestier School. Two years ago, after I came of age, Father wanted me to stop schooling, but Mother disagreed. She continued to support my education. All this came to an end when the Japanese occupied Singapore. All local schools were converted to Japanese schools. Mother had wanted me to become a teacher one day. That’s why she gave her thumbprint the moment I asked.

That was how I joined Akka without Father’s approval. The famous Dr. Lakshmi, who had joined the Indian National Army earlier, oversaw our training. Female recruits had to run while carrying a gun and a full backpack. A few of us were assigned different duties, cleaning the training grounds and hauling equipment for the trainees.

We had only basic comforts in the camp, which was an old school building. Training began early in the morning and when the recruits returned at the end of the day completely exhausted, we would serve them thosai and a cup of tea. Contributing in these simple ways brought us joy. In those days, Akka’s face was always radiant. She was tall and her long hair was always neatly plaited and tied up in a bun. Without a gun or a backpack, she still cut an impressive figure. At first, the other people in our battalion were not friendly toward us. They protested that we shouldn’t be allowed to serve them food because of our caste. They stopped only when it became clear there were not enough hands in the camp to help out. But Dr. Lakshmi liked Akka a lot. She was the one who got her into a proper regiment to undergo military training. The number of Tamils training to be soldiers quickly grew, as people joined us from Johor, Seremban, Malacca, Kedah, and other parts of Malaya.

Soon after completing our training, we were deployed to Johor. Father came to send me off, his eyes brimming with tears. Mother was almost jubilant when she said good-bye, confident that I would return home victorious. However, Akka’s husband was conspicuously absent. He had not visited even once after she joined the army and was refusing to speak to her. Akka never mentioned this, and she didn’t appear perturbed at all.

We would sing as we marched. We had learned several patriotic songs, mainly in Hindi. It was only then that I realized what an amazing singer Akka was. She would always be in the front so she could lead us as we sang. Her voice could fill us with courage and make our hunger and thirst disappear. Hearing her energized us and made us almost eager to do battle.  

Once we put up a play at Victoria Theatre called “Chalo Delhi” to raise funds for the war. Akka was the star of the production, which drew a large audience. The play featured a song titled “Good-bye Mother and Father.” Hearing Akka sing this song on stage was so overwhelming that I could not hold back my tears. Akka, on the other hand, delivered the song flawlessly, seemingly immune to the hurricane of emotions that the song conjured.

Our unit was sent to Seremban first before proceeding to Thailand and then Burma. We traveled at night by train. Akka, I, and a few others were assigned a train compartment without seats. We had to sit on the cast-iron floor for hours at a time. There was no room to stretch our legs or to lie down and sleep. It was torture for the body. Jungle training was equally arduous, forcing us to deal with mosquitoes, leeches, and snakes at every turn. It was particularly terrifying for us since we were housed at the edge of the camp. 

A battle was raging in Imphal and our unit was supposed to join in the fight. However, we received word that the Japanese soldiers and the Indian National Army suffered heavy casualties. We were outnumbered by the British forces and defeat was imminent. Furthermore, our supply of food and medicine had not yet arrived and there was no other aid. In the end, Chandra Bose decided not to deploy our troops.

We stayed put in Burma. Dr. Lakshmi, now known as Captain Lakshmi, was extremely disappointed and disobeyed Netaji’s orders. She set up a makeshift hospital to provide medical treatment to our wounded soldiers. Akka and I would clean and dress the wounds. Some of the injuries were incredibly gory. We saw legs broken and abdomens torn apart by bombs. We would see scores of wounded at a time lying there covered in blood and sores. Sometimes, I couldn’t even bring myself to drink water after attending to them.

It was there that I first spotted Akka’s husband. He had sustained a head injury and was brought to our hospital in critical condition. We had no idea when he had joined the army. However, he eventually ended up on the warfront at Imphal. Tears streamed down his face when he realized it was Akka. He tried to lift his arms but they refused to obey. He had problems keeping his eyes open and the tears continued flowing even when he closed them. Captain Lakshmi informed us that he needed an operation. Akka prepped him, displaying the same tenderness and concern that she showed all the other wounded soldiers. She never wept even once. She had always been stoic even in the face of the most horrifying injuries and death. I would sometimes wonder how hardened and numbed her heart must have been. With her husband critically injured nearby, she continued to perform her duties, almost nonchalantly. She caught me weeping and reminded me, impassively, that we were giving our lives for a free India before walking off.

I remember a time, long before the war, when I had stood at this spot on the bridge with Akka. We enjoyed standing here watching the world go by. Every now and then, vendors would spread a piece of cloth on the pavement where they would display their wares. It was evening and the river had been reduced to a mere trickle. Rickshaws scurried past the few stalls that had been set up to sell household items and towels.

Akka had gazed at the moon while talking to me. When my father came from India, she said, he sold books on this bridge. I used to come here to be with him. He would tell me about his homeland. He would often mention how much he wanted to take me to India, she said. Well, that’s that. I wasn’t sure if she meant her father’s death or their never having visited India.

As time went by, it was I who stood firm on buying Indian brinjal and Indian ponni rice. Akka was never particular about things like this. She always bought rice from Thailand and whatever local vegetables that were sold in the wet market near her home.

The first time I traveled to India, I went with a large group. We wanted to visit the temples and the markets. Akka refused to join us. I invited her to join me on all my subsequent trips but she always declined. She only went to India after her son was involved in an accident while on a trip there and was admitted to a local hospital. Her son and daughter-in-law had asked her to travel with them to Tamil Nadu before but she had always refused. This time, the circumstances were different. She knew that all that had come before in her life had equipped her better than anyone to deal with this crisis. She immediately made plans to fly to India so she could calm her distraught daughter-in-law and ensure proper care for her son.

Akka and I had come to this part of town to buy her airplane ticket. The rain had been pouring down and the roads were slick with water. Even though we were careful, she slipped on the bridge and twisted her ankle. She turned down offers of help from passersby and hailed a taxi home. That was the last time I saw the bridge or her.

She flew off to India with her injured ankle. After her son recovered, they decided to give thanks to the deity at their ancestral temple in their hometown, located next to Puthukottai. That was where Akka’s father had been born and her husband, too. They invited all their relatives in India to partake in the offerings. It was nearly nightfall when they reached Puthukottai. The plan was to spend the night in town and set off for the village the following morning. Akka went to bed that night and did not wake up when dawn came. Her son completed the funeral rites in the town itself and brought the ashes back to Singapore. He sprinkled some of her ashes in the sea at Changi and cast the rest of her ashes in Rochor River, a request she had made when she was still alive.

I was ill in the hospital at the time and couldn’t even go to give my condolences to her family. It has become much harder for me to move about after my release. If I want to go anywhere, I need to ask one of my two daughters to drive me or take a taxi there and back.

It has been a long time since I’ve taken a bus and walked on my own like this. All I want is to gaze at the water that Akka is now part of. But the river has been buried and the bridge is no more. 

 

© Latha. Translation © 2016 by Yamuna Rajoo. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

From “Opera Costume”

Yeng Pway Ngon’s aging opera lover struggles to recapture lyrics and memories of a thwarted star tenor.

Helpless before the heavens we part, what sorrow, what rage; the farewell heart clings to the drooping willow, goodbye tears splash the flowers—The old man struggles to remember the lyrics to Revisiting the Long Pavilion Willows, humming bits and pieces. It’s been too long since he’s sung anything, too long since he heard this tune. When he was young, he adored Tsuih Lau Seen, particularly her rendition of this opera. Then there was Siu Meng Sing. He listened to her Autumn Tomb all the time—now it completely escapes his mind. Not just the opening, but every last scrap of the lyrics. Yet when Kim Chau was a kid, he taught him the whole piece! Half a lifetime of encounters, allowing fondness to bloom, affection thickening, dawn stained with the mist of love, adoration filling the bosom. He sings a few lines before realizing abruptly—this isn’t Autumn Tomb, it’s Dream of Romance. This “horse trot” passage is also one he taught Kim Chau, but what about Autumn Tomb? He simply can’t recall. What a shame. Kim Chau was so talented, his voice as nimble as his movements. Everything about him—his eyes, his limbs, the way he stepped on stage—told you the second you laid eyes on him that he was going to be a big star. A pity he was born in the wrong place. His features were so delicate—perfect for young scholar roles. If this had been Hong Kong, surely he’d have become a movie star! And even here in Singapore, he ought to have done well. What other young performer here had his bone-deep good looks? Which ping hau vocalist was as talented as him? The old man wishes his childhood friend Tak Chai—Ching Siu Kai’s disciple, the new Siu Kai—could have seen Kim Chau. If that had ever happened, Tak Chai would definitely have helped him get ahead. The old man and Tak Chai went through all kinds of hard times together. Is Tak Chai still around? He’s a year older—even if he’s still alive, he too would be well on his way to the grave. At the age of twenty, Tak Chai left Singapore to settle back in their hometown, where he continued performing. They haven’t seen each other since.

After Tak Chai made his name as the new Siu Kai, the old man kept an eye out for news of him. He remembers the papers reporting that not long after the Japanese surrendered, the new Siu Kai moved from Hong Kong to the Mainland. Once Mainland China was liberated, the local papers rarely—in fact, practically never—reported news from there, so he had no way of knowing how the new Siu Kai was doing. There were rumors during the Cultural Revolution that the new Siu Kai had been badly tortured, both of his legs broken. “Tak Chai, you were an idiot,” the old man can’t help sighing. “Things were so good in Hong Kong, why on earth return to the mainland?” God, if Kim Chau hadn’t died young, if Tak Chai hadn’t left Hong Kong, their paths would surely have crossed. Kim Chau was brought down by love—a pity! But how did he die? The old man thinks hard, and his brain fills with memories of Kim Chau when young, striking poses as he rehearsed in their living room: pulling the mountain, retiring steps, revealing the appearance, seven star steps, waves across water, scooping step, little leap, kicking leg, kicking the armor, continuous movement, washing the face, flags in the wind, circular walk. He sees every detail of each move. His ears fill with the roar of the audience as Kim Chau shakes out his flowing hair in a gesture of despair, though he now can’t remember which show this is from. The old man dozes. Kim Chau, then Tak Chai, flicker through his mind. He remembers, like awakening from a nightmare: someone said that Kim Chau had become ill and died in a small hotel in Hong Kong. But who told him? What a shame! A wave of sadness washes over his heart. Not yet, not yet, not yet seen my love. Cursing, cursing, cursing the empty heavens. My eyes yearn anxiously, my eyes yearn anxiously. Such emotion trembles on my lips, waiting to be told—oh, oh, my heart is sour as the plum. These lyrics, like uninvited guests, burst into his mind without warning, then slip from his mouth. He mumbles them raggedly, but halfway through goes blank. Shutting his eyes, he ransacks his brain, finally unearthing the rest: saga seeds of longing, such jade green feelings, cruel separation, wild goose dreams—shattered—wild goose dreams shattered, what comes after dreams shattered? He can't go on, partly because he’s out of breath, partly because his mind is as muddled as a bowl of porridge. If Kim Chau had had someone to take care of him, he wouldn’t have died. All alone in Hong Kong. Who looked after his affairs? The old man mutters tearfully to himself.

“Grandpa, lunchtime!”

His granddaughter is calling. He looks up toward the dining room, where their Filipino helper is setting food out on the table. It is already noon.

*

After lunch, their helper does the dishes, and his granddaughter goes out, same as every weekend. The old man sits in the living room staring into space, assailed by yawns he tries to resist. Now and then, a line of Cantonese opera wafts into his head, along with a tangle of memories. How could he have been so careless? This world is full of traps, and even before his accident on the stone steps, he’d already slipped and fallen in the bathroom, leaving his buttocks aching for two or three months, though that hardly slowed him down. Who’d have thought this one tumble would land him in hospital? Though he escaped surgery, the broken leg feels devoid of energy, and he can only walk with a stick. He loathes the wheelchair, which he thinks makes him look useless. Yet the stick won’t do—it slows him down, and he can’t move far on it. Before turning seventy, he often bragged that he had the strapping figure of a young man, and indeed, his hair might have been a little gray, but his cheeks were ruddy and all the youngsters said he looked fifty-something at most. Once he turned seventy, though, his age began to reveal itself—his jowls drooped, the wrinkles in the corners of his mouth deepened, the salt-and-pepper hair at his temples rapidly turned all white and started thinning. Of course, his vision blurred, too, and his ears no longer heard so well. Still, he often went out, getting the bus to Telok Ayer.

There, he visited the places he’d once spent most of his time in: Chinatown and Tofu Lane (that is, Chin Chew Street). Often, though, this would be discomfiting. His stomping ground of almost half a century now felt unfamiliar, even alarming. Buildings he knew well would suddenly be encircled by wooden boards, vanishing before he knew it, quickly replaced by strange new skyscrapers. The same thing kept happening, another familiar shophouse row surrounded by a wooden fence, disappearing while cut off from view, succeeded by yet more high-rise towers. They were going to surround and tear down every building he knew, one by one, like a dictator’s secret police eliminating all opposition. There’d come a day when all the places he’d lived in would be gone, utterly transformed, nothing familiar about them at all. Each time he saw those wooden boards rise around a shophouse or street block, the old man’s thoughts turned dark. When this first started happening, he’d gather with his old friends at the coffee shop he once owned (not having a child willing to take over his business, he’d lost his temper and signed it over to a neighbor, after which it became a gathering place for him and his friends). He understood that eventually this old shop would be boarded up, too, then quietly vanish while hidden from view. And indeed, that was what happened. After less than ten years, or perhaps a full decade—he can’t quite remember, but what of it? It was finally unable to escape the wooden boards, the secret slaughter away from public view. The old man and his friends had to find another coffee shop. By this time, only Old Fong, Old Goh, and himself were left. The others, just like the buildings they’d once known, had departed this world.

The three men didn’t particularly like the coffee shop they ended up at—the servers were rough and rude, the owner unfriendly. A bunch of unsavory characters frequently gathered there, swigging beer and ostentatiously talking about Thai prostitutes, or exchanging lewd jokes. Sometimes they’d flirt obnoxiously with female passersby or customers. The old men’s social club disbanded after Old Goh’s stroke. That was just as well—when they met, there was nothing to talk about but when their next check-up was, or what ailments they’d acquired since last time. Gazing at the hideous decrepitude of his two old friends, final survivors, the old man might as well have been looking at himself. God knows they’d once been young, but those days truly felt like a dream—as if in truth, their current state had always been the reality, these heartbreaking, pathetic wrecks. Yes, better not to meet. To be honest, toward the end, the old man hadn’t felt much like going anywhere. Several times, he got on the wrong bus and was ferried far away, only managing to get home, completely exhausted, after a great deal of trouble. He can’t avoid the fact that he’s old. It’s not just his strength, sight, and hearing that are failing, but his memory too. Things he once remembered perfectly clearly are now murky. Since his fall, he’s moved around less, and senses himself aging even faster. Nothing is right. Every muscle and bone, every part of him, feels wrong. Sitting by himself, he hears his body gradually disintegrating, as if a termite colony is gnawing away at him from the inside. He needs assistance for many things—can’t even make himself a cup of coffee, needs to lean on the maid’s arm to get to the bathroom. For now, he can manage a shower or shit on his own, but what about the future? Imagining how he’ll become weaker and more useless, the old man grows frustrated and angry. The whole world is bullying him, setting itself against him—now even his own body is at odds with him. He can see his future. Existence will become more painful, harder to bear. He’ll put up with these torments, all so he can await the thing he dreads most of all: death.

From Opera Costume. © Yeng Pway Ngon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2016 by Jeremy Tiang. Forthcoming 2017 from Balestier Press. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Hey, Wake Up!

Kuo Pao Kun exposes the personal wreckage left in the wake of the state’s aggressive pursuit of international financial status in the 1960s.

This was the first full-length play by Singapore’s theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun and was a sensation when it was first staged in 1968, drawing rave reviews. Starting from the 1960s, the Singapore government embarked on an economic strategy of attracting foreign investors and multinationals, and building up tourism as an economic pillar, often at a significant social cost. The play struck a chord in a population asked to sacrifice their heritage, way of life and even their mother tongues in the national effort to become a modern metropolis serving the world.

 

Scene 3: The Interview

Chorus:                A distorted society
                            develops in deviant ways
                            The kind toil their entire lives
                            for just two simple meals a day

                            Most do not strive for a life of indulgence
                            But
                            why must they be consigned to the margins of
                            a better existence?

                            “To work hard” is now a symbol of
                            misfortune
                            “To find a shortcut” is now the way to good
                            fortune.

                            “Diploma, status, connections, money”
                            Why is it that the obsessions of our young are so
                            empty?

                            What is it that makes them lose faith in
                            their parents’ toil?
                            What is it that deadens them to their
                            elders’ labor?
                            Is it because the young today are born
                            without innocence?
                            Or is it because their minds have been
                            poisoned by some external influence? 

Curtain rises.

Pop music in the background.

Miss Lily TAN is being interviewed by Mr. LIM (the company director), Mr. LIEN (the manager), and Miss HAN (the secretary).

LIEN                   Let me be frank with you, Miss Tan. Your
                            qualifications are decent but we are not looking
                            for part-time staff. Those we recruit will need
                            to undergo training. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to
                            balance your work here with your job
                            at the beauty salon.

TAN                    Isn’t the work mainly at night?

LIEN                    Mainly, yes, but not always. Our timing is
                            determined by the needs of our clients.

TAN                     Oh! (Hesitates)

LIEN                    Do you make $300 a month now?

TAN                     Slightly more. How much can you give?

LIEN                    That depends on what you have. Ten bucks
                            an hour with a third as commission to
                            the company. How much you make depends on
                            yourself.

TAN                     Is there a base salary?

LIEN                    No.

TAN                     Ouch, that’s quite harsh.

LIEN                    It’s free competition! Why don’t you think
                            about it? If you decide to come work for us,
                            report to our first branch office at 9 a.m. on
                            Monday morning. Thank you.

TAN leaves.

LIEN                    She’ll show up for sure.

LIM                      (To HAN) How about the next one?

LIEN walks over to HAN who hands over a photo.

HAN                    She’s a recent graduate.

LIEN                    She doesn’t look half bad. (Looking at photo)

LIM                      She looks like the bright and naïve sort. (To LIEN)
                            Be courteous. Don’t be too direct.

LIEN nods to HAN.

HAN                    (To the telephone) Number 65, Miss Lu Siow May.

MAY enters.

HAN                    Miss Lu Siow May?

MAY                    Yes. (Walks over to HAN)

HAN                    You’re eighteen?

MAY                    Eighteen.

HAN                    Unmarried?

MAY                    Unmarried.

HAN                    A Singapore citizen?

MAY                    Singapore citizen.

HAN                    Your ancestral home?

MAY                    Canton.

HAN                    Besides Mandarin, what dialects do you speak?

MAY                    Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese . . .

HAN                    English?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Just enough to understand or can you converse?

MAY                    I can probably handle basic conversation.

HAN                    Malay?

MAY                    Just a bit. I’ve never had formal lessons.

HAN                    Do you have a driver’s license?

MAY                    No.

HAN                    Can you swim?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Can you sing?

MAY                    A bit.

HAN                    Can you dance?

MAY                    Yes . . . what type of dance?

HAN                    Regular social dance.

MAY                    Oh, I don’t really know that.

HAN                    What type of dance can you do?

MAY                    The ones you do in school. Extracurricular dancing.

HAN                    Your height?

MAY                    (Puzzled) Five foot three.

HAN                    Your weight?

MAY                    (More puzzled) A hundred and six pounds. Why
                            are you asking these questions?

LIEN                    That’s enough, Miss Han.

MAY turns around and realizes that there are two men behind her.

LIEN                    (Stands up)
                            Miss Lu, please sit over here.

MAY looks uncomfortable as she sits down under the gaze of the two men and one woman.

The two men look her over for a while, confident but not crude.

MAY                    (Unable to stand it any longer) May I . . .

LIEN                    (Interrupts) I know you have lots of questions
                            Miss Lu. What sort of organization is this
                            “tourist assistance agency”? What type of
                            business does it do? What sort of employees are
                            we recruiting through our newspaper
                            advertisements? Why did we ask for your photo?
                            Why did we ask such funny questions?
                            Am I right?

She instinctively nods her head as he correctly guesses all her questions.

LIEN                    In other words, you find us deeply dubious.

MAY                    That was not what I meant—

LIEN                    (Interrupts) There’s no need to explain, Miss Lu.
                            It’s natural you would think this way. I would have
                            the same concerns if I were you. It would be
                            strange not to be suspicious! Especially
                            since you’re young and educated. It’s inevitable
                            that you would be suspicious of what you do not
                            understand. There’s no need to apologize. It’s
                            natural.  

MAY                    (At a loss for words) Can you tell me what you do
                            here?

LIEN                    Of course! An interview is an opportunity for two
                            parties to share their thoughts and ideas. I will
                            first introduce our organization and then it’ll be
                            your turn to speak. All right? (Pause) In recent
                            years, a new industry, the sightseeing industry,
                            has emerged on the global scene. Some call it the
                            “tourism industry.” Most people here still think
                            sightseeing is simply going on a tour of different
                            places, looking at scenery. This view is out-of-
                            date. By its definition, sightseeing should mean
                            allowing the person to experience different
                            lifestyles and cultural traditions in different places
                            and countries, to indulge in what he cannot enjoy
                            at home. Not only does this involve the promotion
                            of our country’s culture, it can also be an
                            important economic force. It has become a pillar
                            in some economies that have a developed
                            tourism industry. For example, Spain possesses
                            the most developed sightseeing industry in the
                            world. Tourists contribute to 82% of its GDP. A
                            Spanish poet once said, “If we Spaniards want to
                            make a living in front of the Lord, our children
                            need to work as hard as women, our women need
                            to work as hard as men, and our men need to be
                            as fierce as beasts.” That is because Spain lacks
                            natural resources and it’s hard for its people to
                            get by. But Spaniards today say, “When we want
                            to make a living in front of the Lord, we only need
                            to smile. We just have to take good care of the
                            tourists and that is enough.” That is the motto of
                            our organization.

MAY                    I see. You’re a tour agency!

LIEN                    (Joins the other man in laughter) No, Miss Lu.
                            What we provide is a complete “cultural and
                            lifestyle experience.”

MAY                    (Bewildered)

LIEN                    Giving tours is just a small part of what we do,
                            Miss Lu. Our organization owns swimming pools,
                            bowling alleys, hotels, yachts, nightclubs, and
                            various performance troupes. This tourist
                            assistance agency is just one of our many
                            subsidiaries. The Golden Hotel downstairs
                            belongs to us. We have more than 600 full-time
                            employees and 400 part-time employees. We pay
                            millions in income tax alone each year. You can
                            just imagine the scale of our operations.

MAY is flabbergasted.

LIEN                    Miss Lu, I’ve gone one big circle to tell you all this
                            because I want you to understand that we are not
                            a run-of-the-mill company. We do not engage in
                            run-of-the-mill business. We do things very
                            differently from others. You may have heard
                            rumors about the sightseeing industry, especially
                            scandals involving tour agencies. I can tell you
                            that there is much truth in them. However, we are
                            not part of that. Those are not things that an
                            organization of our size engages in. You can put
                            away any suspicions that you have about us.

MAY                    What sort of employees are you recruiting?

LIEN                    That’s hard for us to answer because we do not
                            know your preferences and what you are most
                            suitable for. Even if you make it through this
                            interview, you will need to undergo a period of
                            training before we can decide. We are looking for
                            talent. We are looking for new blood who have
                            different types of skills and who want to develop
                            careers in this industry. We are especially strict in
                            selecting our talent because we take our work
                            seriously. Help us understand your background
                            and thoughts now, shall we?

Not expecting the conversation to be so blunt and direct, MAY is caught unaware and does not seem to know where to start. Four eyes bore into her as the secretary prepares to take notes.

MAY                    I don’t come from a well-to-do family. My father
                            was a taxi driver who died when I was eight. I’m
                            an only child and my mother brought me up by
                            working as a laundry woman. I have always done
                            well in school but I had disappointing results for
                            my final examination. I wanted to be a teacher but
                            I failed to qualify. I don’t know what I want to do.
                           I can’t continue to study but I’ve yet to find a job.
                            When I saw your advertisement, I had no idea
                            what sort of person you wanted. I sent in an
                            application just because it was there, not even
                            knowing if I qualified . . .

LIEN                    Qualifications? That’s something one can acquire.
                            What’s important is whether one is willing to
                            learn. You’ve just left school and your
                            understanding of society is, if you may pardon my
                            saying, lacking. However, if you’re willing to
                            learn, you can join our training course to give it a
                            try. What do you think?

MAY                    (Happy and at a loss for words)

LIEN                    Please report to our first branch office at 9 a.m.
                            on Monday. The receptionist outside will give you
                            the address. (Shakes her hand) Good-bye.

MAY leaves.

LIM                     We can put in a bit of effort on this one.

LIEN                   (Gives a knowing smile and walks over to HAN)
                            Send the next one in.

Light dims. Curtain falls. Chorus for the next scene begins.

Scene 4: The Training

Chorus:               They say
                            this is a place filled with opportunities for
                            development.
                            They say
                            this is a paradise for making money and
                            investments.

                            But
                            treachery thrives when there’s “free competition”
                            and a preoccupation with profit is what comes
                            with “investment promotion.”

—They do not care if this brings a blight upon others.
—They do not care if this goes against the moral conscience.

Our young have been given the chance to study
but
this does not mean that they can think.
To pass exams and get a diploma is easy
but
this does not guarantee anything.

What happens when naïve youth
meets the dirty and dangerous world?
The case of May is a good example.

Curtain rises.

A newly renovated office, with pop music playing in the background.

The secretary Miss HAN arranges some documents while Uncle BOCK repairs a filing cabinet on the side.

The phone rings.

HAN                    (Answering the phone) Tourist assistance agency
                            first branch office. Good morning!

                            Oh! It’s Mr. Wong. How are you? Let me check.
                            (Checks her record book) She doesn’t have an
                            appointment tonight. I’ll inform her. What time
                            and where? That’s fine. If it's difficult for her to
                            get there on her own, we'll have the driver take
                            her.

                            Another three ladies? What dialects do they need
                            to speak? Do you want to choose them yourself or
                            should we do that for you? That’s fine. You’re an
                            old customer so we won’t just send just anyone
                            over. May I enquire about your friends’ status? I’ll
                            let the girls know to get them mentally prepared.
                            Thank you. Not at all. Certainly. (Records the
                            information, picks out some names and calls)

                            Hello, is that the garage? Andrew? Go pick up
                            Chin Mei at 8:30 p.m. An appointment with Mr.
                            Wong. Yes, the same one. Have her at Dragon
                            Palace Night Club at 8:45 p.m. Swing by here to
                            get Miss Lam, Miss Chian, Miss Soon, and Miss
                            Mok before you go. Mr. Wong is entertaining
                            guests today, Indonesian customers. I’ll get them
                            to wait downstairs at 8:15 p.m.

LIEN brings a group of new girls out from his office.

LIEN                   Remember, the basic objectives of entertaining
                            tourists are to make them happy with their stay
                            and ensure that they get the experience they
                            want. But there are two other goals we want to
                            achieve. What’s the first one, Miss Tan?

TAN                    To get them to stay as long as possible.

LIEN                   Good. And the next one, Miss Lam?

LAM                    To leave them with a deep impression so that they
                            want to come back again.

LIEN                    Why, Miss Lu?

MAY                    The longer they stay, the more they spend. And
                            leaving a good impression is an investment for
                            the future.

BOCK shows surprise when he notices MAY in the group of girls.

LIEN                    These principles are easy to understand but I
                            often find that we forget these fundamentals and
                            start neglecting our clients over time. Never
                            forget, our entire economic foundation—the
                            company’s and yours—is built on the satisfaction
                            of our clients. The customer always comes first.
                            This is of the utmost importance under any
                            circumstances. All right, you can go with Miss
                            Woon now for your data processing class.

                            Please stay back, Miss Lu. Have a seat.

After the others have left and the conversation is about to begin, the phone rings for LIEN.

HAN                    Mr. Lien, it’s the nightclub manager, Mr. Ho.

LIEN                    Hello, old friend! Not yet. In a few days, perhaps.
                            They just started. They’re still learning the basics.
                            I know. Who was the one who asked? Mr. Tay?
                            The businessman? Give me a second, I’ll talk to
                            you inside. Pardon me, Miss Lu. (Goes into his
                            office)

HAN                    How has it been so far, Miss Lu?

MAY                    It’s all right. I’m not too used to this.

HAN                    You’ll need time to adjust. You’ve just left school. I
                            was just like you.

MAY                    You don’t go out into the field?

HAN                    Hardly. I can’t leave this office.

LIEN                    (From his room) Miss Han.

HAN                    You see? Keep an eye on the place while I’m
                            gone. (Goes into LIEN’s office)

BOCK                  (The opportunity finally comes and he puts down
                            his work)
May!

MAY                    (Surprised) Uncle Bock!

They are interrupted by the phone.

MAY                    Hello? Yes, this is the tourist assistance agency.
                            We have many. Of all races. Conversant in all the
                            dialects. It’s ten dollars an hour with a minimum
                            booking of three hours. Photographs? Yes. You
                            can come choose them yourself. Our service ends
                            at midnight but the office closes at ten. May I have
                            your name please? Hello? That’s strange . . .
                           (hangs up the phone)

BOCK                  Are you working here, May?

MAY                    I wouldn’t say working. I’ve only been here for
                            slightly more than a week. I’m still in training.

BOCK                  What do they do here?

MAY                    They’re a tour agency.

BOCK                  What does that involve?

MAY                    They bring people sightseeing.

BOCK                  Oh, they bring foreigners around!

MAY                    Not always. They also have local customers.

BOCK                  Why do locals need a guide?

MAY                    Some have friends from overseas but no time to
                            show them around . . .

BOCK                  Is it good work? Going out with people . . .

MAY                    You don’t understand. This is a very big company,
                            not the shady kind. They have strict regulations.

BOCK                  Oh . . .

MAY                    Where’s auntie working today?

BOCK                  In Tanglin.

MAY                    Hasn’t that hotel been completed?

BOCK                  They’re rushing like mad. They have to work till 8
                            or 9 p.m. every night. I hear that the hotel and
                            your agency share an owner.

Miss HAN appears, interrupting their conversation.

MAY                    Someone just called but he hung up halfway.

HAN                    Oh. (Not too concerned)

                            (Turns to BOCK) Hey, are you done?

BOCK                  All done.

HAN                    How much?

BOCK                  Thirteen dollars and sixty-five cents.

HAN                    Why so much?

BOCK                  It’s not much at all. The materials cost five dollars
                            and sixty-five cents and I’m just charging you
                            eight dollars for labor.

HAN                    Eight dollars for something so simple?

BOCK                  It’s not expensive. The going rate is nine dollars
                            for a day and a half of work.

HAN                    Doesn’t matter. I’ll pay you thirteen. It’s a nice
                            round figure and our manager hates dealing with
                            small change. (Her decision is final and she passes
                            BOCK the money)
. Sign here.

BOCK                  I’m not good with writing. Can I not sign?

HAN                    These are our regulations. Just make any mark here.

Finally, BOCK leaves, giving a slight farewell nod to MAY.

Several women dressed in gaudy clothes enter. Some go into another room while the others walk over to collect their pay.

CHIAN                 Is my pay for yesterday ready?

HAN                    It’s here. From 8 p.m. to midnight, twenty-eight
                            dollars. Andrew will come get you at a quarter
                            past eight tonight. You’re going with Chin Mei to
                            Mr. Wong’s party at a quarter to nine.

CHIAN                 (Counts her money and signs on the voucher)
                            Where are we going?

HAN                    Dragon Palace Night Club.

CHIAN                 What sort of people?

HAN                    Three Indonesians here on business.

Miss CHIAN leaves and Miss SOON and Miss LIAO enters.

SOON                   The one from the day before. We went together.

HAN                    Blue Sky Nightclub. Three hours in all. Twenty
                            dollars each. Sign here.

MAY takes in all this and is impressed.

SOON                   Nothing for me today?

HAN                    Oh, yeah. You’re going with Chin May. Wait
                            downstairs for Andrew at a quarter past eight.

LIEN appears.

LIAO/SOON         Mr. Lien.

LIEN                    Miss Soon, Miss Liao. No difficulties recently?

LIAO/ SOON        None at all. Thank you. (Leaves)

LIEN                    You’ve been training here for a week now, Miss
                            Lu. Are you still interested?

MAY                    It’s been interesting.

LIEN                    Are things different from what you first
                            imagined?

MAY                    I had no idea that there’s so much to learn for
                            something like this.

LIEN                    I’m happy to hear that, Miss Lu. I need to ask you
                            again. Are you certain you want to work in the
                            office and not go into the field?

MAY                     . . . Yes . . .

LIEN                    Is that what you really want? Or is it because
                            your mother disapproves?

MAY                    My mother . . .

LIEN                    . . . still doesn’t understand? (MAY nods) Did you
                            try explaining to her?

MAY                    I . . . I feel it’s more practical for me to start
                            working in the office.

LIEN                    You have a way with words, Miss Lu. That’s
                            certainly a polite way to say it. I hope we can find
                            a few girls as quick as you are in this new batch.
                           Of course, I won’t force you to do anything you
                            don’t want to. I just think it’s a shame. You’re
                            giving up ten dollars an hour. You know, office
                            work pays just a hundred dollars a month.

MAY                    I know.

LIEN                    (Sighs) It’s hard cultivating new talent. Of course,
                            it’s partly the fault of some bad apples in our
                            industry. Their dubious dealings have made
                            things more difficult for the rest of us. Fine then. I
                            won’t insist. But I hope you’ll continue the basic
                            tour guide training with the rest of the girls. You’ll
                            be prepared should you change your mind in the
                            future. That’s fine, too. You can go now.

MAY                    Thank you. Mr. Lien. (Goes for her class)

LIM walks in.

LIEN                    How’s work proceeding at the site?

LIM                     You need to jump on them every day.

LIEN                    Can we make it for the opening of the tourism
                            conference?

LIM                     Probably. Hey, I heard Chin Mei entertained a
                            client without informing the company yesterday.
                            Andrew just told me. He saw it with his own eyes.

LIEN                    Oh? Was it with that Wong fellow?

HAN                    I don’t think so. Mr. Wong called just now to
                            book Chin Mei and another three girls to go to
                            Dragon Palace tonight.

LIM                     Then who could it be?

LIEN                    Miss Han, go check the files. Take down who
                            she’s been with.

Miss HAN leaves.

LIM                     Our approach to monitoring is still too weak. It’s
                            too easy to go behind our backs. See if there’s any
                            way other than tailing every single one.

LIEN                    These double-dealers think they can profit at our
                            expense once they’ve learned the ropes.
                            Unfortunately, we’re at a time when our veterans
                            have turned yellow but the new girls are still too
                            green. We’ll have to be careful not to promote
                            these new girls too quickly.

LIM                     How is that Miss Lu doing?

LIEN                    She certainly has qualities. Very quick and good
                            poise. But she’s still too wary. Refuses to go into
                            the field.

LIM                     She’s adamant?

LIEN                    Very much so.

LIM                     She can’t be induced?

LIEN                    Probably not at this time.

LIM                     (Picks up and flips through the customer
                            registration book. Thinks hard)
Try my way.

LIEN                    And what’s that?

LIM                     Give her an official assignment.

LIEN                    (Thinks) Ah. We can give it a try.

LIM                     But a gentler approach, all right? So that even
                            if she refuses, she won’t be scared away.

LIEN                    OK. (Picks up the phone) Get Miss Lu in here.

The two men wait calmly as MAY enters.

MAY                    Mr. Lim, Mr. Lien. Are you looking for me?

LIEN                    Yes, sit down. There’s something I’d like to
                            discuss. Miss Lu, you’ve been here more than a
                            week. You should know how we do things here.
                            We don’t force anyone to do what they don’t want
                            to. But there’s a matter now that we hope you will
                            give due consideration to. The company has seen
                            a sharp rise in its business recently and we’ve had
                            a deluge of clients, more than what we can
                            handle. There’ve been occasions when we’ve had
                            to turn some away. We received a call just now.
                            There’s a party that requires girls who can speak
                            multiple dialects fluently. We’ve assigned
                            everyone at our main and branch offices. We only
                            have our new recruits left. We respect your
                            decision but it’s really hard to find anyone from
                            this batch that’s as good as you. We’d like to
                            solemnly request you to consider helping the
                            company just this once. We’ll even waive our
                            commission, which will go to you, as a gesture of
                            appreciation for your help. As for your mother,
                            it’s just this once. It doesn’t matter whether you
                            tell her or not. Can you help the company in this
                            time of difficulty, Miss Lu? (Pause) I can send you
                            there and pick you up when you’re done.

MAY                    (Struggles with conflicting emotions. Finally nods)

LIM                     Miss Lu, the company is indebted to you.

LIEN                    Thank you. You can pick out a set of clothing
                            from the women’s section on the third floor and
                            charge that to the company. I’ll come and pick you
                            up at 7 p.m. sharp. We’re going to the West 
                            Ocean Club.

MAY                    There’s no need. I’ll come to the office.

LIEN                    That’s even better. I’ll wait for you here.

MAY goes out. HAN walks in with some files.

HAN                    Are you referring to these records, Mr. Lien, Mr. Lim?

LIEN                    (Taking the files) This can wait. Assign Miss Lu
                            and three of the new girls to the reception at West
                            Ocean Club tonight. Send the original four girls
                            somewhere else.

HAN goes to make a call.

LIEN walks over and shakes LIM’s hand.

LIM                     It gets easier once one begins.

Lights dim, curtain falls.

©  Kuo Pao Kung. By arrangement with the estate of the author. Translation © 2016 by Dan Feng Tan. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

The Withered Cherry Tree

Sa’eda Buang’s starstruck girl lives in a Bollywood fantasy while abuse and deception rage around her.

Translators’ note: the following kinship terms and honorifics appear throughout: wak, used for elderly men or uncles; kak, sister or more senior female; kak long, oldest sister; kak ngah, middle sister; abang, brother or more senior male; nyai, elderly Javanese woman.
 

Mila danced happily down the steep knoll. She had memorized every inch of that hill. Her tiny bare feet safely avoided the puddles and the thorns of the mimosa plants that were scattered on the slope of the hill. She continued to hop and skip while imitating the Indian dance moves from a ten-cent Hindustani film she had watched from her mother’s lap a few months ago.

She could not stop singing the “Sangam” sung by Vijayantimala. Her curly tousled hair fluttered untidily in the wind, like the plaits of Vijayantimala being caressed by her lover.

“Where are you going?” Mila suddenly stopped dancing. Damn! How dare anyone disturb her dancing on the steps of Taj Mahal!

“What do you want, eh, Botak?”

“I want to come with you.”

“You can’t! Don’t bother me.”

Mila closed her eyes tightly. Botak was not supposed to appear in her Taj Mahal. A ruby stone glittered on her forehead. Both her arms and her chest were adorned with gold and diamonds. Today, Mila was wearing a scarlet sari festooned with golden embroidery and glitter. Her yellow silk scarf was decorated with emeralds and pearls she had added with great care. Beautiful.

“I don’t care. I don’t have any other friends.”

Mila’s eyes grew wide with anger.

“Eh, I don’t want you to come with me. Don’t you get it? Go play with someone else. I don’t want you to come with me.” Mila stood with hands on her hips like Mak Dara in Ibu Mertuaku. Botak grinned.

Mila bent down to dust off the dirt that covered the floral henna on her feet.

“Eeeew . . . Smelly! You’ve got chicken shit on your feet . . . chicken shit!”

Botak, who had been observing Mila for some time, shouted with glee at her comeuppance as he tried to run away from her. Mila had rejected his offers to play together. Served her right.

“Stupid Botak. Your face is chicken shit.”

Mila snorted as she picked up the silk handkerchief Dev Anand had given her and wiped her feet again. The red silk handkerchief was as crimson as the evening horizon blanketing the sun tired from playing the whole day. Mila continued her dance as she glided down to the foot of the hill. She had to hurry before the sky grew darker. As they’d been in preceding days, the moon and the stars were too lazy to come out to play. They preferred to sleep beneath the thick blanket of clouds. Mila did not want her beautiful hennaed feet to trip over the rocks in the dark.

“Wak, one Hindustani chocolate, please!”

Mila proudly took out two five‐cent coins from the folds of her red sari. Today, she was the richest girl in the world. She could afford a really expensive chocolate.

Wak Seman smiled and handed the chocolate over to her.

“Wow . . . you seem to have a lot of money today. Have you sold all your epok‐epok?”

Mila didn’t reply. She grabbed the chocolate and left the small shop. Space inside the shop was becoming tighter and tighter, as the merchandise outside had been brought in for storage. 

“Share your chocolate with your sisters, OK? Don’t keep them all for yourself!” Wak Seman called after her. Mila pretended not to hear him.

Mila wanted the chocolates all to herself, as she sat between the boughs of her favorite cherry tree, admiring pictures of the Hindustani actors and actresses that she had been collecting for some time. Mila always encountered her hero while singing Hindustani tunes on that cherry tree. She also sat there for hours, swinging her feet back and forth, surrounded by handmaidens who obeyed her every wish. Mila enjoyed the delicious special treat without being disturbed by others. She closed her eyes as her hero fed her. She savored every bite. She did not want to share this dish with anyone else. Botak must not find out about it. Nor should her sisters.

Damn! Mila’s moment of satisfaction was interrupted by whispers from under the tree. The louder the whispers, the more the cherry tree shook. Mila held on to the bough to prevent herself from falling. Every now and then, squeals erupted and the whispers continued. Mila held on tighter. She could hear the faint call to the Maghrib prayer from a distant surau in the western part of the kampong. Mila dared not breathe. Her heart was pounding. She closed her eyes as she prayed that Dev Anand, who had somehow vanished, would return to rescue her from that unpleasant situation. She pulled her clothes tightly around her to avoid attracting the attention of the whispers under the tree. The cherry tree continued to shake until she heard the reverberating call to the Isyak prayer. Mila avoided looking down. How disgusting. Breathing in slowly, Mila devised a strategy to hang spikes on the trunk of the cherry tree so that nobody would dare whisper under her forbidden tree anymore. The next day, Mila would command her army to hang the spikes there.

Soon after the whispers stopped, Mila swiftly jumped down from the bough of the cherry tree and ran home. Mila no longer cared about her hennaed feet. She had to quickly climb the hill to go back home. The sky had turned pitch dark. The dim light of the kerosene lamps from the houses at the foot of the hill was of no help. She would be lucky if she didn’t step on pieces of broken glasses or thorns. She would be lucky if her father returned late from the surau. Otherwise, Mila was prepared to run around the kampong, trying to save herself from her father’s caning. But not to worry, a white stallion would be standing by to whisk Mila away.

“What took you so long, Mila?” her mother’s voice called from the kitchen. Kak Long, Kak Ngah, and her little sister were busy peeling potatoes and chopping onions to make the epok-epok filling. Her mother was kneading the dough.

“You said you only wanted to go to the shop for a short while. You took hours. It’s past Isyak now. Look how dirty your feet are. You probably stepped on some chicken shit. Go take a bath! Soak your clothes in the bucket.” Her mother’s tone grew more and more stern. Mila obeyed while stealing a glance at her little sister, who enjoyed seeing Mila getting scolded.

“You were eating chocolate, right?” Kak Ngah asked jealously.

Mila remained silent.

“Whose picture did you get?”

Mila tried to slip away.

“You big booger! Scrooge!” taunted the offended Kak Ngah. Kak Ngah pinched Mila with all her might. Mila tried to escape Kak Ngah’s firm grip but failed. She was forced to save herself by biting Kak Ngah’s hand and running toward the well behind the house.

The chattering from the living room irritated her to no end, making it difficult for Mila to fall asleep. On her left and right, her sisters slept soundly. Just like other days, Mila had to wake up early. Tomorrow, Mila wanted to wear a green kurta embroidered with golden and silver spangles. While holding a feast for her subjects, Mila would also entertain them with her melodious singing and dancing. She patted the soft goose-feather pillow and then kissed her little sisters, who had foul saliva all over their faces. That night, she allowed her little sister to share the soft mattress in her chamber.

The chattering outside grew louder and was now accompanied by soft sobs. Mila could not restrain her curiosity any longer. She peeked through the crevices of the wooden panels of her bedroom. Vaguely, she could see her parents and Wak Seman, the ailing kampong chief, muttering something. A woman was sitting with her legs folded, sobbing. Her big round belly was heaving uncontrollably, as heavy as her sobs. Mila could not see her face, but the woman had to be Kak Hasnah, her most beautiful and stylish neighbor. Her own mother’s face was calm. Her father was rolling nylon threads to make a bird trap while muttering something. And Wak Seman was nodding.

Mila did not know how long the chattering lasted. Such late-night gatherings at her home between her mother and the other folks in their kampong and the kampong chief were not unusual. Although her mother did not hold any position in the community, she remained a source of comfort and refuge, especially for the other women. Mila didn’t get it. In all likelihood, her mother simply liked to help people. After the passing of Wak Seman’s wife, he began to hold frequent gatherings at Mila’s house, in private or otherwise.

When she woke up, Mila found herself lying on her little sister’s belly. And as happened every morning, the crow of the rooster behind her house was like an alarm clock marking the start of the day’s tasks.

In the kitchen, Kak Long and their mother were frying epok‐epok. Kak Ngah was getting ready for school. Kak Long helped their mother every morning, since in the afternoons she attended school. Her father had likely left quite some time ago to go to the end of the kampong to snare birds with two of his friends. Her father had been doing nothing else for the past two months. Mila did not understand why her father returned home angrily one afternoon, muttering “mogok.” Mila thought that “mogok” was some sort of mumps that often infected Mila and her friends in the kampong. What Mila didn’t get was why her dad was angry when it was the children who were infected.

Mila donned her shiny green kurta, ready to carry out her task. Two worn-out rattan baskets had been loaded with piping hot epok-epok.

“Mila, come here my child.” Mila walked over to her mother, who was drenched in sweat from the sheer heat of the epok-epok.

“When you leave, can you pass by Kak Hasnah’s house? Don’t enter the house, just pass by, OK?”

“I don’t want to, Mother. Abang Osman always shouts at me. He says that I disturb his sleep. Sometimes he pelts me with stones.”

“But just go past their house this morning. It’s important. When you reach their house, don’t call out. Just be quiet.” Her mother whispered this as she combed Mila’s tangled hair. Mother, don’t forget to use that fragrant MBR oil on my hair, Mila thought to herself. Let it be as thick and shiny as Mala Sinha’s plaits.

“I hate it, Mother.”

“Mila, listen to me, OK? Just pass by Kak Hasnah’s house this morning.”

Mila looked at her mother’s face intently. My Maharani, Mila thought to herself. How beautiful, just like Madhubala. The wrinkles on her forehead and around her eyes only add to her beauty. You are such a soothing sight, my Maharani, as soothing as the waterfall in Kashmir. There is nothing my Maharani does not know.

Fine then, I will do it. Mila danced as she carried the worn-out baskets in her hands. The diamonds embedded in her green kurta glistened beneath the sun, inviting her to play. She headed toward the surau on the western side of the kampong. It would be fun there. Surely one basket will be empty by then. Then my load will be lighter. After that, I’ll head east and then return home to load two more baskets. Keep going until they are sold. They all have to be sold. Otherwise, my Maharani’s face will lose its radiance as she wipes away her tears, hiding them from us, her children.

“Epok‐epok . . . epok‐epok . . .” Mila sang like Lata Mangeshkar. She continued singing from the west to the east of the kampong. As soon as Mila reached Kak Hasnah’s house, she stopped dancing and singing. Mila trod cautiously. Nothing was odd. Nothing was special. Although she had not been there for quite some time, there was nothing new—heaps of newspapers were still left untouched in the shabby ambin. At night, there would surely be two to three unfamiliar young men waiting for Abang Osman at the ambin. They would talk and laugh as loudly as they pleased. Mila had been told by Botak that those men in tight‐fitting pants came from another kampong. I’m not sure.

Kak Hasnah’s secluded house was still dark. The door and windows were shut tight. Wet clothes hung on the clothesline. Kak Hasnah must have done the laundry at dawn before she left for the white man’s house at the far end of the kampong, where she’d wash his clothes until evening fell. On an early morning like this, Abang Osman would still be snoring. I hate him.

“Were you scared when you passed by Kak Hasnah’s house just now? Don’t forget to pass by her house again, OK? Remember, you don’t need to do anything else, just pass by.” Her mother repeated her message as she loaded the empty baskets. Mila nodded while adjusting the sleeves of her kurta. A couple of diamonds had dropped off her sleeves as she danced with so much enthusiasm.

“When you return, I will sew that torn sleeve. Come here, let me pin it up first. When everything has sold out this week, I will give you five cents.”

Five cents this week. Five cents next week. That adds to ten cents already, and I will be able to buy chocolates again. Buy a chocolate and get the picture of an Indian film star. Hopefully I will get the picture of Rajendra Kumar and not MGR. When I’m done eating the chocolate and I get the picture, then I will show Kak Ngah so that she will be jealous. Mila sang at the top of her lungs. Her subjects ought to listen to her singing.

“Mila, I want to come with you.”

“Hey, Botak! You always want to come with me. Go and play with someone else. I don’t want you to come because you will step on someone’s chicks again. I don’t want to get beaten up because of you again. Go away.”

Botak scratched his scabby head. He grinned. Just like Mila, Botak had not yet entered first grade.

“I can help you carry your baskets. One for you, one for me.”

Mila was impressed. Smart Botak.

“Epok-epok . . . Epok-epok . . .” Mila and Botak sang together. They both skipped along joyfully.

As they were approaching Kak Hasnah’s house, Mila quickly put her hand over Botak’s mouth, just as he was about to shout. Mila forcefully pulled Botak by the hand. “Eh, what’s wrong?”

“If Abang Osman wakes up, he will start cursing me. My mother asked me to pass by their house and nothing else.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Let’s look around. I want to know what’s going on.”

“Are you crazy? He will beat you to death. My mother did not ask me to do anything. I do not want to. If you do that, I will not be friends with you ever again.”

Mila snatched the basket from Botak and immediately ran off, far away from Kak Hasnah’s house. Botak grinned. From afar, Mila could see Botak creeping up slowly to peek through the walls of Kak Hasnah’s room. Mila’s heart was beating fast. Without realizing, tears rolled down her cheeks. Mila waited for what seemed like an eternity. She felt waves of panic, just like the time she heard the whispers under the cherry tree. Botak, why are you looking for trouble? I don’t want to be your friend anymore. I’ll get beaten up because of you. But Mila still continued to wait for him.

After what seemed like hours, Botak came running toward Mila, panting. He could still manage a grin.

That night, chatter could again be heard coming from the living room. Kak Hasnah sobbed louder than before. Her mother hugged Kak Hasnah tightly. Her father and Wak Seman’s voices sounded serious. Mila cupped her hands around her ear and pressed up against thin wall.

“This time, Timah and him . . .” she faintly heard her mother say.

“Timah did not go to school this morning, but her parents didn’t know . . . We must tell them.”

“You and Wak Seman must let them know,” ordered Father.

“Aren’t you going to tell them?” asked her mother.

“I promised my friend I’d go snare birds in the forest behind the train station.”

“Can we believe Botak? He is just a child. He can’t be a witness.” Wak Seman seemed doubtful.

“What if it was true? We can’t just remain silent. When he did the same to Yam, he got away with it. He really made her suffer. Yam eventually went back to Johor to hide her shame. Timah is only ten, just like our Ngah. Take pity on her. Let’s ask Timah tomorrow. I will ask her to come by.” Her mother had decided on a plan.

Kak Hasnah was crying nonstop.

“What time does Osman usually return home at night?” asked Wak Seman. Kak Hasnah’s reply could not be heard. It was drowned amid her sobs. 

The following night Mila saw Kak Hasnah in her living room again. She was panting. Perhaps due to her bulging belly. Wak Seman looked really worn out.

“Timah came by your house twice when you went out to work. Two more times, when you were home, Osman brought her to the cherry tree,” her mother explained in detail. Kak Hasnah continued crying.

“Why? What did I do wrong?” 

“You did nothing wrong. Neither did Timah. Wak Seman and I informed Timah’s parents a while ago. They almost killed Timah but luckily Wak Seman was there to calm them down. I’ve already asked them to make a report to the police, but they refused. They were ashamed and fearful.”

“Be patient, Hasnah. We will wait until you have delivered before we take action,” advised Wak Seman.

“I can no longer put up with him beating me when he comes home drunk.”

“Be patient. He has a bad temper. He’s also a notorious gangster. Do you remember when he wanted to burn my shop because I reminded him of his debts? I don’t want to go hard on him or he will torture you again,” continued Wak Seman.

“Is there no way out?”

“There is, but let’s be patient.”

“I’ve always been patient when he acts up. Can’t the villagers help me? Where are all the men in this kampong?” Kak Hasnah raised her voice.

“I approached everyone but nobody dares confront him. Neither the young nor the old. We will help you, but you have to be patient.” Wak Seman appeared small and weak. His face wrinkled. Father kept himself busy with his snare.

Mila dozed off without realizing it. She had been dancing at the foot of the Himalaya Mountains and among the Casuarina trees that night. She made snowballs together with her beautiful handmaidens as they all sang sweetly. Her blue sari was drenched in sweet-smelling sweat as she danced and played. The anklets and bells jingled to the rhythm of her lively dance. Suddenly, a monstrous creature appeared and began to chase them. They ran everywhere, dispersing helter-skelter. Mila did not manage to escape by the white horse as her legs were already being pulled firmly in the grip of the evil monster. Mila was tied to the cherry tree. The monster began to sneer, ready to swallow Mila up. Its face became more and more frightening like Abang Osman’s. Mila peed in her pants.

In the morning, Mila’s sister screamed and scolded her. There was more work for her now as she needed to wash the flattened mattress and clean the floor. Kak Ngah had already left for school.

“Mila, today you will pass by Kak Hasnah’s house again, OK?” said her mother.

“I hate it. I hate looking at that house.”

“Why?”

“I’m scared. I hate it.”

“Abang Osman did not scold you yesterday, did he?”

Mila shook her head. Just like Kak Hasnah, Mila used to be attracted to Abang Osman, who resembled Raj Kapoor. But ever since he first scolded her, she became afraid of him.

Mila’s mother pulled her daughter close and hugged her tight. Mila then went around the kampong with a heavy heart. She was no longer dancing. She was still haunted by her nightmare. What if Abang Osman really did turn into a monster and run after her?

Mila went off to search for Botak, whom she had previously disliked so much. She searched in the huge drain where he might be catching eels. She then went to the tapioca plantation, but Botak was nowhere to be seen. Botak’s house was dark and quiet. If Botak were at her side, she would be less terrified.

Abang Osman’s house was quiet, as usual. Mila breathed in deeply and continued to walk briskly. Good, Abang Osman is not yet awake.

The ambin of his house was just like yesterday, filled with stacks of newspapers. However, there was a pair of school shoes at his doorstep. Mila gathered the courage to take a closer look at those shoes. She stood there staring at them. She sobbed and ran as fast as she could, leaving the house far behind.

As soon as she arrived home, Mila ran straight to her mother and hugged her. She cried hard. Those shoes belonged to Kak Ngah. Mila could not understand why Kak Ngah was at Abang Osman’s house when Kak Hasnah was not there. Mila was trembling. She did not want Kak Ngah to be swallowed up by the monstrous Abang Osman.

Mila’s mother stood up in a hurry and ran to Abang Osman’s house. She asked Mila to bring Wak Seman over to Abang Osman’s house. When they reached his house, Wak Seman and Mila saw that her mother had become hysterical and was slapping Kak Ngah over and over again. She kept tugging Kak Ngah’s crumpled school uniform. Kak Ngah just looked down and cried. Her hair was a mess. Mila did not know where Kak Ngah had put her schoolbag.

“I just wanted some chocolate . . . just chocolate . . .” Kak Ngah sobbed as she was swamped with questions by her mother, who asked her over and over again why she was there.

Kak Ngah, Kak Ngah please don’t cry. I will give you some of my chocolates. We can both eat in the cherry tree. Kak Ngah, my chocolates taste better. My chocolates have wafers in them. Kak Ngah, Kak Ngah please don’t cry, Mila sobbed behind a tree in front of Kak Hasnah’s house. She wanted to hug Kak Ngah, but she felt paralyzed.

Abang Osman was shirtless, with his hands on his hips; he looked just like the demon Jin Ravana in the Ramayana. The neighbors merely observed from afar while whispering to one another. Wak Seman pointed his finger at Abang Osman’s face. Abang Osman did indeed look like the monstrous creature in her dream last night. He was horrifying.

“You’re inhuman! You don’t pity the girls. You don’t pity your wife. You’re evil, you monster!” Wak Seman shouted.

“What do you mean evil? I did not force them. They love coming here. It’s none of your business!” Abang Osman bellowed arrogantly.

“You are a beast! No human being would have done such a thing! Have you no fear of God? Have you no decency? Damn you, bastard!”

“Go to hell! I can do whatever I like. My wife still wants me. Do you have a problem with that? Get lost!”

Wak Seman grew even more incensed. He pulled up his faded kain pelikat and punched Abang Osman so hard that even he could not hold his balance. He fell to the ground, right where Abang Osman was standing. Abang Osman kicked Wak Seman ruthlessly. Wak Seman groaned in pain. Mila looked around at the people who had been observing the whole incident while praying for someone brave enough to help Wak Seman. No one dared move. With fiery eyes Abang Osman, glared at everyone there. They were petrified.

It has now been a month since Mila stopped peddling epok-epok. Nyai Kesum, the kampong midwife, had come once to her house. Her mother, Kak Ngah, and Nyai Kesum stayed in the bedroom from noon till dusk. Ever since that day, Kak Ngah no longer went to school and was also not allowed to leave the house. Kak Long was devastated when she, too, had to stop attending school. Her father just kept quiet and stared emptily into space. His trips to the end of the kampong to snare birds became more frequent. Mila’s mother had long since stopped crying, but her heart remained trapped in the waves of emotions. She had more wrinkles on her face.

It has been a month since Wak Seman closed down his shop and went back to Segamat to accompany Timah and her parents as they went to meet a prominent traditional healer. Timah and her parents had returned to the kampong but this time without Wak Seman.

Mila lay on her belly in her bedroom, organizing all the pictures of the Hindustani film stars on the floor. She counted the days until she could buy more pictures to add to her collection.

“Mila! Mila!” She heard a voice from outside her bedroom.

“What do you want?”

“Abang Osman and Kak Hasnah are fighting!”

“Where?”

“Near the cherry tree . . . come!”

“Near my cherry tree?”

Mila immediately ran after Botak, who was as swift as a grasshopper. All the villagers had surrounded the cherry tree as if to watch another of the magic shows that had been coming to the kampong every month. Mila followed Botak closely as they squeezed through the crowd just to get a better view, like first-class seats at a circus.

Kak Hasnah was already sprawled on the ground, wailing in pain and misery. Her pregnant belly bulged through her tattered clothes. With his thundering voice, Abang Osman cursed Kak Hasnah and hit her hard over and over again. Mila looked around. No one moved. She saw Timah in a sunflower dress not far away, crying uncontrollably. She was holding the wrapper of a Hindustani chocolate.

“You bitch! How dare you tear my clothes. I will kill you!”

“Have mercy, Abang . . . please have mercy!” pleaded Kak Hasnah.

“Enough, Osman! Have pity on her. She is pregnant,” said a trembling voice.

“I will kill you! How dare you attack me here. You insolent woman!” Abang Osman kicked the side of Kak Hasnah’s belly as hard as he could. Kak Hasnah yelped. The rip on the pocket of his shirt got bigger and three pieces of the Hindustani chocolate slipped out. Mila gasped. He bent down to pick them up. To Mila, a man as disgusting as Abang Osman did not deserve to keep chocolates wrapped in pictures of great heroes and heroines.

Kak Hasnah was still sprawled on the ground. Abang Osman continued to rage. The villagers remained quiet.

Mila could not bear to witness this anymore. It pained her to watch what had happened. Why is Kak Hasnah’s story as tragic as "Sangam"? In the end, shouldn’t the hero and heroine be united? Tears flowed down her cheeks. Standing next to her, Botak no longer grinned. His eyes, too, were filled with tears.

Mila pulled Botak and they left the cruel circus. Mila swore never to touch the Hindustani chocolates again. She would no longer go near the cherry tree. Mila just wanted to hurry home so that she could be in the arms of her Maharani. On the way home, Mila tore up the pictures of her film idols. None of them meant anything anymore. No princes had come to the rescue. There were no dance moves on hill slopes. No heroes. Botak sobbed. 

 

Translation © 2016 by Miranti Silasudjana, Nur Izzati Jasni, and Nurul Hannah. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Malay-to-English track was facilitated by Harry Aveling.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Black Panther

Wong Koi Tet’s childless man, desperate for an heir, resorts to superstition to jack up his potency.

Ong Par had been waiting for over three hours, frozen in a squat among the chaotic shadows cast by the crisscrossing branches of the trees towering over him. One thought occupied his mind all this time: that he might not have a son to perform his last rites. He was light-headed from the smell of his own sweat mingled with the hum of the swamp insects and the humid tropical heat unique to jungles in low-lying areas. It nearly made him believe that he could see twenty years into the future, all the way to his own funeral.

He saw his wife, whom he had married when he was barely twenty, now wrinkled with the passing of the years. Whimpering softly, she inched along with the cortege of friends and neighbors, some of whom he did not recognize. They were like a loose army of ants trundling beneath a rumbling, leaking sky. Imagining this procession without an heir that would carry on his family line, Ong Par shuddered. He took a deep breath. The swampy phosphorous-tinted air bit sharply, immediately reminding him that he was in a deserted jungle in the northwest part of the island. His eyes locked on Or Soh, the fat black sow sprawled on the ground thirty yards away. Ong Par peered into the dancing shadows, hoping to see the telltale glint of light reflecting from the eyes of a black panther.

Or Soh was the size of a hippo. A nylon string around her leg tethered her to a peg that had been hammered into the cracked, dry ground. She had struggled and yowled at first, but her cries had soon turned hoarse and muddled under the burning sun. Weak and spent, she had flopped onto a tuft of grass, looking like a stack of burnt tires.

It had taken a lot of persuasion and an entire crate of beer, enough to get a few men drunk, for Ong Par to be allowed to take Or Soh out of her sty behind his cousin-in-law’s house. He had explained that the fortune-teller had suggested that proximity to a sow would imbue his wife with positive energy. But in fact, Ong Par had other plans. Ever since the panther had escaped from the zoo, it had been Or Soh’s fate to be tied up, deep in the rainforest, to be used as helpless bait.

Listening to his neighbors and chatting with fellow workers at the dock, Ong Par had managed to piece together the tale of the panther’s escape. The narrative hewed to the basic facts but did not sacrifice colorful detail. When Ong Par himself told the story, he too would sometimes get carried away in the heat of the moment, letting his imagination run wild. However, he was always careful to leave out one particular detail, which no listener would have thought to ask.

Earlier that year, he had gone to Lau Mok’s shop to buy the things needed for the Lunar New Year. The shop was small and run-down but within its plywood walls were pans, bowls, pots, and ladles, all the household wares that the villagers needed for their daily lives. This was where Ong Par learned for the first time that the government had started to clear the jungle near the village to build a ten-acre zoo. To the north and south of this area lay two reservoirs, while to the east sat a colonial housing estate and a club that admitted only the British and rich local businessmen.

“Animals locked up in cages . . . would anyone go see them?”

“I hear it’s like that in foreign countries, lots of animals, so lots of visitors.” The green veins on Lau Mok’s neck were showing. The usually poised and steady businessman was unusually excited.

“We’ve got lots of animals here, why would anyone go look at those animals?”

“All we’ve got here are cats, dogs, chickens, ducks, and filthy pigs. There, they will have tigers, grey bears, elephants, and lions. Have you ever seen those?”

Ong Par hesitated. He wanted to mention the five-foot-long crocodile he had once seen in the river near the village entrance. But he stopped himself, knowing his tale was not as impressive as the stories Lau Mok told about tigers, bears, elephants, and lions. The scar on his left ankle still hurt from the bite of a wild dog, and he could not help imagining a pack of wild animals breaking free from their cages.

“What if they get out?”

“Do you think those government officials don’t know what they’re doing? They have hired many foreign experts. Those cages are made of the best quality steel and the height of a few men. No matter how high the animals can jump, they cannot escape.” Lau Mok then started to talk about the old days when he worked on a rubber plantation in Malaysia. The surrounding forests were full of tigers, but the laborers were never afraid of them. The bolder ones even used their rubber-tapping knives to hunt the tigers, then skinned and deboned them to enjoy a tiger feast.

The villagers had heard Lau Mok’s tiger tales many times. Ong Par left the shop, raised himself on tiptoe, and stared in the direction of the impending zoo. He wondered if the appearance of such a newfangled development nearby would mean that the village’s days were numbered. Perhaps their world would change completely.

The new zoo would only officially open in the sweltering month of June but the nightmarish prophecy that had come to Ong Par so instinctively came true soon after the Lunar New Year. Prior to that, an Indian tapir and a spotted deer had escaped, drawing the concern of both the authorities and the public. This time, it was a young black panther that had just been captured in the wilderness of Siam.

In those days, the authorities still published a list of the year’s ten most wanted criminals. When the panther’s empty cage was discovered, they responded as if they were facing a similar formidable enemy. Several hundred policemen were swiftly deployed to cordon off the zoo and the surrounding forest. Countless traps were set. Dragnets were erected in the day, torches lit at night. Armed and tense policemen searched the stone ridges, low hills, and dense forests around the clock. Some people said they had not seen so many policemen enter the jungle since the extermination of the Communists. Others speculated that this was a conspiracy to stop people from going out late at night.

People talked about the escaped beast as if they had seen it with their own eyes. The animal was magnificent and wild. It could smell humans from a distance away and flee. It could disappear in the blink of an eye into a cave or up a tree, vanishing without a trace. It could even move like the wind under the cover of night and appear right beside the men who were hunting it. Each day they speculated, huddling in groups: Has the devil-like panther perhaps been captured by someone else? Or has it left the jungle to wreak havoc elsewhere?

There were reports of panther sightings and tracks every few days. The constant speculation was ready fodder for those barren times, slaking the people’s thirst for distraction. Ong Par would get an immediate update whenever his nephew Ah Kun got wind of new rumors. They would set off the following day with Ong Par loading up the cart of his delivery tricycle with ropes of different sizes and colors, several not-too-sharp knives, a three-legged stool made from pieces of discarded furniture, and a bolt of tightly rolled mosquito net, squeezed into the cramped space that also held Ah Kun and Or Soh.

Ong Par had to rely on Ah Kun as his guide, the young man mapping their route based on the descriptions of the panther sightings in the news reports. Sometimes they prowled around the catchment on the east side of the swamp. Sometimes they ventured southward near the plantations just on the edge of town or delved into the fern forests by the lake. The panther seemed to be everywhere, causing unrest. It seemed the beast could leap out at you, from nowhere.

Once, Ong Par even bought seven or eight durians weighing about five catty, saying they could be used for throwing at the panther. In the end, both of them ate up all the durians after waiting futilely for an entire afternoon, while Or Soh chewed happily on the discarded seeds.

From where he was lying in wait today, Ong Par could clearly see the nonchalant sow in his sightline and glimpse Ah Kun hiding among the rocks. The light was fading. The birds flew home as the sun set, making raspy noises as they fluttered low across the canopies of trees. Ong Par stood up to signal to Ah Kun it was time to pack up and go home, and they hoisted Or Soh onto the pull cart. Vexed by yet another wasted day, Ong Par laid the blame, as usual, on his nephew.

“You must have read the newspapers wrong. There’s nothing here at all, not even the shadow of a ghost. All your education is good for nothing.”

Ah Kun, so exhausted he could barely open his eyes, decided not to rise to the bait. After all, it was harder to catch a panther than to see a ghost. Besides, he was accustomed to being the target of his uncle’s frustrations. Ever since Ong Par started taking him on these secret expeditions, Ah Kun had not seen his uncle smile once. At first, he thought Ong Par was after the reward offered for the capture of the panther. But observing the desperation in his uncle’s eyes, he knew things were not that simple. Still, he did not dare to ask for the real reason for fear of another scolding.

Riding his tricycle home with the sun at his back, Ong Par decided to abandon this crazy panther project before his wife and the villagers caught on. This endeavor had obsessed him for weeks and they seemed to be getting suspicious of his true motives.

Ong Par had always been bothered that he could recognize only the Chinese characters of his own name but no other. Following the affair, he comforted himself that it was his ability to recognize the character “par” for “panther” that allowed him to guess what the newspaper headlines were saying.

He was the only son in the family and was a boy at a time when those around him had just survived a terrible period of war and disaster and so understood the importance of being educated. His parents had always hoped that he would at least complete primary school. On his first day of school, he had brought along his schoolbag, but when the teacher with the thick reading glasses was not paying attention, he had taken off his pristine white shoes, placed them on his seat, and snuck out, disappearing like a wisp of smoke. He had run barefoot toward the village and dashed into his house, crying and gasping.

His mother had taken the cane from its place on the wall to whip him but the harsh blows had only caused him to stop crying and stubbornly wipe the tears from his face. His father, waking from his afternoon nap, had calmly appraised the situation, taking the cane away from his wife and eyeing Ong Par, who was cringing under the table. “If he doesn’t want to study, so be it,” his father had said. “A beast of burden or a man, it’s his fate.”

That was one of the few things that Ong Par remembered his taciturn father saying to him. He also remembered how his father had once guided his hand as he traced the strokes of his name, all the while reminding him of the origin of the “par” in his name and the “haw” in his sister’s. Their names mirrored the Chinese characters in the names of the wealthy Aw brothers, and he had wanted his children’s lives to be as illustrious as theirs.

Another time, Ong Par saw his father sitting in a dark corner by the well with Widow Chen. His father had hastily removed his hand from her lap before warning Ong Par not to tell his mother. A few days later, Widow Chen had waylaid him and shoved a handful of sweets clumsily into his pocket, rubbing his head and praising him for being a good boy, as Ong Par stared at the mole at the corner of her mouth, agitating like a fly in the throes of dying.

His parents had passed away before he got married. He often said to his wife, “My father once told me that it’s fate whether one becomes a beast of burden or a man.”

After he got married, Ong Par found work at the city harbor as a coolie, carrying sacks of rice. Later, when his sister entrusted her son to him, he worked together with his nephew to unload cargo from the lighters docked at the quay. The meager pay was barely enough to live on, but still Ong Par longed for a son. His sister had determined long ago with just one look that Ong Par’s wife would not bear children, though she had never once said this out loud. After almost ten years of marriage, Ong Par and his wife had not produced any offspring.

That year, the government launched a family planning campaign. The explosion in population had been like a wild beast that had broken out of its cage. Ong Par became the butt of jokes, the uneducated man who took the lead in complying with the government’s directive. Some people even speculated about his sexual potency behind his back.

He had gone to what was considered the most efficacious temple for three days’ worth of “holy” water, but this had not worked. Then, he spent half his savings on a checkup at the hospital in town. After examining the couple, the doctor had concluded that both were healthy and suggested that perhaps their problem was due to stress. Ong Par was so incensed at wasting such a large sum of money that he stormed out of the hospital and spat onto the ground. “What a quack! How dare he say I have mental problems? He’s the one with problems!”

In his heart, Ong Par remained cocksure that he would find a solution. He never passed by an opportunity to ask for fertility tips, and this resulted in his consumption of several recommended “ancestral recipes,” all supposedly foolproof. Among the things that went down his throat were: sea turtle eggs, shells and all, procured from heaven knows where by a friend; fat frogs stolen from a farm in a neighboring village; a brimming cup of steaming blood that had gushed from a python sold by a rural slaughterhouse; and all kinds of obscure roots and barks. These superstitious remedies occasionally left him battling diarrhea for an entire day and did nothing to temper his anxiety and confusion about the future.

Perhaps he had been more affected by what the doctor said than he was willing to admit. When it came to his marital duties, Ong Par was never in the mood anymore. Even when desire occasionally reared its head and nagged at him deep in the night, Ong Par preferred to get out of bed, gulp down some cold water, and go back to sleep. Of course, his wife started to realize that things were not quite right and even lost her temper once. Ong Par had moved as if to strike her but someone paying attention could not have missed the anguished self-reproach in his bellow: “Can’t make a baby anyway, what’s the point of doing it?”

It had occurred to Ong Par that he could try to follow his father’s example and find himself a mistress, or at least a cockwarmer. Even if he could not get a son out of the affair to carry on the family name, it would prove that he could still get things done in that area. He really thought he had exhausted all means until his friend Ban from the warehouse reminded him that there was a ritual he had not tried yet. But how on earth was he to find an animal’s penis? This question caused Ong Par quite a few sleepless nights.

“Any animal will do?” There was a sudden gleam in Ong Par’s eyes, as if he had sighted prey emerging from the fog.

“A fierce one is preferred. The more savage it is, the more powerful its thing will be, and that will definitely work better.”

Ban sounded so confident that Ong Par trusted him entirely. One night when he could not sleep, he strolled to the entrance of the village to have a smoke. His gaze lingered on the stray dogs scavenging for food. These dogs have spent too much time around humans, he thought. They have been tamed into submission and have lost their natural aggression. He found himself inexplicably panting, like how he had panted all those years ago when he ran away from school.

Only when news broke that a black panther escaped from the zoo did Ong Par realize that his prayers to the village’s earth deity had been answered. The first time he led the clueless Ah Kun into the jungle, Ong Par had even slaughtered a chicken first to give thanks at the temple. He asked the gods to protect him and give him courage so he could capture this ferocious beast alive and cut off the thing that protruded from its lower abdomen, hanging between its powerful hind legs.

Once the deed was done, he would follow the instructions he had been given on how to brew and bottle it, and consult a fortune-teller to choose an auspicious date to uncork the concoction and down it all. Then, after an amorous tussle, he would plant an Ong family seed in his wife’s belly, and they would have an heir to honor them and bring them offerings after their death, saving them from a fate of becoming a pair of lonely forsaken ghosts.

Not long after Ong Par ended his efforts to capture the panther and its penis, the zoo announced its opening. Ah Kun found a new job as a clerk and Or Soh gave birth to ten piglets. Ong Par adamantly refused to visit the zoo, and he was equally resolved not to touch his wife. A sourness lingered in his heart, and he could not forget that elusive black panther.

But time heals all, and the black panther that had struck fear into everyone’s hearts was no exception. The memory of the beast began to fade. Some believed it had perished in the jungle, or swum across the straits to a neighboring shore. Then suddenly one night, the panther came roaring back.

Almost a year after its disappearance, police found the animal in a canal near the race track. It had tried to shrink into the shadows but could not repeat its feat of melting into the night. The policemen started a fire on one end of the canal and set up a net on the other end, trying to force the panther to run into the trap. They even fired their guns several times over the canal.

But the panther’s wild nature had rekindled during its escape. It refused to budge, choosing to die rather than surrender and was burned alive a few hours after the standoff began.

The next evening, everyone gathered at Lau Mok’s shop to read the newspapers. The story of how the fearsome beast perished in the ambush was splashed across several pages. In the photographs, the animal lay on its back in the canal. Its stiff carcass had to be removed with a crane. Lau Mok said it was a pity that the panther had not managed to get farther away and had to end up dying like this; the authorities had had it in for the animal from the very beginning. The others chimed in, chewing over every detail, as if they were savoring a great upheaval that marked the end of an era. Only Ong Par pressed closer to the newsprint, scrutinizing the dead panther in the photographs.

“Why can’t I see anything?”

“What can’t you see?”

“Where is his thing, down there?” Ong Par picked up the newspaper and flipped through the pages with great agitation, his complexion taking on a greenish hue as if he were tangled in jungle foliage. Everyone looked at him, trying to get an inkling of what was going on. It was a laughing Lau Mok who solved the puzzle first.

“It’s female, how could there be anything down there?”

Ong Par stood on the sidelines while everyone else continued their heated discussion. Suddenly, the familiar sounds of the jungle began to reverberate all around him, enveloping him in the murmurings of its creatures. He felt as if he was turning into something completely alien.

That night, Ong Par got into bed after drinking himself into a stupor, waking his wife. Before she could launch into a tirade, he started to paw at her and she found herself pinned beneath his weight. She could smell the alcohol fumes coming off him, then came a hoarse cry like the keening of a broken beast. Ong Par’s wife came to know once more his bestial nature, and a year after the death of the black panther, the couple and their two-month-old son made their first visit to the zoo.

                                               

© Wong Koi Tet. Translation © 2016 by Hong Xinyi, Lee Chee Keng, and Tina Sim. All rights reserved. Translated as part of Translators Lab 2015, co-organized by The Select Centre and Writers’ Centre Norwich. The Chinese-to-English track was facilitated by Shelly Bryant.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
from the October 2016 issue: In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore

Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism

This piece is an edited and revised excerpt from Singapore Malay literary doyen Masuri S.N.'s paper “New Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism,” delivered in Malaysia in 1982. Singapore had separated from Malaysia just seventeen years prior to that, but the differences in the Malay-language literature of the two neighbors had already become apparent due to the different trajectories of their social and economic development. While the author writes about the Malay literary scene in particular, the larger processes of globalization, urbanization, and modernization that shaped Malay literary production also had a major role in influencing the larger cultural sphere in Singapore, especially the island’s vernacular literatures.—Dan Feng Tan 

Prior to the separation of Singapore and Malaysia in 1965, literary works produced by Singapore Malay writers were seen as “Malaysian literature,” a perception that persisted until the early 1970s. Even after the split, writers on the island still saw themselves as part of the larger Malaysian writing community due to the common language used.

Many Malay writers who had pioneered and influenced the literary scene in Singapore had chosen to move to Malaysia before the separation. Among the writers who were born in Singapore and who chose to remain, there was a resolve to continue to engage in creative writing as one body of Malay literature in its widest possible meaning. In Malaysia, newspapers and magazines published columns by Singapore Malay writers, especially between 1965 and 1969. Malay works on both sides of the straits were virtually indistinguishable in terms of form, theme, or style. It was only in the early 1970s that differences became apparent, due to the impact the different systems of governance had on language, the economy, society, education, and culture.

Singapore is a city-state located at the crossroads between East and West, exposing it to the world’s cultures. In the early 1970s, with the advancement of science and technology, the country underwent rapid transformation. To ensure its survival and growth, the government focused on industrial development, zoning various parts of the island for heavy and light industry. The government’s economic policy of encouraging foreign investment brought many multinational corporations to Singapore. Many new factories, especially those engaged in electronics manufacturing, were built. This provided jobs for the new graduates churned out each year. In addition, the government’s education policy emphasized training in English, mathematics, science, and a second language. There was a focus on turning out students fluent in at least two languages and bilingual ability was made a requirement for entry into university.

Other than focusing on economic development and industrial expansion, the government also placed much emphasis on housing the island’s population, a task that it carried out with great efficiency. High-rise public housing with comprehensive amenities was constructed. Over a short span of time, most villages were demolished and well-planned modern housing projects took their place.

All of this led to fundamental changes in the way of life of the island’s residents, regardless of their ethnic, linguistic, or cultural backgrounds. The Malay community, especially those who had lived in the zinc- and attap-roofed houses—such as those in the kampongs of Geylang Serai, Pasir Panjang, Radin Mas, Bedok, and Air Gemuruh—were resettled in the new housing estates. Most of the kampongs had residents that came from a single ethnic group. Many of the former rural residents now had to get used to living with neighbors of other ethnic communities. Gradually, they acquired a new way of life from their exposure to the common experiences shared by other Singaporeans across the island. They became used to life in a cosmopolitan city.

In the early 1970s, there emerged a new group of writers in their twenties. They had graduated from secondary schools that used the Malay language as the medium of instruction. Among the new breed of writers were Djamal Tukimin, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Nor Yusman A. Majid, Noorhidayat, and Ajaki. Their outlook and attitudes differed from the writers who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, but we can see in them the legacies of the earlier writers. They were active in producing new works and often met informally to discuss literature. They also invited young poets from Malaysia to Singapore for regular poetry recitals.

This group of poets who began writing from the early 1970s got their start in a period when literature was disintegrating. Writing an authentic poem is difficult because the art of poetry is closely linked to finding solace in the midst of the noise of a city. The conditions of modern life make it almost impossible for a poet to achieve this state that is so critical to the creative process. While many new poems were produced during this period, an analysis shows that they were mainly responses to urban living on a cosmopolitan island. The poems are not dissimilar to poetry written in other cosmopolitan cities of the world.

It’s worth looking at some of this poetry’s more significant features here. First, with the advent of this poetry, the poet adopts his individual self as the starting point, that is, his own experiences. In my opinion, this stems from the pressure that the poet experiences within himself, which causes a psychological crisis, emerging as a main theme in the crafting of the poetry. The poet writes not for satisfaction or ambition, but because of a compulsion to write. These writers generally fall within the “romantic aesthetic” category. That is, they try to find their Self in the process of writing. Because what they experience or observe in reality is dark and depressing (unlike what they perceive in their imagination), their poems are a continuous struggle to appraise the authenticity of their feelings in confronting the discouraging realities of the world.

The young poets of this generation regard the writing of poetry as an artistic endeavor, meaning that their works must be based on freedom, authenticity, and criticality. They are individualistic in assessing deeper meanings beyond the surface. The poems are usually critiques of the problems they see within their own culture. At the center or the starting point of these poems lie the poet’s perceived victimhood by his culture and the political state. Hence, the poet becomes a kind of “cultural hero,” although perceived in the negative. The poet struggles to write poems that tell the Truth while confronting the issues that have victimized his community. But sometimes, the poet fights for art as a main source. Such poems usually have three characteristics. They draw connections through implications; they believe that the quality of artistic works can be judged by the concerns raised in them; and they show a deeper interest in the root causes of a perceived problem. The poet writes his poetry as a shield against the alienation experienced as human society and ways of life change under the impact of science and technology. Hence, the poems often involve Islam and an emphasis on faith in Allah. Often, the poems protest against injustices and express a desire for improvements to be made to the social, political, and other spheres of modern life.

In general, Singapore Malay poetry written in the early 1970s would feature one or more of these themes. However, one could observe differences in the thoughts and attitudes of the individual poets as they strove to develop their own identities.

Even though there were disagreements between younger and older writers due to differences in outlooks and perceptions about observing and exalting the human condition, these were never entrenched nor did this stop the flow of new creative works, particularly in the poetry and short story genres. Regrettably, there has not been any scholarly or comprehensive study that charts the continuity between the writers in the eras of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Thus, a new Malay literature gradually emerged in accord with the wider general conditions of Singapore society. After 1970, Singapore became an industrial society synonymous with the experience of an abstract society: human consciousness had become abstract. Clearly, the writers were “new beings” that could give life to society while experiencing society in a detached manner; Singapore is a pluralistic society, comprised of citizens of different ethnic backgrounds, with the Chinese making up seventy-five percent of the population and the Malays and Muslims making up thirteen percent. Indian and Singaporeans of other origins compose the rest; the government of Singapore recognizes English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil as the official languages of the country; the education policy of Singapore allows schools that provide education in the four official languages. Every major ethnic group in Singapore—that is, Chinese, Malay, and Indian—has the freedom to develop their own culture.

Understanding the above allows us to better understand the development and progress of the new Malay literature in Singapore. Overall, Singaporeans today enjoy a better life. Singaporeans are more prosperous in the material sense. However, when we look at the development of culture, especially literature and, more specifically, new Malay literature, we see worrying signs.

With a higher standard of living, Malay Singaporeans in particular have become less interested in culture, especially literature. Those who are interested are mainly cultural organizations such as Majlis Pusat (a conglomeration of Malay organizations in Singapore), ASAS ’50, Perkumpulan Sriwana (focusing on dance), Perkumpulan Seri Kemuning and Kelab Panggung Negara (focusing on drama and theatre). These drama groups organize regular performances but see lukewarm responses.

The Singapore Malay community has become more focused on issues that advance material comfort. At the same time, community support or positive encouragement of literature is wanting. Writers have to struggle on their own, whether in terms of literary creation, activities, or even appreciation.

Given that many parents now choose to send their children to English-medium schools, it is very likely that we will see a decline in the number of people who have an interest in, and who are able to, appreciate Malay-language works. There is a small audience for new Malay literature in Singapore and it is difficult to integrate Malay literature into the wider society. There is a shortage of literary critics who are serious in analyzing and critically assessing the works of Malay writers; and it is difficult even for important and substantive works by Malay writers in Singapore to be published and showcased because of a shortage of willing publishers.

The younger English-educated generation express themselves better in English and have a stronger command of the language compared to their mother tongues, especially in areas related to culture and literature.

While I have described some worrying signs, that does not mean that I am in despair over the future of Malay literature in the face of the wave of cosmopolitanism that has swept the city-state of Singapore. This is especially so if we understand that the language of literature is deeply spiritual and not something where the benefits can be immediately seen.

I believe that cosmopolitanism will have both positive and negative effects on new Malay literature. One positive effect is that the Malays in Singapore, in being part of a pluralistic and cosmopolitan society that is exposed to the different cultures of the world, will be exposed to new experiences that can become basic ingredients in the production of their own literary works. In other words, with an exposure to and an appreciation of world cultures, there is the possibility of a deeper Malay literature that is strong in expression and that deals with the conditions of all humanity. On the other hand, there is a risk, in my opinion, that an inferiority complex may develop within the Singapore Malays, because the community is a minority in a cosmopolitan country. A sense of inadequacy could develop when interacting directly with other cultures or a way of life that is based on science and technology that is always in a hurry and rapidly changing. If such an inferiority complex takes root, Malays could be drowned in the wave of cosmopolitan urban life without being able to shine with their own unique identities. This will lead to literary works that are rife with self-pity and that wallow in anguish while begging for sympathy.

Based on what I have described above, I feel that there are many obstacles to the development of a new Malay literature in Singapore. For example, how do we cultivate an audience for the future? How do we protect works that have literary value? How do we compete with the popular entertainment magazines and popular novels that are mass-produced and draw a wide audience? And how do we find and plant the seeds for new writing talent so that the Malay literary tradition in Singapore can continue? To me, what is more difficult is how to raise the people’s consciousness with regard to the importance of having a cultural life (in the literary sense), one that is an integral part of them to the extent that they do not regard literature as solely the responsibility of writers.
 

Edited and condensed version by Dan Feng Tan of Masuri S.N.’s “New Malay Literature in the Wave of Singapore’s Cosmopolitanism,” 1982. All rights reserved.

October 2016
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
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