Uncommon scents

lifestyle December 15, 2018 01:00

By Paul Dorsey
The Nation Weekend

4,134 Viewed

Veeraporn Nitiprapha’s 2015 Sea Write award-winning novel emerges from its magical garden in a lush English translation



VEERAPORN Nitiprapha’s epic and epically baroque tale “The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth” was |subsumed in praise when Matichon Books first published it in Thai as “Saiduean Ta Bod Nai Khaowongkot”. It promptly won the first-time novelist the 2015 SEA Write Award, catapulting her into the front ranks of Southeast Asian literary talent. 

Now, thanks to Kong Rithdee, the eminent arts commentator at the Bangkok Post, the book has appeared in English and should surely begin to earn the far wider audience it deserves.

River Books hosted the formal launch on November 25 at Central Embassy in Bangkok, fully confident in its new listing after Veeraporn scored yet another SEA Write triumph, winning this year’s prize with the wordily titled “Buddha Sakarat Asadong Kub Songjam Khong Songjam Khong Maew Kularb Dam”. 

We can only hope an English translation of the new book is forthcoming.

The reviewer must apologise for lacking the Thai-language skills to properly judge “Blind Earthworm” in its original form or the fidelity of the translation, but what is presented is undeniably an engaging read. 

The writing in the English edition is of a calibre that surpasses most of the |fiction produced by expatriate foreign novelists in Thailand who strive to describe their experiences here.

Veeraporn, of course, began with a crucial advantage owing to her nationality. She is steeped in classical Thai literature, an entire body of work to which foreigners have limited access beyond certain examples, such as the wonderful translation of “Khun Chang Khun Paen” by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongphaichit, previously reviewed in these pages.

The great Siamese literature, imbued with Buddhist lore and at the same time offering allegories about Asia’s place in the world, is a keystone to Veeraporn’s story about a free-thinking rural girl’s troubled ascent to womanhood. The undercurrent here is the bloody denouement of the 2010 red-shirt protests that shook Bangkok and left a permanent scar on Thai society. 

“The Blind Earthworm” is a work of magic realism, the form most often associated with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, utilising fairy tales, parables and mythology to address fundamental social issues. 

In mundane life, extraordinary events might well be best explained through supernatural allusions, and here the terrible events of 2010, when blood flowed in Bangkok in a bid to end an ideological uprising, find echoes in a tenuous, branching romance that spans many years.

“Myths like peace and unity are promoted in society,” Veeraporn said in a 2015 interview with online BK Magazine, “but why is the result never what you expect it to be?” Myths begot the violence of 2010, she told Prachachat Online. “The elites-versus-serfs refrain ... helped awaken many people, not just those who support the red shirts, to problems of inequality and injustice that have long existed in the country. However, when people subscribed to the idea without question, it became a kind of all-encompassing myth. Before long, the idea was both simplified and extended to imply that all the rich and elites are bad and some people just hold onto this as the absolute truth.” The ultimate legacy was “a deeper social divide”.

The SEA Write judges also noted, among other attributes, her depiction of “a confrontation between illusion and idealism in the Thai family institution”.

Veeraporn alludes regularly to Siamese folktales and the rural knowledge of plants, whose scents and herbal potency in recipes evoke memories not just of smell and taste but also of time and place. Kong helpfully charts the flora and traditional foods in footnotes and endnotes, and even adds a “playlist” of all the music pieces mentioned. 

And, because this is a story of lyricism and enchantment, even readers familiar with such elements will find themselves on a mystical stroll through the earthworm’s garden (“gauzy in sunshine”), as if striving to recall a fond but fleeting dream.

Sisters Chalika and Chareeya are raised in Nakhon Pathom, in Nakhon Chai Si district, and are treated to occasional chaperoned outings to wondrous Bangkok. 

After their mother discovers their father having an affair with a classical dancer, the marriage devolves into subdued but seething disappointment. When the broken-hearted father dies, he’s buried in the backyard without love or grace, food for the worms, his unforgiving wife sitting vigil lest other usurpers approach, her tears moistening the ground, until she too dies, both parents lost to the labyrinth.

The girls fall into the care of a non-conformist uncle who’s travelled overseas and introduces them to jazz, classical music and foreign cuisine. A shy boy, Pran, is gradually adopted into their lives and their fates become as intertwined as ivy. Pran eventually rents an apartment close enough to Chareeya’s house that he can smell the flowers in the garden, and watches her discreetly, introducing a curious voyeurism, sensual but never sexual, in which the reader participates.

Another male character is Natee, a veteran of the old communist insurrection who becomes Chalika’s boyfriend but verbally abuses her for her bourgeois attitudes.

Admiration for “The Blind Earthworm” has not been universal. Kaona Pongpipat wrote a scathing review in the Bangkok Post soon after its release, objecting to, among other aspects, the TV-soap-style melodrama. But surely the Thai arts – and Buddhist mythology – have always relied on dire circumstances and fortunate salvation.

Rather, if there is criticism to be made of “The Blind Earthworm”, it is simply about “too much of a good thing”. The storytelling is relentlessly ornate, the use of fantastical imagery and surrealistic curlicues so constant that the literary pyrotechnics of the text become tiresome. 

Even amid insights into the realities of Thailand’s ongoing political evolution, only occasionally does the telling come to plainspoken passages that serve its themes better. Instead, the message – about living in harmony with nature and with our fellow man – tends to get overrun in the tendrils of an overripe garden where ecstasy and melancholy grow side by side.

It would be lovely to see “The Blind Earthworm” come to the screen, perhaps at the hands of Alejandro G Inaritu of “Birdman” fame or Guillermo del Toro (“The Shape of Water”) or, maybe, preferably, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang.

But we know there is difficulty in accomplishing this. No one has yet satisfactorily turned Garcia Marquez into cinema, after all. Hence all credit rests with the published story, the imagination expressed in gorgeously detailed lines of print that will forever elude capture.

The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth

By Veeraporn Nitiprapha’

Translated by Kong Rithdee

Published by River Books

(English edition), 2018

Available at Amazon.com, US$16 (Bt520)