Some authors capture a time and place effortlessly. They draw upon aspects of popular culture and spin them into a literary tale that is more powerful and longer-lasting than the milieu from which they sprang. Veeraporn Nitiprapha is such a writer. But as her work has only appeared in Thai, she has been beyond the reach of most of the world.
One cliché that the author has taken aim at recently for the Thai reading public is the Thai soap opera. For context, one of the most viewed television series in Thailand these days is Club Friday—a series in its tenth season, which follows characters as they swim their way through counter-currents of romance, infidelity, and Buddhist karma. Into this media landscape, Veeraporn has published her artful and lyrical novel The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth. This is the first book-length translation of Veeraporn’s fiction in English. The novel is a poetic and surrealistic reimagining of the Thai romance, where the main characters are lost between unrequited desires and fantastical dreams that are realer than their everyday lives.
The story follows two vivacious sisters, Chalika and Chareeya, as they stumble through familial, village, and later urban exploration and expectation. Chalika and Charreya grow up in a provincial town not far from Bangkok, raised by an eccentric uncle newly-returned from abroad upon their parents’ death. The girls’ father, having fallen in love with a classical Thai dancer and then commanded by their mother to cease the relationship, dies early of lovesickness. The girls’ mother, gone insane from jealousy, soon follows their father to the grave—and is buried next to him under an old Spanish cherry tree near the river. The soft-spoken boy and orphan, Pran, moves to their town at that time, befriending the sisters. The culmination of the story comes as none of the three main characters prove able to exit safely from the intertwined labyrinth of their fates.
The author’s evocative prose resembles a dreamy take on innumerable scenes across the Thailand’s countryside and metropolitan center. Like the hazy cinematographic effect often used in TV dramas, Veeraporn blurs the edges of reality so as to transition from one chapter to the next. Many of the characters maneuver through magical remembrances of events gone by, often failing to confront those problems in front of them.
As an example, on one of Bangkok’s endless nights after Pran and Charreya hadn’t met for years, Chareeya invites her childhood friend back to her apartment:
But before the clock struck three, she got up and made him sangria as sublime as the kind served at temple fairs… talking until dawn.
Stories, old stories of days gone by: about the fountain with the moody swan statue that Pran had spent months looking for because he couldn’t find one in a colour she liked so had ended up buying one in bare concrete, which turned out to be much more attractive; about the Loy Krathong ceremony in which Chareeya put lampu seeds in a floating basket in the hopes that the Goddess Ganga would bear them across the oceans to the faraway Pacific islands, but it barely made it past the gazebo before capsizing and Chareeya entreated Pran to make her another one. He succumbed to her pleas and defied the darkness of the banana grove to cut a fresh shoot when Chareeya promised to place only her bad karma in the vessel, even though she ended up smuggling a few lampu seeds away.
Suddenly Pran felt the way people do when they realise they have lost some something dear to them, a cold snap froze his heart when he remembered that he had once know happy days, happy days that were long past.
The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth won the 2015 SEA Write award.
What is so striking about the novel is how well it captures Thailand and Thai people of today. The cultural nuances of Veeraporn’s depiction of Thailand penned into this novel are enchanting. The book’s initial, almost sly introduction to the Thai reading public in 2015 under the guise of a simple romance, proved instead to have a depth of character that belied the influence on the author by classical Thai literature, winning her the SEA Write award for that year.
Some chapters like “The Dancer in the Drizzle” or “Baby Seeds” are so well-rounded and complete that they could stand alone as short stories. These could even be detached from the longer narrative and become required reading for any foreigner visiting Thailand for the first time. The story is also sprinkled with numerous references to Southeast Asian flora and music—so much so that the novel has a botanical and playlist annex in the back. The translator, Kong Rithdee, deserves immense credit for fashioning this into English, whilst not losing the author’s intense lyricism.
The English-reading public is fortunate to finally have a translation of this author’s award-winning novel. Not unlike a popular Thai soap opera, the story Veeraporn Nitiprapha has narrated is engrossing and addictive—a unique window onto the Thai soul in turmoil. More than any other Thai publication in English currently out right now, The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth is the most complete and enjoyable novel for losing one’s self in Thai fiction.