Thailand’s most popular literary writers rarely get an introduction onto the world stage. An English language newspaper like The Bangkok Post will hint at the greatness of one seminal Thai author or another in their arts and culture section. But non-Thai readers will be clueless as to why. That short stories by the Thai writer Prabda Yoon are now available in his first English language anthology The Sad Part Was is at least one significant corrective. Nearly two decades after Prabda caught the attention of Thai readers and won the S.E.A. Write Award, non-Thais are gifted this rare opportunity to enjoy his works through Mui Poopoksakul’s fluid translation.
A creative menagerie of short stories from arguably the coolest author from Bangkok in a generation
Prabda’s writing is playful and creative. For international readers, the breakdown of plot structure, cryptic and sudden endings, and wordplay in general are well understood techniques. But when short story collection Probability came out in 2000, Prabda hit upon a freshness and spontaneity that was less well represented in the realistic writing in Thailand at the time.
One example is in the story “Marut by the Sea”. The burgeoning storyline of the main character Marut’s story is suddenly interrupted by a voice meant to represent some stylized, self-loathing voice of the author’s subconscious. The reader is forced to grapple with this interjecting voice as it obliterates the narrative logic:
You should comprehend by now, given my elaboration thus far, that whoever wrote that book dearest to you is no finer a human being than anybody else. He has no clue what he’s done. Do you know how I got the opportunity to pop up and communicate with you today? It’s simple. Prabda hasn’t come up with a plausible reason for why Marut is sitting by the sea.
You might be thinking that I’m part of his genius. Don’t.
The uninvited authorial voice does not let up. It continues to hold the plot of Marut’s tale hostage, speaking directly to the reader, until the last few words of the story itself. For Thai literature, the effect of the author’s interruption is striking.
All of the short stories work from a vantage point not normally accessible to non-Thai readers. Some comment on how a native Thai may view a foreigner in their land; the story “Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin” captures well the language barrier from the Thai perspective:
While the westerner was communicating with the rest of the world with words that sounded like foot, fit, four, five, the show’s host smiled broadly into the camera… The lady in the screen’s corner sat with her hands tucked away, staring blankly at the incomprehensible barrage of English.
Prabda’s critique also extends to the pettiness of some of Bangkok’s wealthier residents and their social norms. In “Something in the Air” the protagonist and his partner are portrayed as speaking an overly stilted dialect of Thai. Such language is traditionally associated with refinement or moral virtue. This odd phrasing is then placed in contradistinction to their acts of sexual iniquity in a plush condo in the city’s center. Indeed, Prabda does not avoid exploring the rakish side of Thai society, including elements of its notorious nightlife. In “The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya”, a tongue-in-cheek revival of a local urban legend is utilized as the backdrop to a story of a missing child.
Overall, the twelve short stories reflect a diverse range of themes and writing techniques that were new to the Thai literary scene when they first came out. The collection allows non-Thai readers a glimpse into Thai society that would normally stay hidden behind a language barrier.
Translator Mui Poopoksakul has displayed a mastery in this anthology that places her above her peers.
There is a poetic, singsong element to the Thai language that all too often does not get translated into foreign languages. Some bit of this bouncy rhythm and rhyme will always be lost, but translator Mui Poopoksakul has been able to capture much more of it than many others before her. Mui Poopoksakul deserves a lot of credit for maintaining the witty quality of Prabda Yoon’s voice from Thai into English. To read the original Thai version of Prabda’s short stories next to Mui’s youthful rendering makes for a case study in successful translation. Mui has a long career ahead of her.
One has to wonder whether a Thai writer like Chart Korbjitti and others, from the generation before Prabda Yoon, would have been better known in the English-speaking world if he had had better translators. Too much of Thai literature, when put into the prose of a western language, sounds flat and overly simplistic. The number of noteworthy Thai-to-English translators of fiction can be counted on one hand and Mui Poopoksakul has already displayed a mastery in this anthology that places her above her peers.
Witty and insightful, The Sad Part Was is a creative menagerie of short stories that explores Thai urban society from arguably the coolest author from Bangkok in a generation.