Book Reviews

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Vapour Trails

Tales from Rural Thailand

Tarmo Rajasaari

2003, 160 pp.,15 b & w illustrations, 21.5 x 15.2 cm., softbound.

ISBN-10: 974-524-026-5 $17.95
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-026-1

Touching Isaan Tales

Book review by Michael Smithies

The Nation:8 February,2004

This charming collection of 15 short stories set in Isaan has a lot to recommend it. Written by a 43-year-old Finn who was originally trained as a mental health nurse, the author, now a freelance writer, manages to get inside the minds of his characters in a most convincing manner.
   He clearly appreciates the solid virtues of Northeasterners, their resilience, their practicality and their zest for life in spite of all the poverty and deprivation around them.
   Reviewing a volume of short stories is never easy; one mentions them all one by one or draws generalities from them all. There are themes to be discerned of course, notably death, from snake bite (with the stricken farmer slowly going over his life as he lays dying alone in a field), or in a dream, or ghosts who offer to plough fields and deceased lovers who may or may not supply Bt500 notes with the date of their death as the serial number.
   But perhaps what strikes one most is that so many of the characters live a life apart, isolated from their fellows with whom they communicate, if at all, with difficulty.
   This is particularly striking with the a man called Lai, who makes a decision to follow Buddhist precepts strictly and abandon his family to re-renter the monkhood. Or with the slightly deranged woman who lives at the edge of the village, talks to herself, and finally goes completely mad, having to be restrained and taken away to an asylum.
   The first and last stories are typical. In the first, “Alien Encounter”, an old woman makes up for her disappointment in finding the bank closed because of computer failure after her arduous journey to the nearest town (those who live in the provinces know the kind of rugby scrums that greet one in most small banks) by striking up a most unlikely association with a sweaty farang, without a word in common - but for her it was a first, an experience in a life otherwise without incident.
   The last, “Celestial Payment”, has an old chicken coop sweeper who finds those two Bt500 notes, whose life and romps with her now-dead lover come to her in flashes, and manages to secure more cleaning work: “You never know what kind of valuables might materialise tomorrow,” she thinks, as the owner of the chicken house disappears in a cloud of dust created by his departing Mercedes.
   She wonders at one stage if chickens are so different from humans; they exist, wait for death and to be eaten. Humans aren’t eaten, but they spend their lives pecking for money. This anthropomorphism is found in the second story, when a stray market dog describes, in suitably vulgar language, his daily rounds.
   One of the most touching stories, “Right Kind of Love”, again has the theme of someone unable to express his feelings overtly. This time it is of an unmarried man with his eye on one of the pretty girls in another rice-reaping party, who slowly, and with the encouragement of his friends, plucks up courage to make a tentative advance—but then discovers to his extreme disappointment that this delightful damsel is only a katoey with a few days growth of beard and a prominent Adam’s apple: dashed are all his hopes of wedded bliss.
   There is some gentle satire too, as with the peasant who once saw a very grand man who came to the village, covered with medals and ribbons, and wondering “how hard had one to work before earning those glowing pieces of respect”.
   Journeyman describes against all odds the final triumph of a local kick-boxer over a much more seasoned opponent, one whose life again comes in flash-backs between the bouts and pain he endures; whether he survives in his triumph is doubtful.
   He, like everyone, has his feet firmly on the ground: his “whole damn village was largely made up of drunks, gamblers and other scumbags”. His father was an alcoholic, like several other characters in different stories. There is an intense realism in both the characters and the stories which makes them extremely attractive. One feels that Rajasaari has his fingers on the pulse of the real Isaan, its harsh climate, its grinding poverty, its frequent inability to raise itself out of rut, through lack of education, opportunity, money, or whatever.
   Here is rural Thai life in the raw, accurately, sometimes touchingly described, in flawless English. The collection is an excellent read and well recommended.

[Read a review from The Journal of the Siam Society] [More Orchid Press Reviews]