12 September 2009

Khammaan Khonkhai, The Teachers of Mad Dog Swamp, 1978

There are pitifully few fiction books available in English that function as Thai examinations of Thai identity, but this is one of the more famous. Sompong Palasoon (under his pen name Khammaan Khonkhai) began it as a film script, filmed as Khru Ban-Nork (‘Rural Teachers’), and the book came later with its more colourful title being used for the English translation. Set in a jungle village in Thailand’s far north-east, it has to be said this isn’t a gripping read so much as an ethnographically interesting one: little happens in 300 pages apart from a minor teacher/pupil scandal, some celebrations about the building of a new classroom and the discovery and consequences of an illegal timber trade, but, as the translator Gehan Wijeyewarnede says, “the author sets out to describe the way of life of a poor village folk of a remote area of the northeastern region ... He details their speech, their economy, their technology, their festivals and their food ... He glories in the environment in which they live, the cycle of seasons, their knowledge and adaptation to it.” The characterisation is mostly well done if a little on the shallow side, and this kind of story is often more familar to Western readers when played out in an African context, and indeed the kinds of dramas described seemed rather continentally interchangeable as well. This was first published by an academic press, and is still a great book for reference if you want the minutiae of daily life in Thailand’s remote north-east.  PY


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