20 February 2011

Fa Poonvoralak, The Most Silent School in the World, 2009

While experimental fiction gets as fair a shout in Thailand as anywhere else in the world, as far as I can see (and, given that I don't read Thai, maybe I can’t see far enough) the country isn’t really on the map for wildly imaginative speculative fiction, let alone science fiction, fantasy or slipstream. So when something comes along that is unusual and category-defying it’s rather unexpected, particularly considering that The Most Silent School in the World was also shortlisted for the 2009 SEA Write Award. It’s the story of eight schoolchildren of mixed ages at a riverside school in rural Thailand; they turn up when they want, night or day, there are no teachers, they play games with each other, not a great deal happens that’s different from one day to the next and they’re not being groomed for a life in society. That’s because in our plane of existence they’re not really children at all: they’re the eight Trigrams of Taoist cosmology, given English/Thai names like Water Nam, Mountain Pukao and Sky Fa. Then they are visited by eight more ‘echo children’ from the Moon who are all subtly different, then more children arrive from the rings of Saturn, the Oort Cloud, the Sun and various other places around the solar system. They speculate if their school may in fact be some kind of spaceship. They’ve finally multiplied to sixty-four – the same number of pairings that make up the Hexagrams of the I Ching – and the physical dimensions of their school keep on growing, instantly adding more rooms as new children arrive. How they all interact may be meant to reflect the inherent subtleties of the I Ching’s Hexagrams; although this seems to be the intent it was often difficult to figure out beyond the characters of the children/Trigrams themselves.

All the above is not actually a spoiler as it would have helped to know something of the structure of the book before beginning it. It’s also rather inconclusive, but then this story was written more along ancient Eastern lines than that of a linear, modern Western text, with the analogy of the ‘Silent School’ probably meaning the life situations contained in the I Ching itself, and the physical school representing an expansion of an octagonal ba gua arrangement of Trigrams. This book is both perplexing and entertaining, and for someone who’s long been interested in both creative fiction and the inner working of the I Ching it’s also a rare and valuable find, regrettably one that I doubt will be showing up at many bookstores outside of Thailand.  PY


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