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Book review: The Sad Part Was – Mui Poopoksakul’s witty translation opens a new world of short stories from Thailand

Author Prabda Yoon's short story collection is an interesting riff on life in Bangkok and an insight into the Thai language to boot.
Some stories show a younger generation torn between Thai heritage and western lifestyles. Getty Images
Some stories show a younger generation torn between Thai heritage and western lifestyles. Getty Images

New publisher Tilted Axis Press has made it their mission to publish world literature that ordinarily wouldn’t make it into English translation and shine a light on difference. Prabda Yoon’s short story collection The Sad Part Was certainly showcases both inventive storytelling and an innovative translation process. So much so that the volume carries an afterword by its talented translator, Mui Poopoksakul, which provides some invaluable information regarding the intriguing idiosyncrasies of Thai wordplay and the challenges of rendering these as accurately as possible in English.

As Poopoksakul explains: “any given language is a game with its own internal logic – a challenge for the translator, who attempts to recreate his moves in a language where the rules are different.” Apparently, for example, the use of punctuation in Thai is “relatively rare”, not to mention the fact that it’s a language that doesn’t utilise spaces between words in the way western readers are used to. Armed with this information, the story Miss Space’ – note the nicely translated wordplay – becomes all the more absorbing. In it, the narrator first takes note of a fellow passenger who is composing diary entries while riding the bus, due to “the extraordinary size” of the spaces between her words: “They catalysed my consciousness as though it had been struck by lightning,” the narrator declares, “and I briefly became abnormally perceptive, able to absorb information about my environment instantaneously and effortlessly. Thank god I stopped short of Nirvana.” This same wry wit can be heard throughout the collection – Poopoksakul successfully transmuting the mischievousness of Yoon’s original tales, a liveliness that extends to the syntax itself.

As its title suggests, the piece with which the collection opens, Pen in Parentheses, exists entirely within parentheses. The story of the narrator’s life – how he was orphaned as a young boy, subsequently raised by his grandparents, one of the lasting memories of his childhood being his grandfather’s regular Friday night screening of old films, of which the black-and-white version of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, was a favourite, something the narrator uses later in life to inspire the advertising campaign (for breath mints – Dracula himself popping a mint in his mouth before he attacks his victim, fangs bared) that sees his career take off – squeezed into the middle of a single sentence: ‘The sheet of paper fell […], so I bent down and picked it up.”

Another story, Marut by the Sea, quirkily defies its own creation. “Before it’s too late, may I tell you, dear readers, that my name is not Marut? And I’m not sitting by the sea at all,” begins the enraged protagonist, character and author having swapped roles for the duration, the latter taking control, ripping apart the notion of an omnipotent, egotistical author. “There’s this guy,” he indignantly continues. “He likes to think that he knows it all. He bosses people around, dreaming up their destinies as though he were God.” Yoon is playing with his readers, but we’re in on the joke with him.

Other stories in the collection, however, are more oblique. In Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin, a traveller stumbles upon “a secret from outer space”. He agrees to go on a television talk show in order to divulge his discovery to the world, but the event turns into a media circus of constant commercial breaks, all meaning lost in translation and the presenter’s inability to recognise the real wisdom his guest has to share. Meanwhile, Snow for Mother is a strange but moving tale of parental love; a woman scrimps and saves for years in order to take her son to Alaska in the hope that turning what was once a childhood game between the two of them – the boy daily bringing his mother a handful of imaginary snow – into a reality.

Familial relationships often take centre stage; the values of traditional Thai culture juxtaposed alongside a younger generation clearly torn between the demands of their heritage and increasingly hard to ignore western ways of life. There’s much to delight in here, Yoon’s is an original and innovative voice, and this inviting collection is a welcoming gateway to a new world of narrative possibility.

Lucy Scholes is a freelance reviewer based in London.

Updated: March 9, 2017 04:00 AM

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