This is how we count the days. June: the Germans come to the islands — football cleats, big T-shirts, thick tongues — speaking like spitting. July: the Italians, the French, the British, the Americans. The Italians like pad thai, its affinity with spaghetti. They like fabrics, sun glasses, leather sandals. The French like plump girls, rambutans, disco music, baring their breasts. The British are here to work on their pasty complexions, their penchant for hashish. Americans are the fattest, the stingiest of the bunch.
So starts the first story in Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, a series of short stories (and one novella) first published in 2004. The stories aren’t all about stereotypes of foreigners, but some of them do touch on the tricky relationship between the tourist and the touristed. There’s a delicate story about first love between a young Thai boy and a Burmese immigrant who lives illegally in a shack next to his apartment building, which ends in xenophobic tears, and a lengthy piece of beauty titled “At the Cafe Lovely” which deals with loss, nihilism, drug use, and fast food. It’s not all weepy tears, but these are not stories that are easily discounted.
The final piece in the collection is a novella proper that explores a small town ruled by a strong man. The young protagonist learns the roles that she was unknowingly born into, and watches as her father powerlessly struggles against his artificially-created fate.
Rattawut was born in Chicago and grew up in Thailand. His prose is tight and fast moving, and it’s an illuminating view behind the curtain in a country that strains to put its best foot forward for visiting foreigners. I loved this book, as much for its vibrant characters as for the fact that they are damaged people in a damaged world. While the stories are not about pleasant subjects (fickle love, losing what’s important, xenophobia, the hopelessness of despair, despotism), they are not depressing. They are heartbreaking. And the writing is sharp.
So much written about the kingdom is happy advertising copy; it’s refreshing to consider that there is a darker side to all of those smiles.
“Thailand is only a paradise for fools and farangs, for criminals and foreigners,” says the mother of one of the characters. Read this right now, and see if she’s right.
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