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‘A city devoid of tenderness’ [book review]

A review of Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana, translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

In ‘The Way of the Moon’, the penultimate story in Duanwad Pimwana’s collection Arid Dreams, a boy and his father sleep out on a beach. The boy is fascinated by the sparks rising from their campfire, recognising that an essential part of their beauty is their transience: ‘If they had just stayed in the fire, they would have continued to glow for a long time. But if they really could return to the flames, they would no longer be the sparks I found so delightful.’ What a wonderful metaphor for Pimwana’s stories, I thought, only to discover on the next page that the boy’s father is also a writer, and this story about the moon and stars and sparks a meditation on the writer’s craft.

Arid Dreams Duanwad Pimwana

Arid Dreams is very much a shower of sparks, a collection of stories that flare up brightly before they are inevitably extinguished. Each is brief, brilliant, temporary, and I often found myself wishing they had continued. At the same time, I felt unsettled reading them – Pimwana doesn’t shy away from telling it like it is. From downright dislikeable characters to scenes so taut you could cut the tension with a knife, these stories are both discomfiting and strangely hard to put down.

My knowledge of Thai literature doesn’t extend very far – my only other foray into it also came courtesy of Tilted Axis Press and translator Mui Poopoksakul, in the form of Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was – but what I have read has proved immensely refreshing. In this sharp translation, which conveys different voices with wonderful immediacy, Pimwana deftly combines elements of the absurd with a shattering realism, evoking skilfully a country that readers may have been to but never truly seen. In direct, unabashed prose, Arid Dreams opens up the lives of working-class Thailand, a setting that often seems dark and strangely muted, allowing the voices of its characters to come to the fore.

Each of the characters in Arid Dreams is somehow discontent, let down by family, friends, society, and very often themselves. Occasionally there is a flash of striving for something different, something better, but each story is laced with an air of defeatism, a world-weariness that often manifests as a willingness to accept the status quo. Many of the characters are also stuck in a nightmarish limbo – in ‘The Awaiter’, a passenger hangs around a bus stop hoping to return lost money to its owner, somehow unable to accept his discovery as a piece of the good luck he claims never to have; in ‘The Attendant’, our narrator spends his days manning a lift in a department store, a job he tells us could be done with ‘just my head and my right arm’. Entirely dependent on the whims of customers, he is only able to tell what time it is when someone wishes to go to the fourth floor, where the lift doors open on a display of clocks. There is something uniquely horrifying about this, a feeling underlined by Pimwana’s stripped-back style of narration: the linguistic equivalent of the bus passenger’s urban landscape, ‘a city devoid of tenderness’.

If these two stories are imbued with hopelessness, others are thick with frustration. In ‘Within These Walls’, a woman discovers that her hospitalised husband is unexpectedly in a stable condition; she is abruptly cast back into the discontent of her old life after having briefly tasted the illusion of freedom. ‘Arid Dreams’, the first in the collection and perhaps my favourite, drips with sexual frustration and at the same time caused me as a reader to feel intensely irritated by a narrator with whom I simply couldn’t sympathise. Shaped slightly differently each time, this character appears often: a man of insufferable arrogance who coolly explains the world as he sees it, unwilling to accept even for a moment that he may have misread a situation.

Gender plays a key role in Arid Dreams, in particular the stereotypes fostered by society. Women are very often not given a voice at all – including, most troublingly, the battered wife in ‘Men’s Rights’. Often they seem to have a silent strength, even an air of danger about them, like Mala in ‘Wood Children’ – a young, childless wife who is much attached to the knife she uses to carve herself an inanimate brood – but there is a definite sense of one-sidedness to these stories, a thread of mis- or missing communication that runs throughout them. Small sparks rapidly become bonfires, to return to the earlier analogy, simply because husbands and wives, parents and children or long-time friends fail to communicate with one another. Sometimes this is comic, such as the ridiculously embroidered lie occupying the narrator of ‘The Final Secret of Inmate Black Tiger’, but very often it veers towards distressing.

Though her stories are mostly concerned with the adult world, Pimwana’s skills in vivid characterisation extend to children, who for me offered the collection’s rare glimpses of hope. Sometimes innocent bystanders, sometimes given a narrative voice, I found the children in Arid Dreams to be both likeable and relatable where the adults were mostly foolish. This is perhaps indicative of a rather bleak outlook on the world; then again, perhaps it is a suggestion that we all have something to learn.

The author of nine books, Duanwad Pimwana is something of a star in Thailand, but together with Bright, a novel, Arid Dreams marks her debut appearance in English. A keen observer of human shortcomings, darkly humorous and slyly incisive, this flawlessly translated collection is an engrossing introduction to a writer I hope we will soon be reading a lot more from.


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