Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Rattawut Lapcharoensap - Sightseeing

Publisher: Grove Press
Author: Rattawut Lapcharoensap
Title: Sightseeing

I have been trying to enrich my knowledge of Thailand lately. I visit my mother there yearly and wanted to expand my knowledge of all things Thai to be able to appreciate the country better. More so as I wanted to travel across the country and take in the sights. I have been reading some blogs that offer information about backpacking through the country. There are useful tips about what to pack and which medicines to carry and where to stay, apart from the usual tips about what to see.  This blog, by Nomadic Matt, curiously, even had a list of books about Thailand as a bonus.

When I was last in Thailand and visiting Ayutthya, my mother told me about the story of a king whose family drowned in a canal there. Apparently, you cannot touch a royal person. So when a boat capsized and the Queen and her children were drowning, no one would rescue them for the fear of breaking the rule of physical contact with a Royal. It was such a macabre story, that I was struck by it. My mother also talked about Anna and the King of Siam which has been made into two Hollywood movies. 

The book, Anna and the King of Siam was on the list of recommended reading by Nomadic Matt.. So was Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap with some glowing comments. I discovered Sightseeing on Scribd, which is always an incentive to get to it right away.

I was captivated by the first story, Farangs. It was about a boy whose father was an American and the mother, a Thai girl. The father stuck around with them for ten or eleven years before going back to the US. His mother now runs a hostel on a beach. The boy uses his facility with English, learned from his father, to hook farang (foreign) girls. The few pages of the story hit the spot right away. They give us a quick, by no means shallow, look at life in Thailand.

This statement is true of all seven stories in this anthology. The stories are about Thai people from the lower end of the social strata, working hard to keep body and soul together. There are young boys trying to cope with loss and grow up in At the Cage Lovely. Draft Day is about a privileged kid dodging draft and losing friendship. Sightseeing is about a woman who is on a trip before she loses her eyesight. Priscilla the Cambodian (my favorite of the lot) is about the divide between natives and the refugees. This poignant story makes a strong point about the hostility refugees face the world over. Don't Let Me Die in This Place is about an aged American man trying to adjust to a life in Thailand. Cockfighter is about a man trying to hold on his dignity, viewed by his teenaged daughter as she is trying to make sense of her life.

The stories are all beautifully written, layered, deep and striking. This, in my mind, is how every author should strive to write. This is Rattawut Lapcharoensap's debut book. He is a Thai-American writer residing in the USA. I have read another story of his on Granta, called Valets, a story about a group of valets who are working at a seedy food joint which was once the pride of Bangkok. Like Rattawut's other stories, this one lingers in your mind too.