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Of Life, Death and Other Fears

by Manote Tripathi

From Focus Lifestyle & Culture The Nation, Wednesday, August 18, 1999

Win Lyovarin comes like a breath of fresh air to Thai literature. His unusual style and refreshing views on writing, art and the world make him a winner. Manote Tripathi meets the author.

No longer is it a case of the angry writing about the bad but the creative writing about the innovative. Thai literature is undergoing a long overdue fact-lift. And the proof positive is last week's selection of Win Lyovarin as the victor in the Thailand heats of the 1999 SeaWriteAwards, the second time this novelist and short-story writer has won the prestigious literary prize.

A former architect, now creative director of a Bangkok-based advertising agency, Win is in the vanguard of a new breed of local writers. Heís well educated, well-travelled and well-read.

The originality of his style, language and subject matter make his work refreshingly different; his breadth of view, a stark contrast with the parochialism of many fellow writers. Win's Seawrite Award-winning collection of short stories, Sing Mee Cheewit Thi Riak Waa Khon (The Creature Called Man), stands out in a number of ways.

To begin with, his experimental story-telling techniques is remarkable and may ultimately become his trademark. Win defies convention by playing around with language and structure. One piece, 'Choo', does not contain a single verb, adjective or conjunction; it is written entirely with nouns.

For another story, he deliberately left in sections of dialogue from an earlier draft and presents these next to the revised versions, which in may cases veer in the opposite direction and are different in sense and tone.

The protagonists in yet another story 'a soldier, pimp and artist' all have the same name and suffer from similar irrational fears.

In this collection, you wonít encounter the humdrum plots which have been the stuff of so many Thai novels and short stories over the past two decades; no innocent country boys disillusioned by the big bad metropolis or uneducated Isaan women selling sex for quick bucks.

The most striking feature of this book, however, is its juxtaposition of fact and fiction. Win prefaces each of his stories with a non-fiction article on a topic that he explores further in the tale which follows.

To shed more light on the often complicated messages he is trying to get across, he supplies us with well-researched articles on subjects including the origin of life, the sexual drive, the law of yin and yang, the creation of the universe, and euthanasia.

One minor quibble here is his failure to fully explain scientific and technical terms which may not be familiar to the average reader. Sing Mee Cheewit Thi Riak Wa Khon is a dense, opinionated book which can be quite hard going at times but this complexity is not an impediment to oneís enjoyment of these powerful and passionate stories.

The collection opens with 'Choo' (Adulteress), a story about a male prostitute who is paid to have an affair with an elderly manís much younger wife. The action is related using a progression of nouns and pronouns, a tactic Win says he employed in order to describe the erotic without being either obvious or obscene.

'Choo' is preceded by an article entitled 'Man's Thrust and Morality' in which he asserts that 'man's sexual drive still exerts a powerful influence on everything he does'.

In 'Pha Kao Kap Prathoo Neung Kheng', a penniless Thai veteran of the Vietnam War trades an old flag (the country is not specified) for a few small mackerel. This and ìChooî are by far the shortest and least complex tales in the collection.

Other topics covered include a monk struggling to control his sexual desires ('Kam Sukhang Likka Nuyoke'), the rape of a girl by her own father ('Ranthom Roi Kleep'), intentionally misleading advertising ('Kam Hai Karn'), murder and the death penalty ('Phetchakhat'), and euthanasia ('Krathang Chaniang Rim Natang').

The latter is particularly powerful. In it a man paralysed from the neck down as a result of a road accident lies in a hospital bed craving death. He begs his nurse, an attractive young woman, to put him out of his misery.

She responds by telling him the story of her life. So heart-rending is the nurseís account that the patient realises that his predicament is insignificant in comparison to her troubles.

Then, just as he is beginning to recover his will to live, the nurse accedes to his original request and smothers him with a pillow.

In 'Phetchakhat' (The Executioner), Win draws a comparison between a murderer on Death Row who has given up eating meat and is racked with guilt for the crimes he has committed, and an ex-soldier who takes pleasure in killing and whose duty it will eventually be to put the prisoner to death.

During a long conversation the pair exchange views on mortality and the streak of insanity that resides in many men.

Win's treatment of death in this story contrasts nicely with that in 'Maa Klang Thanon' (Dog in the Middle of the Road) in which a motorist is left totally unmoved by the death of a dog he has run over in his car.

In many of the stories, Win dwells on the brevity of human existence and how little we know about the meaning of life despite having occupied this planet for tens of thousands of years.

In his quest to explain why people stray from the path of moral behaviour, Win turns to science, suggesting in one non-fiction piece that genetic predisposition, not upbringing, family circumstances or other external factors, may lead people to commit violent crimes. "Sometimes thereís no right answer to such questions," said Win during a meet-the-author session held last week at The Oriental. "If we have a narrow perspective on life then we will never be able to find answers to certain questions.

"But if we take a step further and also consider mysteries like the origin of life and the universe then we might begin to see the root causes of many of the problems which surround us. Rape, for example, may have something to do with the perpetratorís genetic makeup.

"If we understand life better, more deeply than we will be happier in ourselves," he said with a grin.

Win said his latest book is the product of an ever-curious mind and recalled how, as a child, he used to sit and day-dream for hours about the possibility that other life forms might exist in outer space.

"I like to ask myself questions like 'what is life all about?' and "are all lives designed in advance according to some blueprint? Sometimes I wonder if human life might not be all a lot of nonsense and language just an illusion."

Over the past two years, Win said he has gained a much clearer vision of the nature of humankind and the world. "As someone now in his 40s, I have to take a critical approach to life and ask some serious questions."

Win explained that it was a desire to make complex subjects more appealing to the general reader that motivated him to experiment with literary forms.

"Writing a short story doesnít require one to follow specific rules. The main thing is that a story achieves the desired result. Thatís why I donít try to follow the old rules. Sometimes you don't have to supply answers. I prefer to let the reader do the thinking [reach his/her own conclusions]. Writing is like painting; an incomplete work can be very powerful."

Was he surprised to win the SeaWrite?

"I was shocked. I couldn't believe it!"

Why did he include non-fiction pieces in the book?

"It's impossible to get across the relationship between the universe and Man through the short-story medium alone. I thought a few informative articles would help the reader understand my points better.

"However, I expect to get some negative feedbacks from critics who think the inclusion of non-fiction articles disqualifies the book as a short-story collection. For me creativity is the first priority in writing short fictional pieces and to be creative one sometimes need to break free of conventional ways of doing things."

Why does death and dying figure so prominently in the book? Were any of the stories inspired by events in his own life?

"I lost several very close relatives in a short space of time. At one of the funerals a monk gave a very moving sermon on the nature of life and death. Since then Iíve become a lot more aware about the fragility of human existence. Life is so short that we canít afford to waste time in needless struggle."

'Loke Saam Bai Khong Rat Ekathet' (The Three Worlds of Rat Ekathet), at 35 pages one of the longest stories in the book, concerns a courageous soldier who is beset by a host of irrational fears.

Win said the story is partly autobiographical which is why it took him the best part of a year to perfect.

"Sometimes I'm plagued by fears but have great difficulty in ascertaining exactly what it is I am afraid of."