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The Nation, Sunday Focus December 1995

On a Winning Streak

From : The Nation, Sunday Focus on Sunday, December 24, 1995

At this year's National Book Contest Win Lyovarin took home top prize in not one, but two categories. He spoke to Manote Tripathi about the works that have catapulted him to fame.

It is no easy task for newly-published Thai authors to make a a name for themselves; the obstacles are daunting indeed. First they are required to serve their literary apprenticeship, so to speak; to be prepared to write several books before their name comes to the attention of the (relatively small) book-buying public. To get onto the bestseller list requires a certain minimum sales, but many writers despair that in a country with a population of almost 60 million, they have difficulty disposing of a modest print run of, say 2,000 copies.

Author Win Lyovarin has been given a head start, though. Last month, his debut novel, Pracha Thippatai Bon Sen Khanan (Democracy, Shaken & Stirred), was named Best Novel of the Year (1995) in the National Books Contest organized by the Commission for Local Literary Development. Arphet Kamsual, his second collection of short stories, also picked up the first prize in the short story category in this year's contest. "At the moment, the local literary scene is a bit like a bitter candy; not many people buy books on a regular basis [and there are few quality publications], I'm trying to wrap the candy in some brightly-coloured paper [produce a colourful novel to attract a wider readership],"Win says with a cheeky grin.

One reason for the critical success of Pracha Thipatai Bon Sen Khanan could be that Win has tackled a subject that other Thai novelists were either unwilling to or uninterested in dealing with, namely Thai political history from 1932-1992.

Although this is a historical novel, it bears little resemblance to a textbook. Complicated details on political events over a 60-year period are presented in a colloquial, easy-to-read style. Much of the information is conveyed through conversations between the two leading characters: Sua Yoi, a civilian wrongly accused of involvement in a plot to kill Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram in 1934 and of sympathizing with Prince Bovorndej (or Boworadet) who led a failed rebellion against the government in October 1933; and Ja Tui, a low ranking police officer.

The novel deals with the way the attitudes and behaviour of the two leading characters change under differing circumstances. Originally on opposite sides of the political fence, the two men become firm friends after Ja Tui realizes that Sua Yoi was completely innocent of the charges brought against him.

The two old friends have a long discussion one morning six months after Bloody May (1992) sitting on a bench in Lumpini Park. They reflect upon their past and how much polities have changed since they were young men.

"I'm quite interested in politics and history and I've learned that when politicians feel they are slipping in the popularity stakes, they try to claw their way back up by influencing people [using propaganda, smear tactics and other political tricks of the trade]. It's always been like this; politics is just like a game of chess," says Win.

Win's novel is an attempt to fill in the gaps (intentional and otherwise) in the history textbooks used in Thai schools. He points out that textbooks written under Education Ministry supervision, are particularly weak on the details of the 1932 coup that ended the absolute monarchy and the reasons for the abdication of King Rama VII, three years later.

ìI knew nothing about this [period] until I did some research on it myself. I discovered that there's no mention [in history textbooks] about the revolution a year after the transformation [a coup by junior military officers in June 1933 which resulted in Phraya Phabon being made prime minister] or about the reasons why Pridi Bhanomyong [the leader of the civilian faction of the Promoters, the group which staged the 1932 coup] was forced into exile.

"The details are touching especially the fate of political prisoners [including Sua Yoi] imprisoned on Tarutao [an island off the southern province of Trang] due to their suspected links with the Bovorndej rebellion and their attempts to flee to the Malaysian island of Langkawi five kilometers away [Sua Yoi manages this with assistance from a villager named Mee]. This kind of information is worth delving into; itís a bit like fiction."

Pracha Thippatai has something for everyone : suspense, thrills, humour and horror. It's strength is in the way it makes history into an enjoyable read.

"Political events seem more like the plot of a thriller; sometimes history can seem almost too dramatic. It's like a movie. There's a train crash [Arun Bunnag, a soldier in Prince Bovorndej's forces, drives a locomotive head-on into a government train carrying anti-aircraft guns], an [attempted] assassination and confrontations between people holding different political views. It [politics] can sometimes seem stranger than fiction and the [real-life] coincidences make it even more melodramatic; make it seem even more like fiction," Win says.

The novel open with a flashback to 1932, the year the absolute monarchy of King Rama VII was toppled in a bloodless coup. Milestones in modern Thai political history are given a delicate treatment: the transformation of the political system [to democracy] on June 24, 1932; the Bovorndej rebellion; the 1947 coup by Field Marshal Plaek Phibungsongkhram; the 1951 Manhattan incident; the 1957 coup by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat; the student uprising on Oct 14, 1973; the ring-wing backlash on Oct 6, 1976; and finally, the events of Bloody May 1992.

By using two main characters with opposing political views, Win manages to keep aloof from the left- versus right-wing discourse. This device, he says, saves the novel from being overly biased towards one side or the other.

"Otherwise, itís not fair to the general reader who may be inclined to take sides if the viewpoint of a single individual is pushed too much. I cover the clash in political ideology allowing readers to judge what is right and what is wrong," the author told Sunday Focus during a recent interview.

"Take Pridi Bhanomyong, for instance. He [originally] had civilian support for his political ideas but his detractors later launched a smear campaign against him. If we only listened to his detractors, we'd never get to hear the other side of the story."

Win's is optimistic about the future for political development in this country but not overly so. He has obviously done his homework ñ the bibliography lists more than 100 reference works although some sections need to be backed up with more hard evidence. For heavily-contested historical facts, he quotes at least two different sources.

"I don't think of it [Pracha Thippatai] as a heavy book it's quite easy to read, really. It's suitable for a wide range of readers. You can read it just for enjoyment but if you're into the subject matter, you'll probably find the book much more interesting than academic books which cover the same topic. Iíve tried to make the politics memorable and easy to understand."

Win increases the accessibility of the book by including illustrations and photos of people and places mentioned in the text.

"But I don't expect it to become a bestseller. I'm not targeting the book at a specific readership; that was never my intention. Writing this story was a challenge" collecting fragments of information and putting them all together into a novel that has both substance and entertainment value.

Win currently works as creative/art director with Paterson and Partners, an advertising company based on Surawong Road.

"Although my work requires me to be creative, my freedom [of expression] is restricted. We have to do what the customer wants. But I can put down any creative ideas I have in my writing."

Has he considered becoming a full-time writer?

"At the moment, writing [full-time] is not a satisfactory profession. Public interest in the literary scene is comparatively low here compared to the West. And the financial rewards are just not enough some short-story writers still only get Bt800 per story, for instance. I'll need to think about that one a bit more."

Born into a Thai-Chinese merchant family in Songkhla, Win was passionate about literature even as a young boy. At Saengthong Wittaya (a primary school in this southern province known for the excellence of its English-language courses and which boasts famous alumni including Nation editor-in-chief Suthichai Yoon), Win earned a reputation as a bookworm. As a boy he remembers devouring science fiction, crime thrillers and Chinese heroic epics.

He later moved up to Bangkok where he attended Bordin Deja (a well-known secondary school in Lardprao Soi 86) before taking an undergraduate course in architecture at Chulalongkorn University.

After spending three years working with a firm of architects in Singapore, Win traveled to the United States to do a post-graduate course in graphic design.

On his return to Thailand (10 years ago), Win set himself two priorities ñ finding a secure job in advertising and checking out all the good Thai-language books he had missed during his time abroad. "But very few good books had been published [in my absence]."

This, he says, inspired him to start writing short stories with lots of suspense and unexpected endings. Win describes his early work as 'radical, pessimistic and serious'. His first collection of 13 short stories, Samud Pok Dam Kap Bai Mai See Daeng (A Book with a Black Cover and a Red Leaf), won him a Chor Karaket Award (an annual prize given by the Short Story Writers Association of Thailand) in 1992.

Experimental, is how Win describes Arphet Kamsual, his second collection of short stories. Most of the stories deal with serious topics like the abuse of journalistic ethics by newspaper reporters and the stagnant local literary scene. "Some columnists accept bribes to write rave reviews; others alter facts. I think the readers are being cheated."

(Note : 'Pracha Thippatai Bon Sen Khanan' has been translated into English titled Democracy, Shaken & Stirred in 2003.)