Comic Despair and Magical Melancholy: Duanwad Pimwana’s “Bright,” Translated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul


By Parkorn Wangpaiboonkit


Bright_Final-Front-Cover_WEB-VERSION-400-390x624At the outset of Duanwad Pimwana’s Bright, five-year old Kampol Changsamran’s family crumbles in ways he cannot comprehend. Told to sit and wait in the courtyard of their tenement neighborhood, Kampol obeys as his father drives away with his infant brother, promising to return. Abandoned without knowing why, Kampol drifts from house to house living off of the gentle goodness of an impoverished community as their shared orphan. Spending some nights with Hia Chong the grocer, others with Mon the seamstress, and yet others in a cardboard fort planted in the courtyard, Kampol learns to parent himself. Oftentimes he thrives on ambitious, even entrepreneurial self-reliance – a popular errand boy, his services range from notifying individuals when they receive a call from the block’s sole telephone, to giving back massages to day-laborers, to parroting the latest winning lottery numbers. The neighborhood’s rotating acts of kindness always shield Kampol from the raw reality of desolation. Never do the pains of abandonment or poverty come across as a harrowing distress for Kampol; they persist as mundane, quiet tugs that color every afterthought of his childhood antics. For instance, in a conversation between him and Hia Chong, Kampol’s almost dissociative self-awareness is most acute:

“Why aren’t you playing? You were only standing there watching.”

“I don’t want to get my clothes dirty.”

The grocer wrinkled his brow, looking closely at Kampol. “You don’t have to be that careful. If your clothes get dirty, we can wash them.”

“Okay.”

With that, Chong smiled. “Then why don’t you go on and play with your friends.”

“No thanks, Hia. I don’t want to play with those kids,” Kampol said, looking Chong straight in the eye. “I’m no longer just me now.”

Chong’s mouth opened slightly and his eyebrows rose. “Then who are you?”

“I’m both Kampol and Kampol’s parent. You don’t have to do the dishes, Hia Chong. I’ll tell Kampol to do them for you.” (160)

Although dotted with such quaint lessons on coping with orphanhood, the novel is not simply a triumphant narrative of transforming helplessness into proud self-reliance. Each of the novel’s thirty-seven short chapters presents a vignette of Kampol’s life in a chronology that may well be arbitrary. Rather than a linear narrative, Bright offers a portrait of a year’s life in which much happens but little seems to change. In the mild, seaside climate of their Chonburi community, nobody bothers to count the seasons: those with money hop in from the capital to play tourist for the weekend, while those without idle by in the packed recesses, hidden from the beachside view. Class is accepted as a predetermined lot, and mobility is a pipe dream lit anew with every lottery ticket.

A Thai-speaking reader familiar with Duanwad Pimwana’s work might recognize the translator’s dilemma from the very cover of the novel. In translating Changsamran into English, Mui Poopoksakul has displaced the protagonist’s family name – the very title of the book – into her own rendering: Bright. The original title, literally “accustomed-to-luxury,” evinces both the quiet misery of young Kampol’s plight, and Pimwana’s blithesome attitude toward her novel’s despondent premise. In the material sense, it is piteous that an extra egg for dinner is the kind of daily luxury the abandoned Changsamran boy can afford. On the other hand, Kampol’s apparent autonomy is the envy of all his friends, who displace upon him their childhood fantasies of parental independence. Poopoksakul’s rendering cuts across this ambiguous irony of the author’s title, stamping Kampol’s future with a brightness that matches the clement innocence that saturates the novel. The children dream of eating cake; they may never taste it, but at least there is always rice.

This emphasis on the meaning of character names, so readily discernible in Thai, appears further in Poopoksakul’s treatment of the text, as in the chapter “Crickets,” where Kampol tries his hand at the pastime of cricket-raising:

His crickets looked so much alike that he couldn’t tell them apart at first, but with perseverance, he could eventually distinguish all of them. He gave them names to have something to call them by. The first pair he named after his parents, Ratom and Namfon, despite the fact that his name meant “misery” and hers meant “rain.” Both names seemed rather odd now that he thought about them given that their family name meant “bright.” Later on, when the two crickets he’d named after his parents had children, he wanted to call them Boy and Jon. (108, my italics)

“Boy” here is introduced by Poopoksakul as interchangeable with “Kampol,” in another aspect of Thai naming conventions that may be lost on foreign readers. Children are given both first names and nicknames, where the former is reserved for formal, public affairs, while shorter nicknames are preferred for everyday, intimate interactions. Kampol’s friend Oan, for example, is called Prasit at school, and his little brother Jon’s name is short for Kamjon. Kampol’s “Boy,” on the other hand, is not a given name but a generic, lowercase “boy,” similar to the colloquial “son” in English. The character’s abandonment is overtly reflected in his namelessness: Ratom and Namfon have neglected to give their firstborn a familial name between the catch-all of Boy and the decorous formality of Kampol.

In the quote above, I added italics to highlight an explanatory passage, absent in Pimwana’s original, that the translator has deemed necessary to clarify. This further explanation, couched in Kampol’s own thoughts, introduces a peculiar insight into the character’s self-knowledge. As Kampol recuperates the sense of his familial whole through the act of naming his cricket family, Poopoksakul grants him the reflexivity to recognize the predeterminism of Pimwana’s hand – and the translator’s mark in supplanting “bright” – in the naming of each character’s fate. But of course, like the sun-lit misery typical of episodes in the novel, incremental developments such as these often go nowhere. They become sidetracked by misfortunes of comedic despair, as when Kampol’s cherished flock of crickets are unwittingly fried up by Hia Chong as an afternoon snack: “His family was lying on the plate, some face up some face down, their limbs all mixed together… He couldn’t even recognize himself. He couldn’t tell if he’d already been eaten” (111).

In the broader picture, Bright is a fine-grained portrait of what the theorist Ara Wilson calls the “intimate economies” of Thai urban community. Wilson argues that the everyday economies of trade in modern Thailand are always shaped by particular gender, ethnicity, and kin systems, where day-to-day commerce is not so much a blind formula of profit extraction, but nuanced, constrained, and even governed by localized folk and moral logics of community values. Intimate economies – such as Kampol’s tenement community – are guided by “the need to define, maintain, or elaborate relationships to kin, community, patrons, temples, and the spirit world.”[1] The tenement inhabitants work odd jobs to bring home enough cash to get rice, eggs, and instant noodles from Hia Chong’s corner store at the end of each day – and Chong himself often sells on credit or takes losses to ensure families are fed. The individuals that interact with Kampol hold professions aimed at servicing their insular community – grocer, seamstress, tire patcher, lottery seller – roles that carry inflections of gender and ethnicity in modern Thai society. Poopoksakul goes to some lengths to clarify, for instance, that the “Hia” of Hia Chong is an honorific for an older man of Chinese descent; and the women who feed Kampol often afford to do so with spontaneous solutions based on domestic ingenuity (quickly patching a pair of pants, for instance, pays enough to feed an extra child at the table).

Rather than reach out to the reality of this adult world, however, Kampol often reaches inward. The novel verges on magical realism in certain passages where we enter the head of a child forced to conjure melancholy as a coping mechanism far too early in life. During a game of hide-and-seek, for instance, Kampol decides to sneak into his former apartment and hide half-submerged in the water tank of the bathroom:

He’d heard his mother scolding him. His father and Jon must be here, too. He dashed out of the bathroom, but the unit was hushed and empty.

Kampol threw the door shut behind him, leaving it as he’d found it. He stepped out into the real world.

“Boy, where the heck did you hide?” Oan asked when they ran into each other. “People quit playing ages ago.”

Kampol chuckled but refused to say. He had found the best hiding place: you’d have to travel back in time to discover it. (41-42)

In that wet darkness – a spot where he often hid from his parents in the past – Kampol summons into his felt reality the familial folly of a bygone time and transforms it into a happy place.

 

Pimwana, Duanwad. BrightTranslated from Thai by Mui Poopoksakul. Two Lines Press, 2019.


[1] Wilson, Ara. The Intimate Economies of Bangkok. University of California Press, 2004, 11-12.

 

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