“Self-contained universes of made up words and letters” – The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon

Imagine a door for me, if you will. Can be any kind of door, any colour. Now I want you to imagine yourself trying to kick the door in. Or you can use your shoulder if you like. You fancy yourself as being quite strong but you’re disappointed to find that the door is made of sturdier stuff and won’t budge. You screw your courage to the sticking place and have another go  but no. The door continues to repel you. Now, at this point (or at some point, you may try kicking or shouldering that door in another hundred times, but eventually…), we suspect one of two things might happen: either you give up, walk away, find a coffee place, treat yourself to a Frappuccino; or you take a longer run up, you maybe scream the kind of barbaric yawp even Walt Whitman himself would have been proud of and you smash that door to freaking pieces. If you replaced the door with The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon and your shoulder with us, reading Prabda Yoon’s The Sad Part Was, you’ll have a really good idea about what it was like to read The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon.

Prabda Yoon, in case you don’t know, is a big deal in Thailand. We’re talking writer, novelist, filmmaker, artist, graphic designer, magazine editor, screenwriter, translator and media personality. The Sad Part Was is a just published translation of many of the stories that appeared in Yoon’s 2000 collection, Kwam Na Ja Pem. In terms of what is he like as a writer – sometimes, yes, he can be a little bit Haruki Murakami and sometimes he can be a little bit Etgar Keret, both of which are fine by us. In ‘A Schoolgirl’s Diary’, his staccato sentences recall the work of Noah Cicero. Yoon has a way of ruminating, picking at a subject in a way that is (for the most part) entertaining – ‘The Sharp Sleeper’ is a good example of this, as our narrator awakes to find his third pyjama top in a week has lost a button, he knows not why. At other times, Yoon can conjure an interesting incident – such as in ‘Something in the Air’, where a couple’s tryst is interrupted by the letters O and N falling from the roof of a neighbouring building on to their veranda – and combines it with just enough oddness to keep you intrigued (in this case, the couple in question have the most unusual way of talking to one another):

“We were frightened to no small extent, but now that you’ve done an inspection and determined the sequence of events, you should be satisfied. Why stand exposed to heaven’s mood this way? It behooves us to hurry back into the house lest we disturb our bodies’ respiratory and immune systems.”

Sometimes Yoon’s playfulness is dazzling – ‘Marut by the Sea’, for instance, in which a nameless narrator questions Yoon and holds him up for ridicule, is not only a standout of this collection, it’s the kind of story – were you to read it in an anthology – you’d be rushing to read anything else by Yoon you could get your hands on. Sometimes Yoon fashions compelling interactions, such as in ‘Ei Ploang’, the story of two people who becomes friends (or sort of friends) as they sit alongside one another on a park bench trying to work out which of the people (or stones) passing by are good or evil, and the prose is within shouting distance of a writer like Yoko Ogawa. Sometimes the writing alone is enough to make you smile or gasp a little – such as here, from the beginning of ‘Shallow/Deep, Thick/Thin’, a sort of celebrity satire:

“There are no secrets in this world. But once you leave this world, secrets float in abundance, outnumbering scraps of meteorites many times over.”

“Believe me,” the not-Marut says in ‘Marut by the Sea’, “Prabda’s stories don’t get any better than this.” But that isn’t the whole story. We said this book was a door we had to take a number of runs at, didn’t we? The first story in the collection, ‘Pen in Parentheses’ (which largely concerns a note the narrator finds written by his 13 year old self) is wandering and aimless, the kind of story you see entered into short story competitions, a little bit enchanted by its own originality – sometimes Yoon’s ruminations need curtailing. Sometimes Yoon’s stories don’t know how to end (the aforementioned ‘Sharp Sleeper’ is a terrific example of that – you’ve just read a story about buttons but, effectively, what am I even thinking about buttons for anyway?). Sometimes – see ‘Miss Space’, the story of a young woman who leaves large spaces between her words (as, the translator, Mui Poopoksakul, suggests Yoon himself does) – Yoon’s stories can be a little too twee, a la Banana Yoshimoto. Sometimes Yoon’s stories feel like drafts in need of further work (see ‘Snow for Mother’, see ‘The Crying Parties’). Sometimes, as in ‘Found’, the story of end of the century fears, the stories have just dated. It has, after all, been quite a long time since the year 2000 in some respects.

But Poopoksakul’s apposite afterword pulls you back:

“[Yoon’s] stories demand to be perceived as texts, insisting on their own self-contained universes of made up words and letters.”

And then you start to think about all of the stories that landed – not least ‘The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya’ which snaps along with the pizazz of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – and you realise that, after all and over all, The Sad Part Was delivers more hits than misses.

Any Cop?: An early collection of highs and lows, uneven to be sure but landing enough punches to warrant a recommendation.

 

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