Translated from Lao by Bounheng Inversin, Roger Rumpf, Jacqui Chagnon, Thipason Phimviengkham and William Galloway
Published by University of Washington Press
A poor cobbler finds a way to make his contribution to his country’s war effort; a young man offers strangers lifts on his bicycle; and a young woman tries to return a silver belt she has stolen.
These are deceptively simple stories from Laotian author Outhine Bounyavong, who came of age as a writer during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Royal Lao government at the time was heavily dependant on American aid, which also meant that there was a large US military presence. Corruption was rife, with a few families doing well and the majority living in poverty.
Laotian fiction had been used as entertainment for the elite. But Laotian writers who came of age during this period, like Bounyavong, realized that fiction could be used as social commentary. The stories in this collection—written over several years, from the late 1960s to 1990—demonstrate this: they are stories about ordinary people that also reflect what the country was going through.
In “Death Price”, a woman waits for days at an airport so she can travel to the north to see her husband, a soldier. She cannot get on board because she does not have enough money to bribe the official. He finally lets her on, only to pull her off again when someone more important comes along.
In “Wrapped-Ash Delight”, the traditional ways of the village are used to solve a problem. Nang Piew finds a silver belt when she goes down to the river. No one sees her, so she takes it. But soon everyone in the small village knows that a silver belt has gone missing. The kuan bahn (leader of the village) finds a way to resolve the problem: every villager has to leave a packet of ash wrapped in a banana leaf in his house, giving the culprit a chance to return the belt anonymously.
One of the concerns Bounyavong returns to is the environment: the cutting of trees and the disappearing wildlife. In “Frangipani”, a large tamarind tree that provides shade and gives children a place to play is cut down by the authorities because it is interfering with the power lines. The people living there try to persuade the authorities to cut off just the top of the tree but they are ignored. The community loses its meeting place, and the children stay away. Then one day a man plants frangipani trees along the road—they do not grow as tall as tamarinds—and the community finds its centre again.
“A Voice from the Plain of Jars” is about the devastation wrought by the heavy bombardment of Laos in the 1970s, when the United States dropped 2.1 million tons of bombs on the country over 9 years. In the story, the editor of a newspaper receives a letter from a refugee who was forced to leave because of the bombing. He finally returns to his hometown, the Plain of Jars, to find “ruins and bomb craters everywhere. The bare branches of a single blackened tree stood on a hillside, as if guarding the silence. … Not only was this land made uninhabitable for human beings, but also for animals. … Unexploded bombs still lie buried in the Plain of Jars. … Death lurks underground, everywhere.”
The introductory chapter by Peter Koret is well worth reading before you go on to the stories. It places literature in the context of Laos’s history.
The edition I have is bilingual, with one side in Lao and the other in English. I would recommend this book. It is a glimpse into a country that is not very well known.