Stories from the Wounded Shangri-La
When John F. Kennedy announced American military involvement in Laos he mispronounced the name as "Lay-os". He believed that the public could not bear the thought of the mighty US military taking on a "louse" - the proper pronunciation of Laos. This blunder and the insistence on making Vietnam rhyme with "jam", nicely sum up American ignorance of Indochina during this dark period. And to this day, a tourist is occasionally overheard to be headed to Lay-os, presumably to eat potato chips, or to Vietnam, to eat jam.
Little continues to be known about Laos. To journalists its chief distinction is that it is the "most bombed country in history" - not exactly the best motto for a fledgling country to have. It has also recently become popular with opium-addled backpackers, rafting buffs, and those curious to see how long the country can resist the worldwide retreat of Communism. But its culture and history remain obscure. And for at least one good reason: not until 1999 was a book-length collection of modern Lao short stories published in English: Mother's Beloved by Outhine Bounyavong.
Southeast Asian literature remains strongly influenced by court and religious traditions. It is intended to glorify paragons of virtue or to offer simple moral instruction. In either case, the literature is supposed to be ennobling, as most literature everywhere once was. For a Western reader, the effect may be jarring. Increasingly Western literature is intended to glorify peddlers of word-games or to offer signs of moral collapse. It is not ennobling, but self-aggrandizing and depressing.
In contrast, consider the first two stories in Outhine's collection. In "Mother's Beloved", a man returning to his village is carrying two cans of condensed milk to give to his uncle. Instead he encounters a pregnant woman and gives her one of the cans. "My mother taught us," he explains, "that if we are carrying food with us when we see a pregnant woman, we must give her a share." The story ends with the narrator feeling "a sense of obligation to help a tiny being who would be born into this world." And that's that.
"Sacrifice" displays a similar model of selflessness, a man offering bystanders a ride on his bicycle. Most take him up on it, but one lady bitterly refuses. Still, by the end of the story, he realizes the value of his perseverance, and he feels "very cool in [his] heart" - a Thai/Lao idiom meaning calm, collected, even enlightened.
Not all of Outhine's stories are this idyllic or heartwarming. Instead they record the devastation of Laos caused by its recent wars. In "A Voice from the Plain of Jars", a Laotian pleads with a former American friend and anti-war activist to remember that much remains to be done to make Laos livable again. Visiting the Plain of Jars, she
"saw nothing but ruins and bomb craters everywhere.... Except for a flock of swallows in the distance, there was no sign of life.... The fields were...pockmarked everywhere by ugly brown spots. As you know only too well, these spots are craters made by the heavy rain of bombs dropped by B-52s, which targeted the Plain of Jars beginning in 1970."
Later, the woman inadvertently detonates a "bombie" that blows both her legs off.
Dismemberment makes a second unwanted appearance in the story "Contribution". In it a certain cobbler impatiently awaits the return of one of his customers. When the customer returns over three months later, he is missing one leg. A mended pair of shoes, needless to say, is the last thing he needs. Now ashamed at his impatience, the cobbler asks what happened, and the customer replies that he lost his leg in the 1988 Thai-Lao border war. Having previously lamented his failure to contribute to the war effort, the cobbler now feels redeemed.
Still other stories deal with the corruption that plagued Laotian society under the US-backed Royalist regime. "What a Beauty!" describes a tradition common to Laos and Thailand, in which men buy and present garlands to women on display in return for the privilege of dancing with them - a charming or misogynist tradition, depending on your point of view. A poor and somewhat homely woman is passed up countless times simply because of her poverty, until finally a young man buys her a garland. Later she learns that he fought against the Royalists, and that many of the women that bested her have been shipped to so-called reeducation camps. This story, like "A Voice from the Plain of Jars", doubles nicely - and not at all subtly - as political propaganda. This is why so much modern Southeast Asian literature is so bland and doctrinaire: most of the region still consists of authoritarian regimes.
But in Peter Koret's introduction to the collection, he reminds us how stark a contrast wartime Laos bore to traditional Lao mores. "The society of Vientiane [was] a 'bastardized version of American culture' with its 'whore-houses and dance halls', while the travel writer Paul Theroux described it...as 'one of America's expensive practical jokes, a motiveless place where nothing was made, everything imported.'" Opium dens were also rife.
Of course whorehouses, dance halls, and opium are hardly American imports, whereas the garland dances are not American at all. But venality seems to be common to all cultures: as long as there is money there will be bribery, call it what you will ("campaign finance", for example.)
Outhine's story "Death Price" tells of a Lao woman desperate to get on a plane. She offers a trivial bribe of 500 kip (about 5 US cents by today's rates) but the money is refused. Eventually she manages to secure some seats, but at the last moment some "big shots" arrive and she gets bumped. Thing is, the plane crashes, and the man who had refused her bribe is court-martialed because the plane's manifest differs from the list of casualties. This is efficient karma indeed.
In some ways, Laos is the quintessential forgotten country, forever trying and failing to avoid conflicts between various empires. One quite literally hears nothing about it or from it. And, in a way, this silence is to be envied. No news is not always good news, as the quietly murderous Khmer Rouge regime showed. Laos is poor, corrupt, and authoritarian. But at least it is finally independent and at peace.
Outhine's collection has broken the silence, and the message it offers is not surprising. Be decent and the world will be decent. Be kind and you will be happy. And, as HL Mencken wrote in his epitaph, "wink your eye at some homely girl."
- The End -
Review of Outhine Bounyavong's Mother's Beloved: Stories from Laos, Silkworm Books, 1999.
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