Voice in the Wilderness: Karen Schur's Like the Gaze of Statues

by Kenneth Champeon, Sep 14, 2001 | Destinations: Thailand / Bangkok

[Asian Communications Co., Bangkok, 2000. ISBN 974-410-151-2]

Thailand does not rank among the countries most hospitable for Western women. By turns they are depressed by the wretched status accorded some Thai women, put off by the eager propositions of some Thai men, and sickened by the unabashed promiscuity of their Western counterparts. Thus, expatriates in Thailand are predominantly men, and expatriate literature has a decidedly manly slant.

Christopher Moore, Bangkok's most famous Western author, has written a number of rather interchangeable and sordid thrillers set in Southeast Asia, some with equally interchangeable titles (A Killing Smile, A Bewitching Smile, A Haunting Smile). Nonetheless, he has been dubbed "the Hemingway of Bangkok." This claim has been reproduced so widely that it is now widely credited. Unfortunately, the comparison is absurd. Moore's writing bears no more resemblance to Hemingway than does a Hollywood soundtrack to Chopin's nocturnes. The "John Grisham of Bangkok", perhaps, or the John le Carré. But Hemingway, alas, no.

The only recent work of quality expatriate literature in Thailand is the short-story collection Like the Gaze of Statues. As it happens, its author is a woman, Bangkok's Karen Schur, author also of Oxford University Press' Voyage of the Emerald Buddha. Statues has been on the bookshelves for some time, but it does not appear to have been widely read or reviewed. Obscurity of this kind portends one of a few things: either the book is uncommonly good but unconventional, is being pitched to the wrong audience, or is simply bad.

Statues is certainly good and unconventional, and it probably appeals far less to the throng of Christopher Moore devotees than to a devotee of, say, Jhumpa Lahiri. Indeed, Statues shares a great deal with Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies. Both are story collections (usually a hard sell in a novel-dominated market). Both are written by intelligent and cosmopolitan women. Both are set in a wide range of contemporary international settings (Schur covers, among others, India, Thailand, Laos, America, Germany, and Greece). And both feature a variety of styles, voices, and characters. "The visions which rise from these pages," writes a reviewer, "vary to such a degree that one might imagine them to be a collection of writings by different authors, rather than the monolithic perspective of one woman."

The same reviewer compares Schur to Gertrude Stein and Joseph Conrad. Stylistically and thematically, I would add Virginia Woolf, though I will refrain from calling Schur the "Woolf of Bangkok." But like Woolf, Schur possesses a gently incisive wit, a wide-eyed fastidiousness, and a slightly meandering style.

The two authors also share a preoccupation with unfulfilled desires. Schur's story "Driving Her Crazy" describes a well-off Western woman in Bangkok, who contemplates but does not commence a sexual affair with her Thai driver. In "A Moment of Madness", a woman unhappy with her marriage finds a guarded solace by gazing at a portrait of a serene santoor player.

Unfulfilled desires likewise guide the collection's most clever piece, "Joseph Conrad Suite". The story takes place at Bangkok's famous Oriental Hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, where Conrad once sailed. Minnie, the story's main character, is caught up in an empty life of innuendo, backbiting, and shallow compliments by "dozens of trendy Thais and farangs chatting and guffawing as they nibbled the cute and creatively delicious canapes." Into her sentences Schur slyly inserts titles of Conrad's works - "under western eyes", "'twixt land and sea", "tales of unrest" - and Minnie wants like Conrad "to learn a new language, and sail away" from her artificial world.

But Schur's most compelling stories are "A Question of Justice" and "Story of a Lifetime." The first treats the touchy, but urgent subject of pedophilia in Asia. Schur's fury at pedophiles is plain, but masterfully controlled. "Entertainment for a small yet uncomfortable percentage of the world population, paedophilia is the monster in the closet. Think about it: barring those wretched marriages in which a pre- or barely pubescent child is sent off with some randy goat looking for rejuvenation in his golden years, paedophilia is not a mainstream pursuit." Schur braves the description of a sex scene that ends with a violated child lying "on the bed, face up, her eyes open, staring as if in disbelief at the ceiling." A few words can be worth a thousand editorials.

In "Story of a Lifetime", Schur takes on America's secret war against Laos. An American veteran of this war returns to live out his tormented life. His only hope lies in his son. But the son becomes a journalist and is sent on an assignment to - you guessed it - Laos, to report on the war's aftermath. "I'm going to Laos, said Bryan, looking straight into his father's eyes. His father closed them quicker than a blink."

Some of the other stories are less successful, especially those straying into the tricky genre of magical realism, like "Stygian Set." But on the whole the claim of the book's back cover, that Schur is "a compelling voice in the vanguard of Bangkok's expatriate literary scene," is justified, though I am tempted to ask, "What scene?" Schur alone is worthy of the name "literary". For the foreseeable future she is a scene unto herself.