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The Path of the Tiger , by Sila Khoamchai

Path of the Tiger - KhoamchaiSila

In the mid 1990's a fairly short-lived but quite valuable book project, called Thai Modern Classics and directed by Marcel Barang, published English and French translations of modern Thai fiction. Whenever I was in Bangkok, I bought every volume I could find, and even in Bangkok that was not many. The physical books are long out of print, but Barang maintains a website




where one can purchase the translations as ebooks. I hate ebooks, but I might have to compromise. In any case, I'd like to draw attention to these books, in particular, and Thai literature, in general, by reviewing some of them.


When one of the right wing, military backed regimes ruling Thailand in the 1970's massacred peaceful demonstrators on October 6, 1976, Sila Khoamchai (the pen name of Winai Boonchuay - b. 1952) and thousands of other students lit out for the jungle, which was then largely controlled by the Thai Communist Party. From the frying pan into the fire... But Khoamchai was able to turn at least some of his experiences in the jungle into gripping literature, to wit the novella Thang Suea (The Path of the Tiger), which appeared in 1989.(*)


A nameless hunter is searching the jungle for an animal, hopefully a barking deer (a deer the size of a large dog), to feed a wife and two small, hungry children waiting at home, a bamboo hut in the heavily wooded mountains of Thailand. The jungle and the hunter's thought processes are beautifully evoked, and the hunter's mistakes show that he is somewhat inexperienced and feeling the pressure of his responsibility - it is one thing to go hunting in expensive gear and with a high powered rifle, money in your pockets and supermarkets everywhere; it is quite another for this hunter.


But his struggle with himself, the jungle and the deer is just the beginning. He realizes that while he is stalking the wounded deer, a tiger is stalking him. His little muzzle-loading, buckshot-spewing pea-shooter is completely inadequate. He is the prey now.


But there is another element to this story. The idealistic, left wing students and the Communist Party cadre were oil and water (demonstrated many times in many cultures and countries). Khoamchai came out of the experience completely disillusioned. Moreover, when the military junta offered the blanket amnesty which vitiated the insurgency and Khoamchai emerged from the jungle after more than 5 years of struggle, he returned to a country still ruled by a military dictatorship. So, not only was he disillusioned, it was all for nothing. Imagine for a moment the state of his mind.


Khoamchai infuses some of this turmoil into his hunter, who blames everything and everybody for his situation, while quietly rending himself for his stupidity and incompetence. All of this is heated white hot in the blacksmith's forge of his terror. 


I won't give anything away except to say that the experience is transformative for the hunter. This is a strong piece of writing.


Like Chinese and Japanese, the Thai language suppresses the subject of a sentence whenever it can be otherwise deduced (or if the author deliberately wishes to capitalize upon the ambiguity). In an informative introduction Barang mentions that Khoamchai utilized this ellipsis and others to a more than usual extent, making the original Thai very taut and energetic. As English resists such ellipses (except in "experimental" writing), the translators had to sacrifice some of this tautness for the sake of clarity. Nonetheless, the translation reads very well.


(*) He has published much more, but I haven't been able to lay my hands on any other translation.