This is not a volume from the Thai Modern Classics series I mentioned in a recent review,
but in the introduction to the book I discussed there was a very favorable mention of Nikom Rayawa's (Nikhom Raiyawa) Taling Soong, Sung Nak (Steep Banks, Heavy Logs - 1984). Intrigued, I found online a German translation, and then a bell rang. Yes, on my shelves was precisely that German translation, which I bought in Chiang Mai in 1999, shelved and forgot completely. This isn't the first, and it probably won't be the last time I find a forgotten and unread treasure in my shelves... Though I have read the German translation, there is an English translation called High Banks, Heavy Logs published by Penguin Australia in 1991.()
The protagonist of this novel is Kham Ngai, a mahout in the jungles of northern Thailand. Mahouts, at least in Thailand, are more than elephant drivers; there is a symbiotic and oftentimes exclusive relationship between the mahout and his elephant. This is particularly true in the case of Kham and "his" elephant, because they literally grew up together. The elephant belonged to his father until he had to sell it to meet medical expenses. Though the elephant no longer belongs to Kham, his current owner hires Kham to drive the elephant.(*) When he isn't needed as a mahout, Kham earns extra money as a wood carver and taxidermist.
There is no real antagonist, unless it be life itself posing problems, throwing up dangers and causing disappointments and, yes, tragedies. The central challenge is to carve a lifesize elephant out of a huge rosewood stump Kham's father managed to bring home before he died. The plan is to sell the wooden elephant in order to buy back the real elephant.
The story is told, with some extended flashbacks, in a straightforward, realistic manner. The characters are rarely self-reflective; they live the lives they were born into without much questioning. In one of the few reflective moments in the book, Kham is floating down a river on a raft of logs, notes how the river stays within its banks, moving ever forward, and wonders if his life might not be similar... But he doesn't try to locate the steep riverbanks determining the course of his life. There is also no surprise in the allegorical "heavy logs."
There are no literary pyrotechnics in this novel, and the translation I read is occasionally clumsy. But one is afforded an authentic(**) glimpse into the lives of people who never themselves come to word and hardly ever come to our attention except as stage setters of some touristic experience. They are real people with real lives, and I am pleased to be able to make their acquaintance. And I learned how to bring a raft of a hundred logs downriver to the sawmill without the aid of any machines. :)
() It has also been translated into French as L'Empailleur de Rêves by none other than Marcel Barang, the director of the Thai Modern Classics series.
(*) In Thailand, the primary economic role of the elephants was to drag felled trees from the forest to a river or road (and this is their role in this book), though in times further removed into the past they were also used for war and ceremony.
(**) The author grew up among the people he is describing.