Does a dog have Buddha nature?
This is a matter of life and death.
If you say yes or no,
You lose your mind and body!
An earlier version of this review originally appeared in The Bangkok Post on January 29, 2008.
By Roy Hamric
Not many novels are set in Laos these days, but Colin Cotterill is fast changing that with his series of crime novels set in the former Southeast Asian kingdom. The first novel begins just after Laos fell to the Pathet Lao Communists in 1975.
The unlikely hero, Dr. Siri Paiboon, is a sharp-witted, 72-year-old former jungle surgeon and Communist Party member. He’s surrounded by a cast of loveable characters. He wants to be left alone in his old age, but, to his chagrin, he’s appointed the national coroner of Laos – which really means he’s the only coroner in Laos. A unique twist is Siri’s ability to commune with powerful spirits who dwell in Laos, one of whom has entered his body.
The novels’ tone – read colourful, warm and smart – hit a home run with The New York Times’ reviewer, who called his first book “a perfect balance between the modern mysteries of forensic science and the ancient mysteries of the spirit world”; The Washington Post reviewer said it was “an impressive guide to a little known culture”; Entertainment Weekly cooed “magically sublime, tragically funny”; and Kirkus Reviews called the series, “an embarrassment of riches.”
For Cotterill, who lives in a small village south of Bangkok on the coast of Thailand, it’s been a rollercoaster ride, with each novel followed by glowing reviews – a writer’s dream come true. His gift as a novelist is that he makes it all look so easy. The fluid prose, the intricate plotting, the exotic Laotian setting and the earthy, wry, characters are all far superior to the average crime novel – or almost any novel for that matter.
Before his Siri novels, he apprenticed himself by writing two novels that were published only in Thailand. They were flops, in terms of attracting readers. Evil in the Land Without (2001) and Pool and Its Role in Asian Communism (2002) earned “a total of about $500 in royalties,” he said. Little did he know that international success was waiting just around the corner.
To find an agent for the first Laotian novel, “The Coroner’s Lunch,” he sent a short letter and a few pages of the first chapter to 120 US agents. He got several nibbles. Then an email appeared from a New York agent who asked to see the manuscript. He wrote back, “I can sell this for you.” Suddenly, it felt like fate had adopted him. Before long, he had a contract with Soho Press for a series. “I think getting published is a quirk of fate – getting to the right person at the right time,” he said, in his typical, self-effacing way.
Other novels in the series include Thirty-three Teeth, Disco for the Departed, Anarchy and Old Dogs, Curse of the Pogo Stick (“That’s my Hmong book.”), Slash and Burn and The Woman Who Wouldn’t Die.
Born in Wimbledon on the outskirts of London, he arrived in Southeast Asia in the early 1980s and started a series of NGO jobs, at one point working with refugees from Burma, Laos and Vietnam. He met a circle of Laotian ex-royalist and refugees who had vivid stories about the Communists, the fate of ordinary Laotians, the ethnic groups and the mass education and propaganda campaigns.
In 1990, Cotterill joined a Unesco project, working with the Laotian government to train English teachers at a college in Pakse, where he lived for two years. “It’s different to live in Laos and know what’s really happening,” he said. He learned, for instance, that one group of Laotians who wanted to study English used an East German language textbook, requiring them to first learn German to learn how to speak English. His notebooks filled up with stories, anecdotes and character details. But then he tripped up badly, ending up on the wrong side of a dispute with the military over who should be allowed to take English training classes.
“I went out of the country, then found out the government wouldn’t let me back in,” he said. “I didn’t really know who to blame. It took me a little while to get over it.” Starting in 1994, he began revisiting the country. “Every time I went, I thought, ‘I’m going to write about this.’”
In the late autumn of each year, he goes to Koh Samui to write a first draft of a new Siri novel in about four weeks. “I don’t like to know where the story is really going,” he said. “I know some of the things that occurred during the year I’m going to write about, so I get a few ideas and then just put Siri into a situation and ask, ‘How do we get out of this?’”
The spirit world plays a key role in each novel. Spirits are engaged in a sort of Manachean battle, inflicting their power for good or bad on lowly humans.
Within Cotterill’s exotic, mysterious world looms every-present bureaucracy, Communism, corpses and death. For Siri, death is but the beginning of the story. He uses his brain like a scalpel to cut through the mysteries of strangulation, stabbings, shootings, drownings, poisonings—and possessions.
On the serious side, one feels the crushing weight Communism has had on one of the most gentle, sublime cultures in the world. Siri is determined – what else is there to do? – to undermine the Communist ideologues whose mission is to discourage free-thinking and individual initiative––the exact traits possessed by Siri’s flesh-and-blood gang.
Another pleasure is Cotterill’s ability with dialogue. Many readers have commented that it’s the first time they feel as if they are hearing the way Asians really talk and think. “I had to defend the way my characters talk,” said Cotterill, who speaks Thai and Laotian. “If I have a character call someone a ‘bubblehead,’ well, there’s no exact Laotian equivalent for that English expression, but there are many similar Laotian expressions, so I feel I’m actually giving a closer approximation of the way my characters really talk.”
Cotterill has drawn cartoons and illustrations since he was a child, and he still enjoys working as an illustrator and cartoonist. He published a cartoon book, “Ethel and Joan Go to Phuket,” in Thai, and his unique website features his drawing.
“I write very visually,” he said. “I’m walking through the scenes with the characters. I’m seeing the characters, the weather, the land. I think I write more as an artist than as a writer.”
Two unpublished non-Siri novels sit on his desk; One is set in New York and Vietnam in 1952; the other is a contemporary thriller set in Chiang Mai involving the search for a 13th-century buried treasure.
Lonn Taylor, my friend who lives in Fort Davis, Texas, has a new book of essays, Texas People, Texas Places: More Musings of the Rambling Boy. It follows up My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy, which was published in January 2012, and he continues his stories and essays illuminating the best of Texas geography, history, and personalities. See my essay on Lonn’s earlier book here. Lonn is revered in the Big Bend area of Texas, where he has a weekly radio show on Marfa’s public radio station KRTS, which is the place to go to hear a wide range of music from classical to Texas roots music.
The Rain Tree at the Gymkhana Club
By Roy Hamric
This essay appeared in the Kyoto Journal, Issue 79, Spring 2014.
Do not require a description of the countries toward which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and tomorrow you arrive there and know them by inhabiting them. – Emerson, The Over-Soul
Many writers have left exact descriptions of their first taste of Asia. For Joseph Conrad, the East’s charm lived in his heart, in a state of mind he called romantic reality. It’s what drove many of his best-known characters, like the young seaman in Lord Jim, who longed to lose himself, to be stripped down to a bare, primitive moment.
Conrad wrote, “This in itself may be a curse, but, when disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a recognition of the hard facts of existence shared with the rest of mankind, it becomes but a point of view from which the very shadows of life appear endowed with an internal glow. It only tries to make the best of it, hard as it may be; and in this hardness discovers a certain aspect of beauty.”
To be under the spell of a place, or a state of mind, is to quicken the blood. But behind such spells lies a deep mystery imprinted in our subconscious – the desire to answer some indefinable call.
In the novel Youth, Conrad described the exact moment when Marlow, his narrator, first sensed the East: “… and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the sigh of the East on my face.”
Marlow never escaped the spell of that sublime moment – the sense of life flowing from a new direction, a shift of culture from western to eastern. For some of us, it is a seduction of the soul.
Writing as Marlow, Conrad said, “But for me, all of the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it…and I saw it looking at me.”
In the short story The Shadow-Line, he described the Bangkok of the 1890s, at the time of his first sighting: “One early morning we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of town. There it was, spread largely on both banks, the oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, king’s palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s ribs through every pore of one’s skin.”
A very different writer, the cosmopolitan Somerset Maugham, in the early 1920s, toured Burma and Siam. In a nearly forgotten travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, he captured a fading moment when Bangkok had yet to blend in with the West:
“The traffic of the river ceased and only now and then did you hear the soft splash of a paddle as someone silently passed on his way home. When I awoke in the night, I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and I heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music travelling not through space but through time.
“A leisurely tram crowded with passengers passes down the whole length of the street, and the conductor never ceases to blow his horn. Rickshaws go up and down ringing their bells, and motors sounding their claxons. The pavements are crowded and there is a ceaseless clatter of the clogs the people wear. Cloppity-clop they go, and it makes a sound as insistent and monotonous as the sawing of the cicadas in the jungle.”
Alex Waugh left a portrait of expatriate, turn-of-the-century Siam in Hot Countries, published in 1930, nearly three generations removed from today. Describing colonial life and the “natives” in Chiang Mai, he reflected the racist attitudes and language that permeated colonial culture. A well-educated Englishman, he presumed Western superiority, and his attitudes reflected the repression and guilt surrounding sexual mores. He used the expression “gone native” as a rebuke to Westerners who entered the normal life of Asian culture, or who openly took wives or girlfriends and shared their lifestyle. As a journalist who racked up books about exotic countries like they were way stations on a news beat, Waugh described “white life” in old Chiang Mai.
It was especially difficult on Western women, he wrote, and he urged them to stay home rather than endure a life of isolation, boredom and disease. He admitted he’d never personally known of a case of a white man who had “gone native,” but he’d heard rumors and had constant suspicions. The “gone native” phrase was nuanced – most of the time it was a code word for sexual relations or cohabitation.
“In the popular imagination,” he wrote, “the ‘gone native’ myth has become identified with that very different, very real problem of the tropics – the white man and the brown woman.”
It’s easy to pass over 19th-century Western attitudes and the social barriers faced by both Westerners and Asians. But a careful reading makes you cringe. Waugh wrote: “In Bangkok, it would be impossible for a white man to have a Siamese girl living in his bungalow, but on the plantation there is fairly often a Malay girl who disappears discretely when visitors arrive. There the relationship has a certain dignity. There is faithfulness on both sides. Custom creates affection. But in neither case is there any approach to the ‘gone native’ picture. In neither case has the white man done anything that involves loss of caste. He observes the customs of the country.”
In scalding sentences that magnify the distance, he wrote: “All the same, I believe it is extremely rare for there to exist a profound relationship between a white man and a brown woman.” Again, “I have yet to meet the man who will say that he has really loved a coloured woman.”
And, “Love, as we understand it, is foreign to these people.” And, “Between brown and white there can be only a brief and superficial harmony.” And finally, “Between brown and white there can be no relation interesting in itself.”
To get to Chiang Mai, Waugh took the Bangkok passenger train for the 27-hour journey north. If you went by river, it was a five-week journey. Chiang Mai was the administration center of two large timber companies, the Borneo and Bombay Burma. Waugh felt he was going to the end of the road where the “white community” had to unite together against a “common foe.”
“There are not, I fancy, more than thirty white people in the station,” he wrote. “There is the bank manager and the English consul; there are the forest manager, and an occasional assistant who has come in from the jungle for a rest; there is an American mission which is responsible for schools and the hospital and a big sanatorium for lepers.”
The social “white life” of Chiang Mai was centered around the Gymkhana Club, chartered in 1898, which is still in operation today. As I write this, I sit near a majestic rain tree that is older than the club, its huge limbs casting shade over outdoor tables.
“It is a large field set a little way out of town which serves as a polo ground, a golf course and a tennis court,” Waugh wrote. “By five in the evening, most of the white community is there. There is 75 minutes of strenuous exercise, then there is a gathering around a large table on which have been set out drinks, glasses and a little lamp. There are rarely more or rarely less than a dozen people there…the women have slipped their legs into sarongs, sewn up at one end in the shape of bags. Their life is hard and testing. It has many dangers, many difficulties. It is only by mutual tolerance, by interdependence, by loyalty and friendship that it can be made tolerable.”
The rain tree is a stone’s throw from the northern bank of the Mae Ping River as it winds past the city’s old Chinese night market and main tourist hotels. For decades, the club remained a tranquil oasis of white privilege, but after WW II it fell on hard times. By the 1950s, the last of the Western lumber concessions had disappeared. Club membership had dwindled to less than 20, and to avoid bankruptcy the directors voted to offer 12 Thais full membership. By early 2000, the club membership rebounded to around 300 people. Thais numbered about 60 percent and one Westerner served on the board of directors.
The centerpiece of the club is still the venerable rain tree, marking the passage of time. Its shade certainly fell across the figure of the visiting Waugh, whose cultural blinders prevented him from truly knowing Asians. To know the other is as hard as to know one’s self, if not harder.
To live here one would be charged in the quiet, small currency of the conscience. – Graham Greene, describing Vietnam in his essay collection, Reflections.
The three generations between Waugh’s Hot Countries and Greene’s The Quiet American, published in 1955, saw sweeping changes in cultural attitudes. The world grew smaller. In The Quiet American, the correspondent Thomas Fowler, Greene’s alter ego, admits his love and his desire to marry his Vietnamese mistress, Phoung. But his cynicism and sense of superiority still color the relationship. At first, it’s as if he is taking on a beautiful naïf, a woman perfectly designed to be of service to a superior Western man. Later, Fowler learns that the reverse might be closer to the truth.
Phuong is a classic Vietnamese mistress, a heroine who deftly controls and dispenses her emotions and affections between her interests in Fowler and his nemesis, the wide-eyed, naive American, Alden Pyle. She’s capable of breaking the idealistic Pyle’s heart, but she presents little romantic danger to Fowler, who strives to be the dispassionate observer, a stoic who sees emotional attachment as vulnerability. Fowler is a post-colonial man poised at a moment of romantic growth, but just barely. He starts with the typical, Western cultural baggage that is still lugged around today by too many expatriates arriving on Boeing 787s.
Fowler thinks: “It is a cliché to call them children – but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them – they hate you for a blow or an injustice. They don’t know what it’s like – just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, it’s very secure. She won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.”
Later, his cynicism is shaken and his emotions expand when he realizes Phuong “was as scared as the rest of us – she didn’t have the gift of expression, that was all.” Greene gives Fowler an emotional breakthrough when he finally grants Phoung equal emotions – something he should have understood long before, but worth learning at any age.
By Roy Hamric
For decades, most folks in Far West Texas at one time saw Judy Magers on her burro riding along the side of the highway or camping next to the road. This story first appeared in 2008 in the Desert Candle, a cultural journal published in Alpine, Texas.
We saw Judy about one mile east of Van Horn on Highway 90. She was sitting on the ground on the side of the road under a small tree and eating food with her fingers. A harsh, cold wind was blowing. Several plastic bags flapped loudly, caught on the barbed wire strands of a fence behind her. Her burro was still saddled, head down, bedecked with the rainbow-colored blankets and brightly colored strings that made it look like a psychedelic, walking Christmas present. The burro carried an assortment of blankets, ropes, bottles and storage bags that represented Judy and her way of life as a vagabond, a mysterious spirit with no home. She lived under the stars.
“Hi, how are you? Can I talk to you?” Laddawan, my Thai wife, asked through the car window. Judy nodded. We got out and Laddawan went over to her and sat down beside her. Laddawan’s puppy followed her and nestled down beside them.
Judy wore three or four coats. She had on white plastic boots with silver spurs. She wore a tight, white plastic skullcap that came down over her ears, making her look like a medieval apparition from a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The skin on her face was swollen and raw and colored brownish red from the wind and years of living outdoors.
“Do you want some water?” Laddawan asked.
“No, thank you. I have some water.”
“Are you ok? What’s your name?”
“My name’s Judy. You have a beautiful puppy.”
“Yes, he is my baby. His name is Roxy. How old is your donkey?”
“Male or female?”
“Can I touch him?”
“Don’t get too close to him, because he might kick.”
“How old are you?” Laddawan asked.
“How old are you?” Judy asked.
“I’m 29,” Judy said, smiling.
Laddawan laughed. “I’m from Thailand. I’m very interested in you. I like to talk with people – it makes me happy, because sometimes when I am alone I feel sad and homesick.
“You have to buy a radio,” Judy said.
“Do you have a radio?”
“Yes,” she said. “I have a small transistor radio.”
“And you listen to it?”
“Sometimes. I like Mexican music at night.”
“Do you have a problem with animals—tigers, javelina?” Laddawan asked.
“No,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m lookin’ for some land to buy,” said Judy. “I hear they have cheap land over around Sanderson.”
“Why do you want land? Just to put some things?”
Judy said she roamed the lonely highways as far south as Terlingua near the Mexico border and from Sanderson to Van Horn to Fort Hancock.
“I don’t stop too much,” she said. She said she could average 12 to 15 miles a day, riding or walking alongside her burro.
“Can I take a picture with you?” Laddawan asked.
“You can take a picture of the burro, but I don’t want my picture taken,” Judy said.
Judy got up and began fiddling with a rope tied to a fence post while I took a picture of her burro.
“If I see you later, can I talk to you again?” Laddawan asked.
Laddawan reached over and tried to shake Judy’s hand, holding two of her fingers.
“Ok, you have a good day,” Laddawan said. “I want to stop and talk to you whenever I see you. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you, too,” Judy said.
Back in the car, we made a U-turn across the highway, and Laddawan waved goodbye.
“I want to be friends with her,” she said, smiling. “Maybe someday I will live like that – a wandering nun.”
This book was a secret escape into another world, reminding me of the pleasures of childhood reading. It opened up a fascinating realm of nature and animals. I found a battered, spine-broken, worm-eaten edition that had passed through the Penang Library in 1959. It’s a two-track story: first, it’s the story of the Indian working elephant – jungle royalty. Second, it’s a record of a young Englishman’s life, who has been thrown into the job of a “teak wallah” for seven years in the mountainous areas around Chiang Mai in the early 1950s.
Essentially, he’s a clueless but eager, hardy soul who takes over the responsibility of managing a crew of clever and sometimes exasperating Thais and savvy hill tribe workers charged with cutting and hauling out of the deepest jungles of Northern Siam (now known as Thailand) timber that was prized for its strength and beauty. “These elephants possess the virtues of a crawler tractor, crane, bulldozer and tug combined in one package and are endowed with a high degree of intelligence,” wrote H.N. Marshall. In the 1950s, the area around Chiang Mai was still wild and dangerous, especially when sending the cut timber down the small streams into the Mae Ping River where the logs slowly worked their way downriver to the larger Chao Phraya, eventually arriving in Bangkok as long as four or five years later. Huge logjams blocked the river trip along the way, which had to be “un-jammed” by man or elephants in the most dangerous situations imaginable.
Opium crazed workers, pythons in the rafters, hunting game for fresh meat, the lore of treating sick elephants, the devotion of their mahout, berserk elephants on rampages defending their turf, night-stalking tigers, outlaws and bandits, marauding mosquitoes, flies, ants, termites, spiders and centipedes. It was a life and work few people could do. But he found the satisfaction that comes from doing work unimaginably hard, work one thought themselves incapable of doing.
Marshall wrote, in a goodbye tribute, in that effusive English language of his day: “On forested hills, in steamy valleys and swampy lowlands, in extremes of heat, wet and cold, and at all times of day and night, I had come to know the Indian elephants for what they are: the unquestioned Kings and Queens of the jungle.” The daily life he unfolds is warmer, simpler, richer and supremely demanding, a life few people could endure and which he must have carried like a dream through his routine life when he returned home to the easy comforts of England.
I sometimes call it an office, but it’s not that in any traditional sense. It’s a room lined with bookcases wherever a window isn’t located. Various small pictures rest on the bookcase shelves. Old postcards – one a picture of three women singers at the Lolita Club in Bangkok in the 1950s. Two small, framed, antique pictures of famous monks. A framed heart-shaped leaf from a Bodhi tree. A 6-foot, teak desk sits under four windows. The floor is teak. A sliding door opens onto a long porch, always offering shade. On the desk is a notebook computer, various black, gray, white and brown rocks worn smooth from years in local streams. A bronze turtle, a wooden frog, two small ivory horses. Two ivory-inlaid, small circular boxes from China. Two small, wooden elephants, two statues of the Buddha from China. Framed pictures on the wall include a Tibetan symbol for Om, a color photo of a sunset over the Rio Grande in the Big Bend, a picture of three wood ibises about to land on a river in East Texas, a small oil painting of a heron by Texas artist Frank Tolbert, Chinese calligraphy for the word Mu, a picture of Han Shan and Pick-up, a picture of Jiun’s calligraphy for the word Buddha. The books were mostly shipped here from the US, or were bought at local used bookstores. Most are old friends that have stood the test of time. This space helps to keep me alive, to keep me me, in the sense of being drawn into this mystery. My life.