Portraits of a Thai Villageby
Michael Smithies,with sketches by
1st edition, 176 pp., 39 b & w sketches, 21.5 x 15.2 cm., softcover.
ISBN-10: 974-524-031-1 $18.00
Book review by Tarmo Rajasaari,
(The Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 92, 2004)
In Village Vignettes Michael Smithies takes us for a personalized and down-to-earth excursion along unpaved roads into one average north-eastern Thai village. Through a series of portraits we are introduced to a number of its ordinary yet memorable inhabitants. It is a vivid account of seemingly uneventful rural life, the virtues of which so easily vanish in the traffic congestion and inhumanely demanding city life of the country’s capital.
In thirty portraits the author brings us an unveiled close-up look into the misfortunes, heartaches, daydreams and simple joy of such characters as Big Tits, the village Don Juan and the half-Chinese, just to mention few. Touching as they are, these portraits are a healthy read for anyone who takes modern commodities and so-called easy life, or life itself for that matter, for granted. At times, and more often than once, we feel powerless for not being able to intervene and give the villagers a helping hand in their earthly tumbles. On occasions the author himself offers suggestions and in some cases outright solutions as to how to rectify such annoyances as power cuts and waste management which, sadly, in many parts of rural Thailand are notorious.
Although Smithies rather often paints a somewhat gloomy-though realistic picture of village life and the future prospects in rural areas, he nonetheless also gives hope. Most effectively this is conveyed in “Orphaned” and “One-leg”. Take the former, a heart-warming tale of little Panja whose stoic resilience against the odds is remarkable. In a way the survival and whole existence of rural Thailand under the pains of hardship depend on such a childlike yet so mature and exemplary ability to cope with adversity. Determined about what he wants from life, this little boy is not discouraged by what is lost or by things he does not have, but instead simply thrives from what is still left.
In the second case, Sit has lost his leg both due to an unfortunate workplace accident and to doctors’ hasty decision and inexperience. Not giving in to self-pity or bothering to undergo the never-ending (and most likely fruitless) process of seeking compensation, he continued his life as before, not at all considering himself disabled. Now years later at older age, at the shady comfort of his home, he makes hammocks that sell well not only in the village, but also in the market in town.
And as it so often happens when eking out a living in less than favourable conditions, some will rise and some will fall. We are introduced to a scumbag such as every village community has at least one. Here, Mr Balls by name, is a public menace pestering the neighbourhood with his unruly behaviour and who, finally, ends up in the local prison. We might easily share the villagers’ hope in the event that if he ever returns, he would not stay for long. Of course, there is always a possibility that, given his character, some rough justice may take place while he is behind bars…
The author does not hesitate to approach one of the saddest events in human life, either. In the disheartening tale of Pum, this old man, defeated under life’s body blows, finds his final solution on a hook high up in his toilet-cum-bathroom. There are also those who have traded their rural values for the lure of the decadence of the red light districts in Bangkok. In between the portraits there are themes that throw light into many subjects that are, and some have become only recently, an inseparable part of village life. The function and philosophy of “ghetto-blasters”, mobile phones and various forms of gambling are described in a humorous though not offending way by any means.
Michael Smithies is very attentive and diligent in his approach; nothing goes unnoticed in his vicinity. He takes us to the heart of impoverished Isaan-as the North-East is called-in a fashion that can only [have] grown from extensive hands-on experience and knowledge of the local culture, its people and their way of thinking. The more life-stories one reads, the more engrossed one becomes in the plight of the characters. Importantly, Smithies is also wise enough not to glorify their toil. The pencil and ink illustrations, drawn by Uthai Traisiwakul and beautiful in their simplicity, intensify the rural atmosphere of the book.
In this small village, that can be found somewhere beyond the second crossing of the railway tracks (mind you, it is thick with ghosts due to many fatal accidents), it is easy to imagine the author sitting at the village shop observantly taking mental notes of the goings-on while enjoying his kanom chin. From this vantage point he sends a useful reminder to all of us; no matter how down you feel, there’s always someone who is worse off than you.
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