At the age of five, Kampol is left sitting on a kerbside by his father, who promises to return. The boy waits, waits, waits, eventually realising his father is not coming back. He floats around his village, raised by the families that surround him, drifting through the next couple of years as the world around him carries on.
Reading Duanwad Pimwana’s poignant Bright, first published in 2002 and now the first book by a Thai woman to be translated into English, is like moving through a fever dream. With no clear narrative arc, it is told in 36 slice-of-life chapters of varying lengths, revolving around the young protagonist, Kampol. We see the world through this unreliable narrator’s eyes as the third-person voice flits between the real and the imagined, and the strange spaces between. The youthful innocence through which many of these tales are filtered makes for a book that is sometimes blackly funny, sometimes harrowing – Kampol sees a man having sex through a window but thinks he is riding a rocking horse; after Kampol hears a story of a man so starved that he murders for money, the young boy wanders his community, looking at the vagrants and wondering what they’re capable of, if hunger could turn their blood cold too. At times, it feels like a Miyazaki film with its overwhelming sense of childlike wonder; but there is also darkness, with the foibles of adults and the casual cruelty of life’s circumstances.
Translated by Mui Poopoksakul, the prose is spare yet exacting, painting a detailed picture of life in this small, poor Thai community. Pimwana’s characters are vivid even when they are fleeting – through Kampol’s interactions with his schoolmates, the adults they know and the strangers that pass through their lives, she offers both micro and macro perspectives on this ordinary world. In the last story, she abruptly switches to first person, with a journey high into the sky on a hyperreal Ferris wheel ride that raises more questions than it answers about Kampol’s fate, leaving the reader in a state of delirium that retrospectively colours the whole experience.
This unusual book is a novel in some ways, a short story collection in others, but Bright’s haphazard structure is part of its chaotic charm, as it challenges reality, imagination and truth. There is no story, only life.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Brow Books, 208pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Duanwad Pimwana, Bright".
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