Category: Laos

Laos and Cambodia

A Cambodian library

A Cambodian library

We have just returned from a holiday in Laos and Cambodia, finally seeing Angkor Wat. I have two novels from Cambodia on my site and two from Laos and, though I was given another Cambodian novel in English, it seems unlikely that many more will be added. Though the Khmer Empire was undoubtedly very literate in its heyday, that was a long time ago. Jayavarman VII will join Suppiluliumas of the Hittites as one of my favourite kings, not least because of their respective names but also because they seem to have both been great statesman. The Khmers certainly seem to have been highly literate as there are inscriptions carved on walls and stelae and most sites seem to have what are called Libraries (see left) where, apparently, they stored texts written on palm leaves. These have, of course, all disappeared but continued to be used by monks, though many were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge.

Stele with ancient Khmer script

Stele with ancient Khmer script

The situation, today, however, is less promising. I asked our guide in Laos about Harry Potter and all he knew was the films. He was not aware that they came from books. (The books have not been translated into Lao but two have been translated into Khmer – ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង សិលាទេព and ហេរី ផោតធ័រ និង បន្ទប់ សម្ងាត់, i.e. the first two). I saw relatively few libraries (apart from the ones at the ancient sites) or bookshops in either country and those that I did see tended to have predominantly books in English and other foreign languages. The books that they had in Lao or Khmer tended to be for foreigners learning the language or children’s or technical books. Moreover, unlike in other countries, I did not see people reading. The reasons are clear. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge entirely emptied Phnom Penh, a city of 2 million people. Not only did they kill two million people and destroy its infrastructure, they also destroyed the literary culture. Bookshops, publishers, libraries and writers all disappeared. They have not really reappeared. The US dropped over 3 million bombs on Laos, making it the most bombed country in the world ever. When bombs are raining down on you, writing books is not a top priority. The country remains a single party state, nominally Communist, though allowing private property and private enterprise. Literature does not seem to be a priority. Indeed, instead of reading, people in market stalls and cafés tended to crowd around television sets, watching what seemed to be appalling soap operas, many dubbed or subtitled and imported from China, Thailand or Vietnam, three countries which continue to have a considerable influence, not always benign, on the two countries. Sadly, it would seem that the literary life has been replaced by the modern, Western-style electronic media life.

Laos and Bermuda

Mekong

Continuing my reading of novels from countries from which i have never read a novel before, here are two from Laos. The first is Oubone-lat Papet‘s Au-delà du Mékong [Beyond the Mekong], an autobiographical novel by a half-French, half-Laotian woman. She has clearly struggled with her life. She is unsure of her sexuality, having relationships with two men and two women during the course of the book, and she also has several stays in mental institutions. The fact that she has met her biological father three times in her life and has moved between France and Laos clearly has not helped her. The book was written in French and has not been translated into English.

97

Louang Phou‘s Les gars du 97 (The Men of 97) was either written in Lao and then translated into French and then into English or written in French and then translated into English. Though it has been translated into English, it is not easily available. It is a straightforward propaganda novel telling the story of a heroic Laotian military unit fighting against the evil Yankee aggressors. Though it is fun, with lots of tale of derring-do, it is hardly impartial, as our heroes can do no wrong and seem to be virtually impervious to US weaponry. However, it does have the advantage of being short.

Sailor

My Bermudian novel (apparently it is Bermudian and not Bermudan) is Brian Burland‘s The Sailor and the Fox. Burland is probably Bermuda’s best novelist and this is his best-known work, a short but powerful novel, that was nearly made into a film, starring Sean Connery. It tells the story of a boxing match – the first championship fight between a black and white boxer in Bermuda’s history. We follow the fight through all of its rounds while also learning about the two boxers and how they came to this match. It is very brutal, as Burland spares no details, but a very well-told story and deserves to be better known.

The novels of Laos

A glance at my website will show that I am interested in reading and promoting the novels from smaller countries. I have, for example, novels from Cape Verde, Burundi, the Faroe Islands and Niue, as well as from other smaller countries. I have not visited Cape Verde, Burundi, the Faroe Islands or Niue and almost certainly will never do so. Just as I have not visited and never will visit many of the other countries on my website, though I have just counted and find that I have visited sixty-two of the countries, though, of course, that includes some duplications e.g. I have visited Catalonia and Spain.

As a result I do spend some time poking around the web and various publications, trying to find out what novels have been written in these countries and, in particular, what are available in Western European languages that I can read. Part of the problem is that the novel is primarily a Western tradition, with one theory being that it was invented by Samuel Richardson with his Pamela. This is, of course, false. Not only were there other English candidates, there were numerous other candidates from elsewhere. Margaret Anne Doody‘s seminal The True History of the Novel is essential reading on the subject and highly recommended.

Chariton's Callirhoe (Loeb)


The Epic of Gilgamesh

Chariton’s Callirhoe is the first novel she discusses (you can read it here) and there are several other Ancient Greek novels, e.g. this collection. But obviously we could make a claim for the much earlier Epic of Gilgamesh and other Eastern epics. Which brings me back to the issue at hand, namely the fact that the novel is primarily a Western tradition. One of the reasons many countries do not have many novels to read is that their culture did not produce novels but focused rather on poetry, myths/fables and tales. When looking for novels from many of these countries, I easily find examples of poetry, fables and tales but far fewer novels.

The White Nightjar

Which brings me to Laos. Yes, we have finally got here, albeit by a somewhat tortuous route. This link, for example, clearly shows that Laos does have modern novelists but, as far as I can determine, they have not been translated into any Western European language. Anatole-Roger Peltier, for example, has translated classic Lao works into French and English (see The White Nightjar above) but not modern literature. Outhine Bounyavong may well be Laos’ best-known writer but only a collection of his stories has been published in English. When the Sky Turns Upside Down is a collection of stories by two Lao sisters. There is a Thai bookshop selling Lao books but they tend to be books about the history and culture of Laos written by foreigners. The same applies to Monument Books. In short, as far as I can determine, there is no modern Lao novel available in a Western European language. If this is incorrect, I would be grateful for any further information. I look forward to some enterprising publisher taking up the mantle and publishing a Lao novel in a Western European language.

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