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Revealing the soul of an ancient land

by Stephen Mansfield

MOTHER’S BELOVED: Stories from Laos, by Outhine Bounyavong. Hong Kong University Press, 1999, 163 pp., $14.95 (paper)

It’s unlikely that even the most generous evaluation of Lao literature would rank it among the world’s great cultural legacies. Part of the problem has been a lack of visibility: Buddhist sutras, poems and epics — the traditional mainstay of Laotian writing — were composed on perishable palm-leaf books, while other works existed only in fragile oral traditions such as song and recitation. Preservation and transmission of the few written works that have survived has been impeded by decades of war and the lack of funds and modern printing presses.

Consequently, very little Lao literature, beside folk and children’s anthologies, exists in translation. “Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos” by Outhine Bounyavong, the first full-length collection of contemporary short stories to be published in English, thus offers a rare perspective on the country.

Unlike many other Southeast Asian writers who live in exile, Outhine lives and works in Laos, practicing a degree of self-censorship to get published. Despite liberalization of its economy in the late 1980s, politically Laos remains a Communist Party state, and publishing has remained almost completely under government control since the 1950s. There is a touch of nostalgia, however, in some of Outhine’s narratives for the certainties of the earlier communist era.

In the story “Contribution,” a shoemaker hears of the downing of an American airplane during the war, a “piece of news that moved him deeply,” but cannot find a way — the story provides an unexpected means — to make a donation to his “brothers on the front.”

In “A Voice from the Plain of Jars,” the title a reference to an area of the country remorselessly bombed by U.S. B-52 pilots in the early ’70s, a journalist is assigned to cover the return home of refugees stranded in the area. While we may shudder at the simplicity of the account at the political level — of imperialists vs. liberators — and long for a deeper, more textured expression of the political complexities of the Laotian revolution, closer scrutiny reveals subtlety in the use of language to complement the subject matter. In this particular story, Outhine describes a “land made uninhabitable for human beings, but also for animals. Only the sky and the earth were left.” Here we have language stripped and skinned of artifice, pared down to a few telling words.

The value of traditional customs and the wisdom of villagers are themes revisited time and again in these pieces. One of the most effective tales is “Wrapped-Ash Delight,” in which a village girl picks up and keeps a silver belt left by a bather on a riverbank. Unwilling to expose herself by returning the object, but uncomfortable with a growing sense of guilt, a traditional solution is found by which each villager present at the time when the belt was stolen is told to bring a packet of ash wrapped in banana leaf to the house of the headman. The packages are then mixed up and opened until the belt drops out of one of them. The “thief” is unidentified, but the crime is discreetly atoned for. In such accounts Outhine takes us back to the origins of storytelling and its ability to impart both pleasure and a salient moral.

More recent stories included in this anthology provide a cautiously critical commentary on the prevailing conditions in Laos and the state of its increasingly embattled culture.

A tone of mild reproach creeps into works like “Frangipani,” where the author examines the effects on a neighborhood after a line of tamarind trees are summarily torn down to make way for power lines. One senses, as is often the case when talking to Lao people, a simmering disapproval of government and the increasingly important business sector, whose figures are, as almost everywhere in Asia, entwined in a cozy reciprocity of favors.