Michael Smithies, the well-known scholar and eminent historian of 17th-century Siam, lives in northeast Thailand, near the village that he describes in these sketches of its inhabitants.
There is little Paja who, though largely abandoned by his parents, grows up with no complexes and no envy, sustained by a village society that has made him part of of a bigger family than his own.
Tong-maa has looked out for herself. She married well and can now wear an amount of gold (a sign of status in the village) when she goes about her business. She does not aspire to city life and her position in the village is assured.
Korn, young and good-looking, has been, as the youngest in his family, “terribly spoiled.” Married, he takes up with other women; a father, he pays attention to his child only when he wants to. The world is Korn’s oyster, waiting to be opened — or not.
Ang has become the village oracle. He has a cleft palate, something that makes his pronouncements all the more exciting. He is tolerated in the village and accepted for what he is. “Certainly his prognostications are always optimistic, and his customers come away pleased. He has no future of his own, of course. But that is the hand of fate.”
Smithies introduces some 30 of these villagers, describing their qualities, chronicling their misfortunes as well as their occasional good luck — looking at all this, as do the villagers, and knowing them as bound by the laws of economy as well as the limitations of their fortunes.
The author refers to these two or three-page vignettes as snapshots and so they are. Yet, although showing the subjects in their typical way, Smithies does not give us types nor does he draw any moral conclusions. Rather, his dry, observant regard — so like that through which he has brought back old Siam in his historical writings — preserves his people as they are.
He states at the beginning of his book that his desire was “to be impressionistic and not produce a sociologically correct work,” and this accomplishment is the virtue of his collection. There is, indeed, no theory at all — only information, all of it free from any moralizing.
Often when a writer compiles a cross section of where he lives and looks into the social strata of his random sampling of town, village, street, he also feels compelled to donate a conscientious evaluation. Famous examples would be Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” or Edgar Lee Master’s “Spoon River Anthology,” where a small American Midwest town and a New England cemetery are, respectively, made to serve as exemplars of what is wrong with society in general.
One of the reasons that these authors would feel free to do so is that they themselves belong to the societies they are criticizing. Smithies does not. He is an Englishman in Thailand and this lends his collection its tone.
He writes that “the characters are seen through the distorting mirror of an outsider who inevitably cannot grasp the fullness of each individual or the importance of every change to tradition.” At the same time, however, it is precisely because Smithies is an outsider that he can see and describe essentials taken quite for granted by insiders, those about whom he writes.
Also, since he does not belong to that society, he can see into it deeper, can view it as a whole. Smithies can show us that Thai villages “outwardly appear disorganized, even chaotic, but in fact function quite well.” And he can understand why. “There is a live-and-let-live atmosphere which is quite special. Tolerance of pretty foibles is high, confrontation is rare.”
Smithies shows us a small area, a single village, but displays it across time. Village boys still take the buffalo out daily to graze, but they are now accompanied by their portable transistors or even their ghetto-blasters for company.
All times are times of change, and an eroding tradition is invariably what comprises our view. Smithies here gives us a single village caught in the flood of time and has preserved for us a slice of life. He has given us an account of a place and a time, of the people living there, and has done so with understanding, sympathy and not a breath of condescension or sentimentality.
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