Of Elephants and Men

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 22, 2006 | Destinations: Thailand

Well, things could be worse:  you could be an elephant.  Poachers pump you full of anesthetics and then sever and steal your tusks, the very essence of your pride and dignity.  People spear your behind to make you work harder, even though you're already straining so hard that you defecate involuntarily.  Occasionally you undergo musth, a rut-like condition so irritating that your owners put you in fetters, while a vile liquid oozes from your head.

Then again, being human is no box of chocolates either, and the pain is perhaps less physical than spiritual.  On top of secretions and excretions and a crummy job, you are plagued with questions like:  Who am I?  What should I have for lunch?  Such anyway is the analogy informing the novel High Banks, Heavy Logs by Thai author Nikom Rayawa's, recipient of the South East Asian Writers' Award.

The setting is central Thailand.  Kham Ngai is a woodcarver and taxidermist whose jobs cause him to dwell on the thin line separating life from lifelessness.  And the matter becomes personal.  First, he witnesses the trials of his beloved elephant Phlai Sut; and then his own highly animated son, Aae, drowns and dies at a premature age.  Kham Ngai tries to compensate for this atmosphere of decay and death by animating his art.  In particular, he carves a life-sized elephant from a massive block of rosewood.  Yet try as he might, he cannot make it life-like.  He thus confronts the questions that continue to baffle biologist and layman alike:  What is alive?  And why?

The novel also addresses the vagaries of the artistic process.  On the days when Kham Ngai can think of only his wooden elephant, he makes excellent progress.  When he produces nothing, he grows listless and grave, and wonders why he ever began.  All artists can instantly relate.  The etymologies of the words "enthusiasm" and "inspiration" both suggest being filled with a god or a spirit, without which one is only a corpse or an automaton.

Despite Thailand's sizable middle class, the country continues to split along lines of urban and rural, rich and poor.  Indeed, Thailand has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth of any so-called developing country.  Kham Ngai's employer carries the title of Phaw Liang (literally "stepfather"), which translator Richard C. Lair describes as a "normally beneficent" "local businessman with great influence, both financially and socially."  This Phaw Liang organizes hunting trips (some, apparently, illegal) for well dressed "city people", who then pay to have their catches stuffed.

Wonders Kham Ngai, Why would anybody kill an animal only to make it life-like again?  Unlike the city people, he adores animals.  And why would someone fell a tree only to carve it into an animal?  These thoughts lead Kham Ngai to compare two senses of the word "preserve".  To preserve life, Kham Ngai would avoid killing; but for the city people, to preserve life means to "stuff" it.  They'd stuff everything, he decides:  even a rainbow.

Once completed, Kham Ngai's wooden elephant would end up in the hands of the city people.  In exchange, he would receive Phlai Sut, whom Kham Ngai considers a friend.  Thais have long adored elephants, much as foreigners adore horses or the family dog.  Although elephants have been used for logging and in warfare, Thais believe that they are more thoughtful and compassionate than other animals.  Elephants are sometimes treated like family members, participating in games, festivals -- even drinking bouts.  Their trainers, or mahouts, were indispensable.

But as machines replace beasts and Thailand's trees disappear, the elephants and the mahouts are becoming superfluous.  Although elephants can negotiate terrain inaccessible to trucks, logging itself has become increasingly illegal:  the authorities briefly manacle Phlai Sut, whose slow dismemberment and decline can symbolize the fate of the Asian elephant generally.  By novel's end, Phlai Sut is dead, having tried to drag the very logs that make him useful.

The novel is preoccupied with the difference not only between life and death, but also between the related opposites of reality and appearance.  Kham Ngai's supervisor Boon Ham asks him whether he has ever heard the story of the people making their camp on a small island, only to discover that the "island" is a crocodile.   Elsewhere, a man mistakenly speaks to a mannequin, which leads Kham Ngai to note the converse:  "some people resemble corpses in that they have no soul and no emotions."  When Aae expresses his wish to ride a real elephant, his father persuades him to ride a banana tree instead.  Aae is unimpressed, and subsequently refuses a palm frond, a hobbyhorse, even his father's wooden elephant.  And when a cherished duckling of his passes away, Aae learns that life's a one-way street.  "He knows," remarks Majan, his mother.

Kham Ngai's morbid thoughts are somewhat of an aberration in Thai culture.  He may be simply a mouthpiece for the author, who is more likely than a woodcarver to have the mind or the time for philosophical speculations.  Boon Ham tells Kham Ngai that he thinks too much, and Majan says repeatedly that she enjoys working in her store because she need not think.  She is a fount of mollifying truisms like "Things are the way they are."  Even Kham Ngai's deep thoughts are notably lacking in originality.  "All of us are born only once and die only once.  What lies between is life...."  Well, yes.  So?  Sadly, such bland statements of fact masquerading as profound Eastern wisdom are all too common a feature of Thai literature and, for that matter, conversation.

The idea that life is a force, and not an arbitrary biological category, is hardly unique to Thailand, although it may be especially resilient in Asia:  chi, reiki, and prana are hardly artifacts.  Something like this idea resounds throughout this novel.  Though Kham Ngai does not pronounce his wooden elephant alive, he does say that his labor has given it "willpower", "endurance", "joy", "suffering", "fear", and "courage" - the parts without the sum.  Again, artists will agree that they have given their works something more than what Marx called "labor power" (arguably a Western variation on the life-force.) Some might say it's love.

The idea is revisited after Aae's death, which causes his parents to be far less lively than before.  When they discuss the fog as being detectable but not quite substantial or tangible, the fog could symbolize the élan vital (another variation, due to Bergson).  Hence the poignancy of Majan's determination to build a basket "for gathering fog."  (Kham Ngai has a better idea:  he adopts an orphan.)

Despite its adult themes, High Banks, Heavy Logs has been written (or translated) in a simple style, appropriate for young people or students of ESL.  So, its other merits aside, it is also a highly accessible introduction to a national literature still practically unknown to the wider world.

- The End -

Review of Nikom Rayawa's High Banks, Heavy Logs, Penguin Books, 1991.

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