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Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Colorful slivers of daily life in Thailand

GULFS OF THAILAND: A Collection of Short Stories, by Michael Smithies. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1999, 136 pp. (paper).

This is the second collection of Thai stories by Michael Smithies. The first, "Bright of Bangkok," was published, also by Silkworm Books, in 1993. Smithies has spent many years in Thailand; he speaks fluent Thai and resides in a village near the small town of Bua Yai in the northeast of the country.

The germs for half the stories come from reports published in the local press. Smithies, though, has used his fertile imagination to turn the bare facts of newspaper articles into fiction.

The amusing "Letters from Pattaya," for example, is an embroidered press report. The story concerns letter writers in this seaside resort who correspond on behalf of hostesses with their foreign friends. The inventive scribes wrap requests for money in artful phrases that often succeed in bringing about the desired result.

In "Hopelessly Trapped," Smithies deals convincingly with the familiar theme of the foreigner being deceived into thinking he has married a Thai girl, when in fact he hasn't, and owning the house he has bought for them, which he doesn't. Thai charm is famous, but it sometimes hurts the gullible foreigner.

In "A Quick Pee," a naive young Japanese tourist loses his belongings when the truck driver who had given him a lift speeds away while the Japanese is relieving himself at the roadside. In "Minor Maecenas," an English woman journalist puts tremendous effort into promoting a Thai artist, has an affair with him, but is jilted in the end.

Not all of the stories are about deception and theft. "Buffalo Boy" is a moving picture of the hard, boring existence led by a young man who tends his father's buffaloes.

Smithies knows well the countryside of Thailand, where 60 percent of the population lives. He sets several of his stories in villages, where most of the inhabitants are poor. Poverty breeds cunning and dishonesty. In "Pickpocket," a little girl steals in the village market. She is under the control of a small-time gangster. In the end she is helped by a woman she tried to rob and her life changes for the better.

The author includes the influential roles the descendants of Chinese immigrants play, not only in the cities but also in the countryside, running shops, lending money and, in one tale, selling fake medicine that is supposed to enlarge male organs, but in fact has the opposite effect.

"Minister's Mausoleum" traces the rise to power and fame and then the temporary fall of the clever son of a Chinese village trader.

Each story provides an insight into one aspect or another of life among ordinary Thais. Smithies' long experience in Thailand makes him a reliable observer of the daily scene.

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