Myth, love and blind earthworms
Veeraporn Nitiprapha's award-winning debut novel reads like a soap opera, but there is hidden depth if you care to find it
Veeraporn Nitiprapha's debut novel, which has just won this year's SEA Write Award, is ultimately a trap. Read it, and if you are totally into the world this author has created, then you are, as the book's title suggests, a Blind Earthworm In A Labyrinth (Saiduan Tabod Nai Khaowongkot).
It's a world where a mother never hugs her daughters again after finding out her husband has been having an affair and, when he later dies, buries him in the backyard so that not even his soul gets to meet other women. Where exists a love triangle between two sisters and their childhood friend. He sleeps with one out of heartache for the other. He later sleeps with the other, miraculously destroying the first sister's ability to put sweetness into her nationally renowned desserts. A world where none of the characters ever gets to live peacefully, one travelling aimlessly in search of antique cloths while another ends up putting his son to death after a heroin overdose. A world where flowers bloom as soon as the music's on or droop with a character's teardrops.
In other words, it's where all forms of melodrama are put into written form, an intentionally and carefully designed piece of literary kitsch.
And it's not just readers who are Veeraporn's "blind earthworms in a labyrinth". Though drama is her literary device and melodramatic love and tragedy her subjects, the writer also addresses the increasing number of people in society who are also earthworms blinded by bias and ideology, which alludes to our social and political conflicts over the past decade or so.
"I wrote the first sentence of this book as the city was falling down amid fire, smoke and pools of blood," her preface reads, referring to the 2010 May crackdown at Ratchaprasong following the protracted Red Shirt protests. It's among the few parts in the book that have political relevance. "Amid sighs of relief which slowly put common sense to death. I wrote this and hoped that the story would not end with a sense of isolation. But until the last phrase, it's still a bittersweet love story of her and him...there isn't the word 'us' left anymore," she wrote.
"The book is not about love, but the myths about love," said Veeraporn in a recent interview with Life. Dressed completely in black as always, the 53-year-old mother was constantly pleading with our photographer not to make her look old and fat, and to use Photoshop to reduce her belly and make her cleavage appear bigger.
"If you can understand the myths of love then you can understand the myths of everything, the myth of this lamp here, of hatred and of conflicts. I don't have to talk about conflicts by telling the story about conflicts," she said.
Set in Nakhon Pathom's Nakhon Chai Si district and Bangkok, the book tells a doomed story of two sisters, Chalika and Chariya, and their childhood friend and later lover, Pran. Much detail is given to each character throughout more than 200 pages, yet it is limited to the depiction of them in just one side, and to the extreme, like caricatures typically found in cheesy romantic novels and TV series.
"The moment of sweetness suddenly bursts into pieces," reads one part, describing Chariya after learning that Natee, one of her lovers, is seeing another woman. "Day and night, she doesn't go to sleep. And she also can think of as many as 63 ways to kill herself within just a few hours. She would run against the wall and let him witness it. She broke up with Natee 800 times in the first week, 400 times the following week, and then down to 50 times in each of the following weeks, realising that she cannot live without him."
After the wretched episode of their parents' jealousy, vengeance and deaths, Chalika goes on living in her imaginary world, fed by her constant consumption of romantic novels, portrayed as this naive and perfect heroine. Chalika, who runs away with her boyfriend at a young age only to go through a series of heartbreaks, is obsessed by animals and nature, calling each animal and tree her relative.
Pran's life is equally lost. Because his father is a train driver, he spends much of his childhood travelling, constantly changing houses and schools. He grows up to be a musician playing in a bar in Bangkok, where he later runs into Chariya again. Being secretly in love with her, he decides to rent an apartment in a building near her Bangkok house just so that he can look at her every day, and also get to smell flowers from her richly diverse garden.
"There has always been conflict in our country," said Veeraporn. "But what struck me about the 2010 crackdown is how there were people who were glad about other people's deaths. Writing this book is like my personal quest about the issue."
What's fascinating about soap operas for Veeraporn is the repetition, the question as to why people like to see things happen repeatedly and how this affects our thinking process.
"The making of myth is repetition and there's so much repetition in my book," said Veeraporn. "When you protest on the streets, why do you suddenly hate someone even though you have never met him/her before? It's because the idea has been forced into your head like 3 million times daily."
The cover of Blind Earthworm In A Labyrinth (Saiduan Tabod Nai Khaowongkot).
In her book, it doesn't rain for four years, eleven months and two days. Neither is there a flying carpet or a travelling trail of blood as the bearer of bad news. But we are constantly reminded of Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism in One Hundred Years Of Solitude as well as his other works.
"Sure, I like Márquez. Who doesn't?" said Veeraporn. "But I think there's a difference between our elements of the magical.
"While his affects the characters and the whole plot of the story, mine doesn't. The fact that in my novel the flowers bloom because of the music doesn't make the novel worse or better."
On one level, the book is pure soap opera, gripping and entertaining. Reading the book twice or more, however, it seems it has been written for the sole purpose of mocking itself.
"Chariya keeps crying," reads one part of the book about one of her heartbreaks. "She walks into the garden and uses tears to water the plants instead of tap water. And all the flowers start to produce the smell of pain out to the main street so a baby, held by its mother who is passing by, starts crying for no reason."
The novel was written exactly according to the structure we see in every soap opera after the evening news. Whether it's social or political, some of us tend to have a set of beliefs and myths trusted as ultimate truths, but which may not always be the case.
"If you can understand the myths about love then you can understand the myths about hatred," said Veeraporn. "If you understand a grain of sand then you can understand the beach." Veeraporn said that the novel itself is a myth. Chariya is actually this character with a lot of jealousy, yet with a lot of space given in the book, she is turned into a heroine.
Chalika, meanwhile, is repeatedly described as a heroine yet readers would not believe so. If you observe carefully, Veeraporn added, Pran doesn't do much except for eat and sleep.
"I set this structure and ask how the characters would react to it," said Veeraporn, who spent three years writing the novel, on and off. Asked if she was worried whether readers might fail to get the parallel between the myth about love and that of social and political issues, Veeraporn said that she doesn't think Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was worried if people got The Little Prince or not.
"If you read carefully you will see that bias is not the problem, it's actually having a certain set of ideals," said Veeraporn. "Everything [in this country] was OK until we started to have our own set of ideals."
Educated at Saint John's International School and later Bodindecha School, Veeraporn went to Australia and earned a secretary's diploma. Back in Thailand, she started writing as early as her 20s but abandoned it because she felt there wasn't much depth in what she was doing. She also preferred to spend time with her husband and son. Asked to elaborate more about her background, she was reluctant to do so.
"I'm just like other people," said Veeraporn. "I did magazines. I did advertisements. I did graphics. I did jewellery. I did this and that. I didn't do this and I didn't do that. That's it."
"Inside, I feel exactly the same as before," said Veeraporn when asked how she felt after winning the prestigious award. "On the outside, just a little bit busy. From leaving home just once or twice a month, now I have been out every day for two weeks, talking to strangers."
"Yay!" was her sudden response when I said that I thought I had everything. She didn't attempt to hide the delight from the fact that she could now stop talking to a stranger and finally go for a cigarette.