Toward quality fiction

Like the Gaze of Statues: Selected Short Stories
By Karen Schur

What a refreshing book to find published in this city crying out to be captured by a competent fiction writer’s pen. But Karen Schur’s Like the Gaze of Statues ventures much further than Bangkok: this collection of twenty quietly-spoken short stories takes the world as its setting, and Schur manages to flit with ease from a Bangkok soi to a German pub, from a village in Laos to a first-world nursing home.

Conventional with a very occasional touch of magic realism, Schur’s writing style is skilfully restrained and her love for Asia clearly demonstrated. The subject matter she chooses to write about as a Westerner, however, is certainly not conventional. While expatriate Asian writers’ are deservedly the flavour of the month in the West – think, for instance, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies – skilled writers from the West hardly ever choose to live in Asia, let alone write about it.

Schur pens her characters with empathy, allowing readers to judge them for themselves. In ‘Driving Her Crazy’, for instance, an expatriate wife finds herself sexually attracted to her Thai driver. In this piece Schur paints a politely sarcastic picture of the plethora of clubs for expatriate women in Bangkok. “Of course,” she writes, “most women did not confine themselves to one particular group, but enjoyed membership in two or more. (This was especially noticeable when one glanced at the names of those on the executive committees of the clubs – so many repetitions, so few carrying the weight of so many.)”

Louise, the wife, finds herself drawn to the hands of her driver Nop, who “did not clutch the wheel as did some drivers… He seemed rather to coax the direction of the car through easy gliding of the wheel… Almost like a caress. Louise felt a frisson of alarm and closed her eyes to avoid looking any further.” Is Louise ridiculous? Or is the reader demonstrating their own prejudices for thinking that she is?

Schur has mastered the art of the short story, composing a balanced collection of stories here that range from being poignant snapshots of life to tales with clever twists.

In the former category is the short but moving ‘Please Don’t East the Napkin, Mum”, where a pregnant woman and her father go to visit her grandmother at a nursing home for her birthday. “You can smell the disinfectant everywhere; it’s hovering on the air like the white fluff of hair on Granny’s head. But still it doesn’t take away the underlying odour which comes from too many aged mouths hanging open, too many sodden diapers, too many forgotten dreams.”

In the latter is ‘Stammtisch’, a tale of a German man who has written to his mates that he’s bringing back a Siamese sweetie with him from his sojourn to Thailand. “Who knows – one of those sexy Siamese kittens might even fall for you!” one of the man’s friends tells him before he leaves. “Now Max was on his way home with one. He chuckled with pleasure and allowed himself to imagine the looks on his friends faces when they saw her. He hadn’t come across her until three days ago but had known immediately that she was the one for him.” You’re thinking, balding, fat, sweaty typical sex tourist, right? You’ll have to read on.

‘Filial Obedience’ is also noteable: a Bangkok-born Punjabi man returns from his studies in America to Bangkok appalled to find his parents have arranged a marriage for him. Although the plot twist might be predictable, Schur nicely captures the dilemma of being a Western-educated man with family commitments in Thailand:

“It wouldn’t be for another two or three generations that the descendants of those who had come in the wake of Partition would feel comfortable enough in Thailand to make their own ways. They would be able to marry for love – not position in society, wealth or the configuration of the stars. Anand cursed inwardly. He had been born too early.”

In ‘Signs of a Living Past’, an investment portfolio manager, attends the National Museum Volunteers’ Annual Dinner in Bangkok. Here she sights the lover she should perhaps never have fled; the story recounts their glorious days on an isle in Greece, when Althea was so in love that “Everything was sharply outlined, filled with tremendous colours, hallucigenically detailed. She walked alone but the glances of the islanders and the tourists, too, followed her. Althea could feel the stardust trailing off her fingers.”

Unlike other expatriate authors writing in Bangkok, the explicit details of the author’s life don’t form the basis of these stories, although her experiences must surely have shaped them as she writes with the intimate knowledge of a first-hand observer or at least avid listener.

Instead, the details of this writer’s life are brief: under a blurry black and white picture the reader is told merely that Schur was born in South America, has lived in North America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the South Pacific, and she now lives on a lake outside Bangkok. She’s also written Voyage of the Emerald Buddha, published by Oxford University Press, and various feature stories.

And it’s kind of nice to only know that for a change. The strength of this book rests on her finely-crafted tales and those alone.

But publicity for this writer seems to have been undeservedly limited. Someone with the unlikely but fantastic name of Stirling Silliphant Jr provides a review for the backcover, aptly warning readers to “Expect not a hint of cultural cliché in these colourful tales.” The president of the Writers’ Association of Thailand, Pensri Kiengsiri, also blesses the book, describing the stories as being “thought-provoking, creative and captivating”.

While there is certainly a place for the style of expatriate writing currently popular here, there’s a dearth of quality fiction written by expatriates. After all, Bangkok is hardly a hub of intellectual activity in the global scheme of things. Books like Schur’s Like the Gaze of Statues, however, lets Bangkok hold its head up a little higher.

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