Friday, September 26, 2008

Siri Paboun mysteries by Colin Cotterill

There are five Siri Paboun novels at present, each complete in itself, but together presenting a snapshot of a place and an era. These stories start in 1975, when the Communists take over Laos to the immense surprise of everyone, not least themselves. At least 500,000 of the newly liberated citizens of this enlightened country have chosen to swim across the river or otherwise decamp to Thailand at the opening of the first book, The Coroner's Lunch.

When the story opens, the previous official coroner has fled elsewhere, so Siri Paboun, an elderly doctor who fought for Laotian freedom, has been appointed to fill his place. Although he lacks the training and the equipment, refusing the job is not an option. Siri supports the new governemt--after all, he fought for it--but has no illusions. He is hopeful that the Pathet Lao (the new Communist regime) will eventually get their act together and start governing efficiently, but skeptical of this happening any time soon. The new government is devoted to bureaucracy, requiring lengthy forms to be filled out for every trivial action, mandatory meetings, and pompous pronouncements. Under the new regime, Laotians are meant to "volunteer" for menial jobs, such as painting the new civic center, in their spare time. Vietnamese "advisors" are also present and represent a force be reckoned with.

Siri improvises from day to day, performing his assigned duties to the best of his ability, ably assisted by his nurse, Dtui, and by Gueng, a Down's syndrome man who tackles the menial tasks of the lab with great patience and zeal. The three of them manage to run the enterprise competently and resourcefully and to enjoy life despite obstacles put in their way.

All this takes place against a background of Laotian and Hmong villages, peopled by gentle souls still living as their ancestors did, people who never sought to fight anyone but were overrun by the forces of twentieth century history and left to cope as best they could.

The atmosphere of Vientiane and other venues in Laos is so skillfully depicted that you get a real feel for the place - primitive, exotic, yet suffering the discomforts and constraints characteristic of the twentieth century. Cotterill obviously has great respect and affection for the various ethnic groups who find themselves lumped together as a nation because it was convenient for the French — their former colonizers — to draw the map that way.

To complicate matters further, Siri, a man of science and a skeptic in matters spiritual, is the reluctant host for the spirit of a thousand-year-old shaman, who occasionally has prophetic dreams and gets him into all kinds of trouble. He also is pursued by a demon, a phibob, who is bent on destroying him. With the help of his occult powers, Siri is able to get to the bottom of all kinds of mysterious events which drive the plots of these five books.

The best way to appreciate these novels is to read them straight through chronologically from beginning to end. The main characters — sketchily described in the first novel — develop foibles and strengths as they cope with the difficulties which confront them. Their individual histories are revealed more fully, and they become more rounded and believable.

1 comment:

miriam said...
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